The most interesting part of the World Cup draw: Matches allow teams to look ahead to November

Credit …David Ramos / Getty Images

Louis van Gaal said it all with a hint of a playful smile. The Dutch draw for the World Cup was not easy, he said, with his characteristic insensitivity, nor was he lucky. Instead, it was “colorful”. That was a better word. Ecuador’s sunny yellow, Qatar’s rich chestnut, dark green Senegal and that flaming Dutch orange: colorful.

He tried, as much as he could, to hide his enthusiasm. He knew, after all, that the dice were in place for him and his team, just as he had predicted – graphically and not quite seriously – that it would be. Everyone wanted to pull out Qatar, the host and next to the bay the mildest prospects for the first seed. Only his team was selected.

But van Gaal has been in the tooth for too long to be fooled. He also knows that World Cup draws are not only bombastic and saccharin and filled with a waste of time and content and Idris Elb; they are also chimerical. They have a prophecy. They often do not mean what they seem to mean on first reading.

Consider Spain and Germany, for example, drawn together at the start of Group E. Their meeting will mark the end of the first week of the tournament; it is the only time that two of the expected candidates to win the competition, for the title of world champion, will meet in the opening phase. They both seemed to pull out a short straw.

And then the balls kept rolling and the names came up and it turned out that they were both, in fact, on their feet. Japan will not be an obstacle, and whoever fills the group from Costa Rica or New Zealand will hardly be satisfied with the peace. But no one has the resources or the quality or the pedigree of Spain and Germany, and both will be confident it will pass.

Or look at England, who managed to reach the semi-finals of 2018 in 2018 – and the final of last year’s European Championship – thanks to wins in knockout matches, in regular time, against Sweden, pale Germany and Ukraine.

His happiness seemed to stick, drawn with Iran, the United States and Scotland, Wales and Ukraine, a group far richer in geopolitical intrigue than elite quality.

“I prefer to put balls in the net than flowers,” said Dragan Skocic, the Serbian coach of Iran, when asked about the meeting with the Americans, referring to the fact that the two nations exchanged bouquets when they met at the 1998 tournament. “Football goes beyond political things,” said his American counterpart Gregg Berhalter.

Credit …Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

But the group stage draw isn’t really just a draw for the group stage: it’s also a roadmap for the whole tournament. If England want to win – as they believe they can, this time with much more logic than is the case with the clock stopped – the tilt becomes steeper as soon as the knockout phase begins. Senegal, the most complete team that Africa has sent to the tournament for more than a decade, may be waiting in the final. Then it could be France, the current champion, in the quarterfinals. Whatever lies beyond that may not be immediately relevant.

There will, of course, be some teams that are happy with their fate: France should certainly have a few problems with Denmark and Tunisia and with Peru, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. Two South American candidates, Brazil and Argentina, will also be safe.

Even the United States should not be too dissatisfied. “We have the youngest team in the World Cup,” Berhalter said. “It simply came to our notice then. The boys are fearless. ” England could be a comfortable favorite to win their group, but there is no reason to believe that the United States – which is returning after an eight-year absence – cannot end up in second place.

And, of course, there will be teams that will have to regret their fate. Canada, for example, which is on this stage for the first time since 1986, has a group without a real heavyweight, but it is somehow harder: Croatia and Belgium finished second and third four years ago, while Morocco sailed through a difficult process African qualifications.

However, in the end, Van Gaal was right: there is no way to know, eight months in advance, who was lucky and who was not, which draw is smooth and which is rough. After all the pomp and circumstances, video editing and marketing spikes dressed in mission statements, all you can say with certainty is that when it comes, it will be colorful.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.