The 2018 World Cup Draw is just days away. Perhaps hours, even, depending on when you’re reading this. We are ever so close to finding out – shortly after 10 a.m. ET on Friday – precisely what next summer’s tournament in Russia will look like.
We already know who’s qualified. And we know that, by end of day Friday, they will be sorted into eight groups of four teams apiece. But how do we get from point A to point B? How do we get from 32 to 4×8?
In other words, how the heck does a World Cup draw actually work?
The concept isn’t complicated. The 32 participating nations have been seeded into four pots of eight teams each. One team from each pot is placed in each group. When all is said and done, each of the eight groups will comprise one team from Pot 1, one from Pot 2, one from Pot 3 and one from Pot 4. Simple enough, right?
Well, not exactly. The position within the group – 1, 2, 3 or 4 – determines the schedule and order of opponents. There are also geographical restrictions to contend with. No two teams from the same confederation can be placed in a group together, with the exception of Europe, which can go two-to-a-group. In fact, with 14 European participants, FIFA announced that every group will include at least one European team.
The deeper you dig, the more sneakily important angles you find. The draw not only determines group foes, but also potential knockout round matchups – A vs. B, C vs. D in the Round of 16, for example. And with the schedule already set, some slots require more travel than others. The list goes on and on.
The process is a bit more involved than you might think. FIFA has given us a basic rundown. Below is an attempt at a concise but comprehensive explanation of it.
(NOTE: Designations such as A1, E2 and C3 denote positions within the group. They are in no way rankings. They merely determine the order in which matches are played. Teams in position 1 open against 2, then play 3, and finally 4. Position 2 plays 1, 4, then 3. Position 3 plays 4, 1, then 2. Position 4 plays 3, 2 then 1. The full schedule can be found here.)
1. Pot 1
Russia is automatically placed in position A1. Pot 1 is then emptied ball by ball, with the next team drawn going into B1, the next into C1, and so on. Every Pot 1 team goes straight into position 1 in its group.
2. Pot 2
Next up is Pot 2 – and after it Pot 3, and then 4. Provided there are no geographical conflicts, groups are filled alphabetically. The first Pot 2 team drawn goes into Group A, the second goes to Group B, and so on. But if geographical conflicts do arise …
3. Ensuring the geographical requirements are met
There are two methods for separating teams from the same confederation. One is relatively straightforward, the other less so. The straightforward one: Let’s say Brazil is in Group B. If Colombia is the second team drawn out of Pot 2, it cannot go into the same group as Brazil. Group B would then be skipped, and Colombia would go to Group C. If Argentina were in Group C already, Colombia would go to Group D.
The sequence would then go back to Group B. If the next team drawn were Peru or Uruguay, that team would go to Group E, but if it were Mexico or a European side, it would go to Group B. Essentially, a team always goes into the group closest to the beginning of the alphabet that doesn’t break geographical rules. Unless …
The only worry here is that the draw could back itself into a corner. For example, let’s say Brazil and Argentina are in Groups G and H. If Mexico, Spain, England, Switzerland and Croatia are the first five teams drawn from Pot 2, there would be no conflicts … but there would then be no way to avoid a South America-South America clash. So, if Mexico, Spain and England went into A, B and C, and Switzerland were the fourth team drawn, Switzerland would go to G. If Croatia were next, it would go to H. The first South American team drawn would go to D, the next to E, and the last to F.
So there is no worry. FIFA’s mathematicians and computer scientists (hopefully) have us covered. Any scenarios where the draw gets “stuck” will be snuffed out.
4. Positioning of teams within groups
Whereas Pot 1 teams go directly into position 1, teams from Pots 2-4 can go into position 2, 3 or 4. So, for example, let’s say Uruguay is the first team drawn out of Pot 2. It goes into Group A. The draw then shifts to another set of eight pots. Each will have three pingpong balls – for positions 2, 3 and 4. One of those balls will be picked to determine Uruguay’s position within Group A.
Let’s say Uruguay is A3. Let’s then say that Iceland is the first team out of Pot 3. Iceland would go into Group A, and the draw would go back to the other set of pots to place Iceland in either A2 or A4. The Pot 4 team in Group A would take the remaining position.
5. Pots 3 and 4
Pots 3 and 4 follow the same procedure as Pot 2, explained above. Geographical restrictions still apply.
6. Ensuring there is one European team in every group
This stipulation could only come into play in Pot 4. If, entering Pot 4, there is a group without a European representative, Serbia – the lone European team in Pot 4 – would be placed in that group. At the end of the draw, there will be six groups with two European teams apiece, and two groups with one apiece.
OK, got all that? It’s a lot to digest. If you’re in need of visuals, FIFA came through with a semi-useful video explainer:
And you can see how the draw works in practice if you fire up this excellent draw simulator that allows you to virtually pick the balls one by one. Be forewarned: it’s addicting. But there’s no better way to pass the time until Friday.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.
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