A World Cup like no other in 92 years of history will take shape this week in an unprecedented draw.
When FIFA and host country Qatar hold the draw ceremony on Friday, three of the 32 entries will be booked as the three-year qualification program has been delayed and is still ongoing.
A once-in-a-century global health crisis and the war in Ukraine ensured that.
That means 37 nations will be involved on Friday, including five who ultimately won’t play in November when the inaugural “winter” World Cup kicks off.
The full roster won’t be known until at least June 14, when the intercontinental playoff round wraps up in Qatar. It’s 74 days after the draw and on the same date that the 2018 tournament started in Russia, which was left out of the final qualifying stages this time because of the invasion of Ukraine.
Perhaps FIFA got lucky seven years ago by moving the 2022 tournament to November and December to avoid the scorching desert heat of summer in Qatar.
The subsequent departure created breathing room to clear the backlog of games after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out nearly all of the national team’s games outside of Europe in 2020.
He also brought uncertainty to the stage at the Doha Exhibition & Convention Center, where Friday’s show starts at 7:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. GMT) and lasts one hour.
One of the balls drawn from pot 4 of the lowest ranked teams will represent “Peru or Australia or the United Arab Emirates”. Another is “Ukraine or Wales or Scotland”.
The same goes for this major World Cup stop, in perhaps its most unlikely host country, on April 1.
A look back at this atypical World Cup draw.
QATAR FOR THE FIRST MINUTE
One thing is certain, Qatar will be the highest ranked team in Group A, taking the A1 position in the schedule of 64 matches in just 28 days.
The privilege is granted to all host countries, even when they are ranked 65th in the world, as Russia was. Qatar is currently No. 52.
Still, the 2019 Asian Cup winner is the exception among modern World Cup hosts, having never qualified for the final. Qatar’s debut will open the tournament on Monday, November 21 at Al Bayt Stadium.
This means that in the group stage, Qatar avoids the top-ranked teams in the world, from No. 1 to 7 – Brazil, Belgium, France, Argentina, England, Spain and Portugal. .
These countries will be the next seven drawn from the first seed pot and in turn divided into groups B to H.
HOW SOWING WORKS
The starting pots are filled according to FIFA rankings which weigh the results over several years and are officially updated on Thursday.
The next eight highest-ranked qualifiers enter Pot 2, which is the second to be drawn. It includes Germany and likely the United States and Mexico after Wednesday’s qualifying matches.
Next comes pot 3 with teams rated in the 20s by FIFA and finally pot 4 which could include Canada despite leading the North American qualifying group. Canada is back in the World Cup after a 36-year gap.
The simple format is now complicated by the three playoff entries postponed to June: the European bracket containing Ukraine, which cannot currently prepare a team, and the two intercontinental playoffs.
FIFA weighted these bids down in Pot 4 based on the lowest-ranked potential qualifiers, such as Scotland, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates.
The top-ranked playoff teams Peru and Wales are at risk of being seeded below their true tier.
Geography also limits potential matches. Teams from the same continent usually cannot go in the same group, with the exception of some Europeans. Europe has 13 of the 31 qualifying slots and they cannot all be avoided.
Five groups receive two European teams and the other three groups each receive one. This means Germany, winners of Pot 2 in 2014, can land with defending champions France.
Each group of four teams is a round robin of six games in total. The order in which each team plays the other is decided by another coin toss during the ceremony.
After each team is drawn, a next ball – numbered 1, 2, 3 or 4 – is chosen to place that country in the fixture grid.
This unpredictability means that the two top-ranked teams in a group could meet in one of three rounds.
The formation of 32 teams is the perfect number for a knockout match. The top two teams from each group – where goal difference is the first tiebreaker – advance to the knockout stages.
A team’s route to the quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals is defined in the support. If Qatar advance as the winners of Group A, then they must face the runners-up in Group B.
Teams advancing from the same group cannot meet again before the final.
GOOD DRAW, BAD DRAW?
Is there a “good” or a “bad” section of the draw to land in?
Maybe so at this crowded tournament, which will be four days shorter than the 2018 edition in Russia.
Landing in Group B means starting Nov. 21 instead of Nov. 24 in Group G or H. That means three extra days off.
The Group G winner would need to play seven games in just 25 days to clinch the title. This team also only gets two full days off before a round of 16 game on Dec. 5.
Why is the schedule so tight? This World Cup is stuck in an enforced break from domestic league seasons in Europe.
Reluctant to lose lucrative weekend broadcast slots, Europe’s top leagues have assured they will play until November 13, just eight days before kick-off in Qatar.
—Graham Dunbar, Associated Press