Ticket sales resumed on Thursday for the 2018 World Cup with demand expected to be high as all eyes turn to the draw following the last of the play-offs for the tournament in Russia.
Peru secured the last berth after overcoming New Zealand in their intercontinental play-off to complete the list of 32 teams taking part in the June 14-July 15 tournament.
It will be a World Cup without some big teams and some big names: Dutch and Chilean fans had long cancelled any plans they had to travel to Russia, and this week they were joined by the Italian tifosi after the four-time world champions fell in the play-offs.
But nine of the top 10 ranked teams are present (Chile being the exception), and excitement will be high when the coaches gather at the State Kremlin Palace for the draw on December 1 at a gala event to be televised live around the world.
The draw is “an essential, key moment” for Russia in the countdown to the World Cup, Vitaly Mutko, the local organizing committee chairman and deputy prime minister, said.
“Fans from all over the world cannot wait for the event that will dictate their trip to Russia, while for teams it will lay out the path to the World Cup final at the Luzhniki Stadium.”
Germany’s record scorer Miroslav Klose, who will carry the trophy onto the stage as one of the big names taking part in the ceremony, said: “The draw is one of these moments in which the whole world of football holds its breath.”
Teams have been seeded in four pots based on the October edition of the world rankings issued by ruling body FIFA – with the exception being Russia, who are placed in pot 1 and atop group A as tournament hosts.
No more than two European teams can be in one group, and teams from other regions can’t be pitted against sides from the same confederations.
The teams’ fates are now down to the luck or ill fortune of the draw, with the seedings throwing up some intriguing permutations.
World champions Germany will avoid South American giants Brazil and Argentina, and highly-fancied France, but could, for example, come up against 2010 champions Spain (pot 2) or strong African and Asian teams such as Senegal (3) or South Korea (4) respectively.
Another difficult constellation for Joachim Loew’s squad could be a South American opponent such as Uruguay or Colombia from pot 2, along with on-form neighbours Denmark (3) and much-improved African qualifiers Nigeria (4).
An easier draw on paper would be a group with Peru, Iran and Panama.
Russia will be hoping to avoid the fate of 2010 hosts South Africa, who failed to reach the knock-out stage, as they bank on home support to help them outperform their 65th ranking.
From the top pot, Poland may be the most favoured opponents for the lower-seeded sides despite a strong qualifying phase, with Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski scoring 16 goals to lead the scoring charts.
Germany, bidding to become the first country to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil in 1958 and 1962, will be a team most outside pot one will be wanting to avoid after Loew’s team won all 10 of their qualifying games with a goal record of 43-4.
The Confederations Cup winners are now undefeated in 21 games after Tuesday’s 2-2 draw with France, but Loew said the series means nothing for Russia next year.
“Even if you win all your games now, it doesn’t play a role at the World Cup” when “small things” will decide matches, he said.
“What you need at a tournament is to be mentally strong and physically robust. The games in the knock-out phase are always close. There won’t be another 7-1 result as against Brazil in the (2014) semi-final,” Loew added.
Of some of the other big names, England under Gareth Southgate will be hoping to get out of the group stage, after exiting early in 2014. Brazil will be a team to avoid, and according to the tabloid Sun in a worst-case scenario, so will third-seeded Iceland, who dumped the the Three Lions out of Euro 2016.