Who’s in pot 1? Russia, as the host nation, plus the top seven ranked teams in the tournament: Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland and France.
Wait — Belgium? Yes, Belgium. With players like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, it has become a solid team in recent years, making the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championships and qualifying for 2018 with ease.
But Poland? That one’s tougher to explain. Poland was not even close to qualifying in 2014, but an 8-1-1 qualifying campaign — plus a refusal to play friendlies that appears to have helped them game the FIFA rankings system — pushed the Poles into the top pot.
What about the other three pots? Pot 2 consists of Spain, Peru, Switzerland, England, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay and Croatia. Pot 3 is Denmark, Iceland, Costa Rica, Sweden, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal and Iran. Pot 4, nominally the weakest teams, is Serbia, Nigeria, Australia, Japan, Morocco, Panama, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Are there any restrictions? There can be no more than two European teams or one from any other continent in a single group, and FIFA said the draw will be monitored to ensure that, say, Peru, Colombia and Uruguay, who are in pot 2, will not be drawn into the same group with Brazil or Argentina.
Is this the same system as in the past? No. Typically, after the top pot, teams were assigned to pots geographically, not by rankings. Americans often complained that this put their team on equal footing with weaker North American teams like Honduras or Trinidad and Tobago.
So how will the United States fare under this new system? Uhhh ….
So is the system fair? Many fans and commentators are dubious about the world rankings. One complaint is that friendly matches count, and teams that play fewer friendlies — like Poland — seem to get an advantage from that. Another is that the system includes results from as long as four years ago. Certainly any ranking that puts Poland over Spain is going to raise eyebrows.
Any teams to watch? The favorites, for sure, will have an eye on Spain and Croatia, hoping to avoid both of them out of Pot 2. Iran, in Pot 3, is another intriguing team. It breezed through qualifying without a loss three years after drawing praise for giving Argentina, a 2014 finalist, all it could handle in an opening round game.
What was the most entertaining draw? Many World Cup draws have been turgid affairs, overloaded with dignitaries and dragging on far too long. We’ll vote for the draw for USA 1994, held in Las Vegas, when Robin Williams’s clowning (he donned rubber gloves to choose the Ping-Pong balls) effectively took the starch out of Sepp Blatter.