The eyes of the world will be on Bahia, Brazil on Friday, as the all-important draw for FIFA World Cup 2014 will be conducted. Despite protests, delays and the recent collapse of a partially built stadium that caused two deaths, the world’s greatest sporting event is expected to go on as scheduled next summer.
The draw, which is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. local time (11 a.m. U.S. Eastern Time), will be the first chance Brazil has to showcase the event on a global scale. The soccer-mad nation – it owns a record five World Cup trophies – will be hosting the tournament for the first time since 1950.
On Tuesday, FIFA finally unveiled the four pots separating the 32 qualifying teams from which the draw will be conducted on Friday:
Pot 1: Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Switzerland
Pot 2: Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Chile, Ecuador
Pot 3: Australia, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, United States
Pot 4: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, England, France, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia
One of the European teams will first be selected from Pot 4 and moved to Pot 2, provided that it won’t be allocated in the same group as a European team from Pot 1 (thus creating a group with three European teams). The other protocol is that the two South American teams in Pot 2 can’t be drawn with another South American team from Pot 1.
Next, a team from each pot will be randomly selected to form eight groups. In the tournament, the top two teams from each group will advance to the Round of 16 and begin a series of knock-out matches culminating in the championship game in Rio de Janeiro on July 13, 2014.
The format of the draw appears to make it exceedingly difficult for any team from Asia (or CONCACAF, including the United States) to advance out of group play. Three Asia/CONCACAF teams face the prospect of being in a group with two teams from Europe and one from South America, the two continents with the strongest squads.
Since the tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1998, thus guaranteeing at least four Asian entries in each, the performance of the teams from Asia has been a mixed bag.
Japan advanced to the Round of 16 and South Korea to the semifinals in 2002, when those two countries co-hosted the tournament. And in South Africa 2010, both Korea and Japan advanced out of group play but were knocked out in the Round of 16. (Australia also made it to the Round of 16 in 2006 Germany, but as a representative of Oceania.)
Aside from that, only two other Asian squads have made it out of group play in the history of the World Cup – Saudi Arabia to the Round of 16 in USA 1994 and the legendary North Korean squad that famously knocked out Italy to advance to the quarterfinals in England 1966.
While the Asian teams face a tough road ahead in Brazil, at least they can fall back on experience and not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event. South Korea will be making its eighth consecutive World Cup appearance, Japan its fifth consecutive and Australia its third consecutive (second as an Asian representative). Even Iran is playing for the third time in the last five tournaments.
Other than Cameroon (ranked No. 59), the four Asian squads are the lowest-rated teams in the October FIFA World Rankings, which was used for the pot allocation. Since they’re at such a severe disadvantage, it’s critical for any of the four Asian teams to get a small break, or two, in Friday’s draw.
First, they must avoid being in a so-called “Group of Death” involving two European squads and a South American squad. Second, it would help to be grouped with the lesser of the Pot 1 heavyweights, such as defending champion Spain, three-time winner Germany or host Brazil. Finally, getting a Pot 4 European team thin on experience – Bosnia-Herzegovina (making its World Cup debut) or Russia (first World Cup appearance since 2002) – might make a difference.
With a bit of luck, one of those Asian squads might find enough of an opening to squeeze into the Round of 16. But advancement after that – given the talent level of the current teams – is most likely out of the question.
First things first, though: Let’s see how they fare in the draw and then we’ll analyze their chances next week.
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.