The eyes of the footballing world were focused on Rio de Janeiro on Saturday for the preliminary draw for the 20th World Cup.
Fifa president Sepp Blatter opened the occasion at Rio’s Marina, a stone’s throw from the Copacabana beach, by noting that “Brazil holds a special place in the world of football”.
“We are happy to be back in Brazil because it is now 61 years since the last World Cup was organised in Brazil. We look forward to an exciting World Cup.”
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff responded by saying that “Brazil is identified as a country of football and we are proud of that — Brazilian men and women love football.”
Although there are lingering concerns as to whether the hosts will deliver the necessary infrastructural improvements in time, Rousseff added: “Our people have many reasons to be proud — Brazil today has a stable and booming economy.
“Brazil is admired for many other reasons apart from football.”
Hosting the World Cup, she said, would enable people the world over to see for themselves how far the country has come in recent years.
“Brazil will be ready to dazzle the world in 2014 — we are a warm and generous people.”
In Asia, Japan will face Uzbekistan, Syria and North Korea in Group C, while Australia will play Saudi Arabia, Oman and Thailand in Group D.
Iran, Bahrain and Qatar were drawn in the same Group E, along with Indonesia, while China is in Group A with Iraq, Jordan and Singapore.
The African teams were divided into 10 groups for qualifiers beginning in November. South Africa, last year’s World Cup host, was drawn in Group A along with Botswana. Ghana, the best African team last year, is in Group D with Zambia and Sudan.
As host, Brazil is the only nation that doesn’t have to qualify. But 166 other teams are having their fate decided in the draw, determining the path for teams in Asia, Africa, Oceania and the North, Central America and Caribbean regions.
South America was not included in the draw because the continent’s nine teams will be placed in a single group. They will play each other twice, home and away, with the top four finishers securing a spot. The fifth-place team will advance to an intercontinental play-off against a team from Asia. The other playoff will pit teams from Concacaf and Oceania.
The qualifiers began June 15 and will end November 19 2013, after 824 matches. Twenty-eight teams were eliminated in preliminary rounds before Saturday’s draw.
The World Cup will be played from June 12 to July 13, and the complete match schedule will be announced in October.
Brazilian media reported that about 1 000 protesters were protesting near the site of the draw against the removal of families from areas where the World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics will be held. Some were also protesting against the nearly $20-million of public funds said to have been spent for Saturday’s event.
Riot troopers and mounted police were negotiating to end the demonstration, which remained peaceful by the time the draw began.
There were some protesters holding banners criticizing Brazilian football federation president Ricardo Teixeira and Fifa.
The total of 203 teams vying for a World Cup spot surpasses by three the number that participated four years ago. The only associations not to have signed up to compete this time around are Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Guam and Mauritania.
Seven nations have qualified for each of the last six World Cups — Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Spain and the United States. Germany has been the most successful team in World Cup qualifiers so far, with only two losses in 74 matches. – AFP, AP