Highlights of the World Cup draw: Matches keep teams looking forward to November

credit…David Ramos / Getty Images

Louis van Gaal said it all with a glimpse of a playful smile. He said the Dutch World Cup draw was not easy, frankly, and they weren’t so lucky. It was, instead, “colorful”. That was a better word. Yellow Ecuadorian sun, rich Qatari maroon, dark green Senegal and Dutch orange: tinted.

He tried as much as he could to hide his joy. He knew, after all, that the dice had fallen for him and his team, just as he had predicted—in graphic and not entirely serious terms—that it would. Everyone wanted to paint Qatar, the host nation, and by way of the Gulf, the thinnest odds of winning. Only his team was chosen.

But Van Gaal is too old to be fooled. He also knows that the World Cup draw is not only flowery, sugary, full of time-wasters, full of content and Idris Elba; It’s fictional, too. They have an Oracular quality. Often, they don’t mean what they seem to mean on first reading.

Take Spain and Germany, for example, in a draw early in Group E. Their meeting will mark the end of the first week of the tournament; It is the only time that two contenders waiting to win the competition, and be crowned world champions, meet in the opening stage. They both seem to have drawn the short straw.

Then the balls kept rolling and the names kept coming up and it turned out that both of them, in fact, landed on their feet. Japan will not be an easy task, and whoever Costa Rica or New Zealand fills the group will not be content to leave quietly. But no one has the resources, quality or pedigree from Spain and Germany, and both will be confident of success.

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Or look at England, who made it to the semi-finals in 2018 – and last summer’s European Championship final – thanks to their knockout wins, in organizational time, against Sweden, pale Germany and Ukraine.

Its good fortune seems to have preserved, with a tie with Iran, the United States, and one with Scotland, Wales, and Ukraine, a group richer in geopolitical intrigue than it is in elite quality.

“I prefer to put the balls in the net over the flowers,” said Dragan Skocic, coach of the Serbia-Iran national team, when asked about the meeting with the Americans, referring to the two countries’ exchanged bouquets. When they met in the 1998 tournament. “Football goes beyond politics,” said his US counterpart Greg Berhalter.

credit…Kai Fafenbach/Reuters

But the group stage draw isn’t really just a draw for the group stage: it’s a roadmap for the entire tournament as well. If England are going to win – as they think they can, this time, with more logic than the logic of a stopped clock – the slope immediately grows once the knockout phase begins. Senegal, the most complete team Africa has sent to the tournament in over a decade, may wait in the round of 16, and then France, the champions, may be in the quarter-finals. Whatever lies behind it may not be immediately relevant.

There will, of course, be some teams who are satisfied with their fate: France certainly won’t have too many problems with Denmark and Tunisia and one with Peru, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. The two South American contenders, Brazil and Argentina, will also be confident.

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Even the United States should not be so upset. “We have the smallest team in the World Cup,” Berhalter said. “For us, this is a benefit. Men know no fear.” England may be comfortable favorites to win their group, but there is no reason to believe that the United States – who are back after an eight-year absence – cannot finish second.

There will, of course, be teams left to regret their fate. Canada, for example, which grabbed this stage for the first time since 1986, has a real underweight group but somehow more difficult for it: Croatia and Belgium finished second and third four years ago, while Morocco sailed through the grueling process of African qualifying.

In the end, though, Van Gaal was right: there’s no way of knowing, eight months in advance, who was lucky and who didn’t, which was the smooth and which was raw. After all the pomp and circumstance, video montage and marketing language dressed up as big statements, all you can say with any certainty is that it will be colorful when it comes.

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