BY M.J. GRAHAM
From The Armenian Weekly
Although the 2018 World Cup finals is a distant three years away and host nation Russia has plenty more work to do in order to prepare for the greatest sporting event, some important business was taken care of at the Konstantinovsky Palace in Strelna, Saint Petersburg, on Sat., July 25. The path to the finals tournament, a destination reserved for 32 elite teams, was laid out for all 209 nations across 6 confederations entering the preliminary competition. Complete with Russian President Vladimir Putin, FIFA President Sepp Blatter, and a host of footballing greats, the event included all the pageantry we’ve come to expect from FIFA .
Of the 32 teams that will play in the finals, one berth has already been reserved. Russia, as hosts, automatically qualify. Defending champions Germany, however, aren’t afforded such a luxury, and will enter qualification just like all other hopeful nations. Of the remaining 31 places, the breakdown among confederations is as follows: UEFA 13, CAF 5, CONMEBOL 4.5, AFC 4.5, CONCACAF 3.5, and OFC 0.5. Four confederations have half spots allocated to them. These four half spots represent two places in the finals tournament.
This time around, the fourth team in CONCACAF qualifying (North and Central America) will play off against the fifth team in AFC qualifying (Asia), while the fifth place team in CONMEBOL qualifying (South America) will play the best team in the OFC (Oceania) region. The results of those two ties will determine who takes the two places at the finals. This is a number of years off, but before the qualifying tournament begins in earnest later this year, there are play-in rounds being played by the smaller countries for the right to compete against the bigger fish in their respective confederations.
The European Confederation of UEFA is allocated 13 places. There are 52 nations, including Armenia, who are vying for these coveted spots. As is the norm in Europe, the teams are drawn into nine qualifying groups based on seeding. The FIFA world rankings were used to determine which pot teams were drawn from. In recent years, Armenia has flirted with a higher ranking position, but a run of poor results in the last 12 months meant being drawn from pot 5 of 6. Although not an exact science, it is generally accepted that a higher seeding can result in being placed in a more favorable group and thus an easier path to the finals. One team to which this may apply and whose fortunes have taken a whirlwind turn for the better since the last qualifying draw is Wales. Four years ago they were drawn from pot 6. Following a meteoric rise in world rankings recently, for this campaign they were drawn from pot 1, alongside Europe’s elite nations.
Of the nine qualifying groups, there are seven groups of six teams and two groups of five teams. The nine group winners automatically qualify. Eight runners-up with the best record against the teams first, third, fourth, and fifth in their groups will play off for the remaining four places in a home and away series of matches.
Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxembourg
Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra
Germany, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino
Wales, Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Moldova, Georgia
Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Kazakhstan
England, Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta
Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, FYR Macedonia, Liechtenstein
Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus
Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland
It can be argued that Armenia received a favorable draw despite their seeding. Of the top-seeded team, Romania, Denmark, and Poland, I would suggest that Poland will provide the greatest challenge. Their recent run of good results in European qualifying coupled with their bruising style of play and tall, athletic players could prove difficult for Armenia. Regarding the lower seeded teams, Montenegro and Kazakhstan, geographically speaking that draw suits Armenia. A long trip to Kazakhstan for teams from Central Europe isn’t an enviable task and is never a guaranteed three points for any team. This could prove to be a nice equalizer for Armenia, some of whose players play in Kazakhstan.
Overall, the World Cup draw is a welcome distraction for Armenia, a chance to look ahead and past the abysmal campaign it currently finds itself in. The path is now set, the goal has always been clear. Armenia has 12 months to rebuild confidence and prepare for another journey to glory.