Why the hugely underwhelming World Cup 2018 draw could produce a heavyweight knockout stage

Why the hugely underwhelming World Cup 2018 draw could produce a heavyweight knockout stage

Russian president Vladimir Putin promised “a major sporting festival of friendship and fair play”, his Fifa equivalent Gianni Infantino assured the audience it would be “the best World Cup ever” and an endearingly energised Gareth Southgate said “it really takes you back to the pureness of football, a kid filling in the games, and that genuine excitement of being involved”… only for the first game to be the hosts against Saudi Arabia.

That is a fixture between what are currently the two worst ranked teams in Russia 2018, and might well be the most underwhelming opening match of all time, but that just sets the tone and fits for what might be the most underwhelming group-stage draw of all time.

It was a feeling that was impossible to escape after a predictably glitzy ceremony in the Kremlin State Palace that means this World Cup will miss two staples of World Cups past: a proper group of death and the kind of properly consequential heavyweight fixtures that really energise such groups and tournaments.

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That is probably a result of the new seeding system and undeniably creates a soft start to the competition – especially for those big sides – something that is all the more underwhelming because the group stage is often the true essence of a World Cup; when the games come thick and fast and there is such a joy to jumping around different teams as the many different storylines of a tournament start to take shape. If they don’t feel like they have the same consequence, it won’t feel the same.

One big consequence of that, however, is that it could lead to something that has largely escaped discussion of the group-stage draw and what the World Cup as a whole has missed over the past few decades: a properly crackling knockout stage, with massive heavyweight fixtures.

The groups mean one of the likelier quarter-final line-ups as it stands could be: France v Portugal, Brazil v England, Spain v Argentina and Germany v Belgium.

There have admittedly been similar sentiments expressed about previous tournaments, and Southgate has spent a lot of the week talking about the tendency to underestimate mid-ranking teams, an issue that is all the more relevant in an era where there have been more “surprise” semi-finalists than ever before.

It’s just those sentiments have been expressed when there was more concentration of quality in groups.

The only matches that really stand out as big games in this group stage are Portugal-Spain and Belgium-England, although there is the danger that the latter could be a dead rubber because it is the last game of a fairly lukewarm group that also involves Tunisia and debutants Panama. Really, neither England nor Belgium should have any problems qualifying.

That can’t quite be said for Argentina, and their Group D (Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria) is probably the closest thing to a group of death because of its relative tightness, with Groups E (Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia) and G (Germany, Mexico, Sweden, Korea Republic) offering similar competitiveness. The main intrigue still seems like it comes down to who is qualifying along with the seeds, though, and that is what slightly takes the edge off what would otherwise be exciting fixtures like France-Denmark, Argentina-Croatia and Brazil-Serbia.

Group H might be one of the two least glamorous given it involves Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan and no big name, but it could well be the most energetic and exciting because there is very little difference between the teams.

As regards to the most dull, that might well be the group that usually holds the most interest, because it involves the hosts and everything that entails as the life and soul of the party they’re hosting.

Russia were given a conspicuously forgiving group of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay but the danger of that best-case scenario for them is that – given the awful form they’re in – it could lead to the worst possible humiliation.

Reflecting on the opening round as a whole, that was the group that could really have done with a heavyweight from pot two like Spain or England, but the hope is it might be for the better of the World Cup as a whole.

So many in recent memory have ran out of steam after initially entertaining opening games. There is a possibility this draw might invert that, and inadvertently prove Putin and Infantino right.

Southgate, meanwhile, will be right no matter what. The World Cup is always something to bring excitement, and that excitement is never greater than at events like Friday's when the fixtures are at last filled in and the competition finally takes shape and comes alive.