Originally Published at cbc.ca/sports

After nearly three years, and 872 matches, the field of 209 countries has been narrowed to the 31 that will compete alongside host Russia in the biggest, single sporting event in the world.

And yet, the road thus travelled — while riveting for some and arduous for others — will be wiped clean on Friday as FIFA holds the World Cup draw in Moscow beginning at 10 a.m. ET.

The event will feature a plethora of soccer royalty, including Carles Puyol, Fabio Cannavaro and Diego Maradona. But regardless of who draw conductor Gary Linkeker welcomes on stage, none will shine brighter than Lady Luck.

For despite the pomp and celebration, her hand will undoubtedly influence who reigns from June 14 to July 15, as it is determined which groups and potential matchups each team faces in its attempt to summit soccer’s highest peak.

Fortunate sons

At the moment, all that is known is that Russia, as host, will automatically top Group A.

To determine the rest of the field, FIFA, using its October rankings, has divided the 32 finalists into four pots. The seven highest-ranked nations (plus Russia) have been placed in pot one. The next highest are in pot two, the following in pot three, and the lowest ranked in pot four.

  • Pot 1: Russia (host), Germany (1), Brazil (2), Portugal (3), Argentina (4), Belgium (5), Poland (6), France (7)
  • Pot 2: Spain (8), Peru (10), Switzerland (11), England (12), Colombia (13), Mexico (16), Uruguay (17), Croatia (18)
  • Pot 3: Denmark (19), Iceland (21), Costa Rica (22), Sweden (25), Tunisia (28), Egypt (30), Senegal (32), Iran (34)
  • Pot 4: Serbia (38), Nigeria (41), Australia (43), Japan (44), Morocco (48), Panama (49), South Korea (62), Saudi Arabia (63)

These pots will be used to determine the eight groups (A through H), comprised of four teams each. Only one team per pot can be drawn into a group. With no teams from the same geographical confederation able to be placed in the same group. The only exception is Europe which, due to its 14 teams, can have a maximum of two teams per group.

Usual suspects

There will be no shortage of star power at next year’s competition. Brazil, as usual, are favourites. Having swept South American qualification, the five-time champs, led by but not limited to Neymar, have rediscovered their past form.

While titleholders Germany seek to become the first nation since Pele’s Brazil of 1958, 1962 to repeat as champions.

Spain and France have been revitalized by youth and also appear ready to go the distance. Leaving Argentina, who will live and die on the performance of Lionel Messi, and Belgium, who have talent but may not have the depth, as x-factors.

Mamma mia

Amongst all the familiar faces, there are some notable absences. Four regional champions — Chile, the United States, New Zealand and Cameroon — failed to qualify.

Chile, in particular, has won the past two Copa Americas. Ranked ninth in the world, La Roja was edged out of an international playoff spot on goal differential by Peru. That stat only came into play after Lionel Messi scored a hat trick against Ecuador to single-handedly save Argentina’s campaign.

The U.S., on the other hand, tripped at the finish line, failing to qualify for the first time since 1986 with a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago. This result helped Honduras nab the international playoff spot, only to subsequently be eliminated by Australia. That leaves CONCACAF (the region in which Canada competes) with only three World Cup hopefuls: Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama.

The biggest surprise, however, is Italy, which will miss the tournament for the first time in 60 years. The four-time World Cup winners were knocked out after failing to score against Sweden in a European playoff, a national disaster that necessitated a police escort for its now former coach as he exited the airport. It also marked the retirement of long-time keeper Gianluigi Buffon from the international scene.

No less shocking is the Netherlands. The 2010 finalists and 2014 semi-finalist didn’t even make the playoff round.

Davids amongst Goliaths

Still, considering Canada’s lack of participation (the national team hasn’t made the World Cup since 1986), who can Canadians support?

Those looking for a David amongst soccer’s Goliaths may want to warm up their Viking “Thunder-Clap” and join Team Iceland. The Nordic nation has followed its surprise Euro 2016 appearance (which saw them best England before bowing out in the quarters) with a World Cup berth — a first for any nation with a population of less than one million.

Another debutant hoping to make a run is Panama. Their president even marked their qualification by declaring a national holiday.

After a 36-year absence, Peru is once again on the World Cup stage. Although this is their fifth time at the tournament the Blanquirroja have not qualified since 1982.

Long-time absentees Egypt and Morocco also make their return, having last qualified in 1990 and 1998, respectively. Along with Nigeria, Tunisia and Senegal they complete an African contingent with enough firepower to make some serious noise.

Whether they do or not, will largely be determined by the draw. Lady Luck will take the first shot.

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