As everybody heads back home from the 2014 World Cup draw in Rio de Janeiro, attention will now turn to Brazil’s lagging preparations for the finals three years from now. In the meantime, a few thoughts on yesterday’s draw.
In the European section of the draw, the Spain-France match-up in Group I is the obvious headline-grabber, with huge pressure on France coach Laurent Blanc before the campaign even kicks off (assuming, that is, he is still in charge after the European Championships).
Although a lot of attention will centre on Group I, Group A will also generate a lot of interest thanks to the three-way Balkan rivalry of Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia. The behaviour of Serbian fans will also be under the spotlight after they forced the abandonment of the Euro 2012 qualifier against Italy last October.
Belgium could be the team to watch in Group B, with a new generation of talented youngsters – Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku – breaking through.
Group B is probably the toughest of the European groups, with Italy, Denmark and the Czech Republic all serious contenders for the automatic qualifying spot.
As for the easiest group, Switzerland will be happy that, despite being in the third pot, they are a winnable Group E with Norway, Slovenia, Albania, Cyprus and Iceland.
England have a comfortable draw, though it is not as easy as some imagine. In autumn 2012, Poland and Ukraine will be stronger for their experiences as co-hosts of the European Championships.
Portugal and Russia will slug it out in Group F. Both teams have struggled recently, but should be too strong for Israel and Northern Ireland.
Bosnia have a good chance of making at least a play-off place in Group G, with Greece and Slovakia as their main challengers.
Germany and Holland, both still with 100 per cent records in the Euro 2012 qualifiers, are unlikely to be troubled by their respective draws in Groups C and D respectively.
Outside of Europe, the draw for the African qualifers threw up some tricky ties for a couple of the continent’s heavyweights.
A change in format – the winners of 10 four-team groups will play off for five finals places – means that most African heavyweights have been handed easy draws.
The exceptions are Ivory Coast, who have drawn with Morocco, and Cameroon, who face tricky trips to Libya (which may be switched) and (if they get through their qualifying round) Togo.
In the Asia section, seeding kept South Korea, Japan, Iran and China apart and all have winnable groups. But Australia have a difficult group with Saudi Arabia, who are still smarting from their recent failures.
One of the main motivations for Australia switching their membership out Oceania and into the AFA was to gain more regular competitive action. Now they have it.
In Group E, where Iran will be favourites to progress, the performances of Qatar will be monitored carefully. The 2022 World Cup hosts have a 10-year plan to move the national team up the FIFA rankings, partly by naturalising players born in other countries, notably Brazil.
The contrast with 2014 hosts Brazil could not be more marked.