FIFA settled the 2010 World Cup draw today in Cape Town, the dazzling coastal city of South Africa, which next summer will play host to hoards of soccer fans who come from around the world to see the tournament.
The draw, which divides the 32 participating countries into groups of four, is based on a convoluted process whose results this time around are likely to raise some eyebrows. (The top seven seeded teams plus host South Africa are split among the eight groups, with two teams advancing to the next round from each group.)
France, a former world champion, limped into South Africa after struggling to qualify – only making it thanks to a Thierry Henry hand-ball assisted goal in its last qualifying match against Ireland. Nevertheless, it got a wonderful draw – placed in a group with host South Africa, the weakest of the top seeds, and Mexico and Uruguay.
The United States should be reasonably happy as well, only needing to beat Algeria and Slovenia to advance to the next round. Algeria was the last African team to qualify after a violence-marred playoff with Egypt, while Slovenia was knocked out in the first round in its only other World Cup appearance.
Brazil, meanwhile – a perennial favorite and one of the top contenders for the title of champion of the world's most popular game – was placed in the so-called Group of Death. The group, which could knock out a top team or two in the first round, also includes strong African side Ivory Coast and Portugal, never a champion but with one of the world's greatest current players, Cristiano Ronaldo, in its bag of tricks.
Convoluted seeding process
Complaints that the pre-draw seeding process was flawed are almost certain to follow. FIFA, the game's governing body, only drew up the rules for seeding the draw in the past week and has been rather opaque about its selection criteria.
The process this time involved seeding eight teams – host South Africa and FIFA's choice of the top seven teams in the world: Brazil, England, Spain, Holland, Italy, Germany, and Argentina. These eight are the top seed in each of their groups. The groups were rounded out by a convoluted process aimed at ensuring geographical diversity in each group.
First, teams were selected at random from, in this order, Asia, North America, Central America, and Oceania. Then the remaining African and South American teams were added to the groups at random. Then, and this is where there will likely be moans and controversy, the remaining eight teams from Europe – football's strongest region, and host to 10 of the 18 World Cup tournaments held since 1930 – were allocated.
Before the draw, England start Frank Lampard explained the stakes: "It's great to be seeded [but] we could still draw Ivory Coast and then Portugal or France. That would be a Group of Death for sure. That would focus the mind all right." England tonight should be breathing a sigh of relief – drawn in Group C with the United States and minnows Algeria and Slovenia.
Goalies unlikely to celebrate new Jabulani ball
Then there's Jabulani, the new World Cup ball from Adidas. The name means "celebration" in Zulu and it's the company's latest addition to soccer. Ahead of each World Cup, a new ball is produced that skilled players can strike harder and put more swerve on. FIFA's practice of introducing the ball less than a year before the games are played, however, has often led goalies to complain they're not given enough time to adjust.
This one could be a doozie. The surface of the ball that can be struck with maximum power has been increased by 70 percent, Adidas says, and that could lead to a few more screamers ripping the nets next summer. (Popular Science has dissected the technology behind the ball).