WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – The 2014 World Cup preliminary draw in Rio de Janeiro gave Brazil a chance to show it was prepared to handle the logistics and glamour of soccer’s biggest stage.
The Marina da Glória, the venue for the event, didn’t disappoint.
Featuring a festive atmosphere, glitz and music, the draw has long been was one of the first major benchmarks on the road to the World Cup.
Hundreds of delegates from soccer federations around the globe attended the event where the teams are randomly placed into preliminary qualifying groups for World Cup 2014.
“Brazil is not only about soccer, it’s also a multicultural country with a rich culture and a booming economy, now ranked seventh in the world,” FIFA President Sepp Blatter told reporters. “I’m happy to say today: ‘Let the 2014 FIFA World Cup begin.’”
The draw was hosted by model and actress Fernanda Lima and TV host Tadeu Schmidt. The duo was joined by Brazilian celebrities throughout the event, including former Brazilian national team captain Cafu and rising star Neymar.
“We are very happy to be back in Brazil 61 years after the last FIFA World Cup here, in a country whose heart beats with football,” Blatter told reporters. “Brazil has always produced stars who make world football richer.”
Qualifiers began June 15 and will conclude on Nov. 19, 2013, after 824 matches. Twenty-eight teams already have been eliminated in knockout stages prior to the draw.
The 2014 World Cup will take place throughout Brazil from June 12 to July 13. A complete schedule is slated to be released later this fall.
Brazil, ranked fourth in the world by FIFA, is guaranteed a spot in the 32-team field as the host nation and will not play in qualifiers. Overall, South America was not included in the draw because CONMEBOL’s nine teams will be slotted into a single group with teams facing each other twice – home and away. The top four finishers automatically qualify, with the fifth-place team playing a squad from Asia in a playoff.
The other playoff will have the fourth-place team from CONCACAF face a squad from Oceania.
“It’s true – in the absence of Brazil it’s as if there’s an extra spot up for grabs,” Colombian defender Pablo Armero told reporters. “Aside from that, the teams are incredibly well-matched. Every country has at least a few players doing well at big clubs.”
Copa América champion Uruguay, which finished fourth at the 2010 World Cup after qualifying with a playoff victory against Costa Rica, is ranked fifth in the world. Argentina is ranked 10th, Chile (11), Peru (25), Paraguay (26), Colombia (35), Venezuela (40), Ecuador (67) and Bolivia (80).
CONCACAF qualifying features three divisions. Group A touts the United States (30), Jamaica (44), Group B has defending Gold Cup champion Mexico (20) and Costa Rica (56) and Group C has Honduras (51) and Cuba (99). Two more teams will join each group once the second round of qualifying has concluded. Each group winner and the runner-up will advance to the final round of qualifying in 2013.
But the Eastern Hemisphere isn’t the only place buzzing with news of the draw.
Group I is garnering the most attention in Europe, as it features defending World Cup champion and top-ranked Spain, France (15), Belarus (42), Georgia (57) and Finland (75).
“The European groups are quite tight, although what catches the eye is that France and Spain have been drawn in the same group,” Brazil coach Mano Menezes told reporters.
A total of 203 teams will attempt to qualify for the World Cup, three more than the number that tried to reach South Africa last year. The soccer associations of Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Guam and Mauritania chose not to participate in World Cup 2014.
Seven countries have qualified for each of the past six World Cups – Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Spain and the United States.
“We love soccer,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said. “Today, Brazil is admired for more than just football, music and its popular festivities. I invite you to come visit us. You will find a country very well prepared for the World Cup.”