Louis van Gaal said it all with just the hint of a playful smile. The Netherlands’ draw for the World Cup was not easy, he said, with his characteristic bluntness, and nor was it lucky. It was, instead, “colorful.” That was a better word. Ecuador’s sunshine yellow, Qatar’s rich maroon, Senegal’s deep green and that blazing Dutch orange: colorful.
He tried, as best he could, to hide his delight. He knew, after all, that the dice had fallen for him, and for his team, just as he had predicted — in graphic and not entirely serious terms — that it would. Everyone wanted to draw Qatar, the host and by a gulf the gentlest prospect of the top seeds. Only his team had been chosen.
But van Gaal is too long in the tooth to be fooled. He knows, too, that World Cup draws are not just bombastic and saccharine and filled with time-wasting and content-filling and Idris Elba; they are chimerical, too. They have an oracular quality. Often, they do not mean what they seem to mean at first reading.
Consider Spain and Germany, for example, drawn together early on in Group E. Their encounter will mark the end of the tournament’s first week; it is the only time two of the anticipated contenders to win the competition, to be crowned world champion, will meet in the opening phase. Both seemed to have drawn the short straw.
And then the balls kept on rolling and the names kept on coming and it turned out that both had, in fact, landed on their feet. Japan will be no pushover, and whichever of Costa Rica or New Zealand fills out the group will hardly be content to go quietly. But none have the resources or the quality or the pedigree of Spain and Germany, and both will be confident of making it through.
Or look at England, which managed to make the semifinals in 2018 — and the final of last summer’s European Championship — by virtue of winning knockout games, in regulation time, against Sweden, a pale Germany and Ukraine.
Its good fortune seemed to have held, drawn with Iran, the United States and one of Scotland, Wales and Ukraine, a group far richer in geopolitical intrigue than it is in elite quality.
“I prefer putting balls in the net than flowers,” said Dragan Skocic, Iran’s Serbian coach, when asked about meeting the Americans, a reference to the two nations’ exchanging bouquets when they met at the 1998 tournament. “Football transcends the political stuff,” said his American counterpart, Gregg Berhalter.
But the group stage draw is not really a draw just for the group stage: It is a road map for the entire tournament, too. If England is to win — as it believes it can, this time, with rather more logic than that of the stopped clock — the incline grows immediately steeper once the knockout stage starts. Senegal, the most complete team Africa has sent to a tournament for more than a decade, may lie in wait in the last 16. Then it could be France, the reigning champion, in the quarterfinals. Whatever lies beyond that may not be immediately relevant.
There will, of course, be some teams who are pleased with their fates: France, certainly, should have little trouble with Denmark and Tunisia and one of Peru, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. The two South American contenders, Brazil and Argentina, will be confident, too.
Even the United States should not be too displeased. “We have the youngest squad at the World Cup,” Berhalter said. “For us, that’s a benefit. The guys are fearless.” England might be comfortable favorites to win their group, but there is no reason to believe the United States — returning after an eight-year absence — cannot finish second.
And there will, of course, be teams who are left to rue their lot. Canada, for example, gracing this stage for the first time since 1986, has a group without a true heavyweight but somehow harder for it: Croatia and Belgium finished second and third four years ago, while Morocco sailed through the arduous process of African qualifying.
Ultimately, though, Van Gaal was right: There is no way of knowing, eight months in advance, who has been lucky and who has not, of which is the smooth draw and which the rough. After all the pomp and the circumstance, the video montages and the marketing spiel dressed up as mission statements, all you can say with any certainty is that it will, when it comes, be colorful.