MOSCOW (AP) — Vladimir Putin welcomes soccer luminaries to the Kremlin on Friday for a World Cup draw that provides a global audience for the Russian president to attempt to burnish the image of a country scandalized by sports corruption.
By staging the ceremony for the 32 World Cup finalists at the seat of Russian power and draping the Kremlin in FIFA branding, soccer's governing body is undercutting its pretense that sports and politics should not mix — and in a country where the association has proved so damaging.
FIFA is on the final countdown to the first World Cup in Russia as it continues to assess the extent the 2014 World Cup squad was embroiled in the country's state-sponsored doping scheme. FIFA President Gianni Infantino still plans to share a stage Friday with Vitaly Mutko, the Russian deputy prime minister accused of overseeing the elaborate scheme that saw positive samples across Russian sports destroyed or hidden.
Infantino, though, is still trying to rebuild FIFA's image after far-reaching bribery scandals threatened the future of the organization. The draw comes one day short of the seventh anniversary of the World Cup vote from which so many of FIFA's legal travails stemmed.
Russian authorities deny government involvement in doping and the country has weathered FIFA corruption investigations, concerns about hooliganism, racism around games, deaths on World Cup construction sites and a sponsor shortfall to stay on track to host soccer's biggest tournament for the first time.
The draw is the moment fans can start to plan their journeys across Russia, with 11 host cities spread from Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea in the west to Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains which separate Europe and Asia.
Germany will discover the path to defending the title won in Brazil, while Iceland and Panama will be in the draw for the finals for the first time. Two teams are returning after long absences: Peru hasn't contested the World Cup since 1982 and Egypt is returning for the first time since 1990. But there is no space for four-time champion Italy, two-time reigning Copa America champion Chile, while the United States is missing for the first time since 1986.
HOW DOES THE DRAW WORK?
The draw ceremony starts at 1500 GMT on Friday at the State Kremlin Palace and is set to last for an hour. The 32 finalists will be split into eight groups featuring a team from each pot. Only Europe can have two teams in the same group.
The draw will be presided over by former England striker Gary Lineker, who has previously called for FIFA to be disbanded over bribery scandals and questioned Russia's legitimacy to host the World Cup over the doping across sports.
Greats from the eight World Cup-winning nations will serve as draw assistants: Diego Maradona (Argentina), Gordon Banks (England), Laurent Blanc (France), Cafu (Brazil), Fabio Cannavaro (Italy), Diego Forlan (Uruguay), Miroslav Klose (Germany), Carles Puyol (Spain), and Nikita Simonyan for host Russia.
Russian sports journalist Maria Komandnaya is the co-presenter.
WHO IS IN EACH POT?
FIFA changed how it allocates teams in the draw and now uses rankings alone for all four pots. At previous World Cups, only Pot 1 was for seeded teams, and the other three pots were decided by a geographical spread.
October FIFA ranking in brackets:
Pot 1: Russia (65), 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).
WHEN IS THE WORLD CUP?
Russia will play the tournament opener on June 14, 2018. The World Cup final will be held on July 15. Both showpiece games are at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Games will also be hosted in St. Petersburg, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Saransk, Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Yekaterinburg, Samara, Sochi and Rostov-on-Don.
More than 740,000 tickets out of a total of 2.6 million have already been allocated and the next phase of sales starts on Dec. 5 through a ballot.
AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup