For about an hour Friday, much of the planet will come to a dead stop, all eyes and attention glued to four bowls of what look an awful lot like pingpong balls. A lottery that could make someone rich beyond his or her wildest dreams? No, though some would argue this can bring even more happiness.
It's the World Cup draw, when the 32 countries in next summer's tournament in Brazil are divvied up into eight groups for first-round play. Land in a good (read: easy) group, and a team can start looking ahead to the knockout rounds, maybe even the final. Get lumped in with Brazil, the Netherlands and Italy and, well, there's always Russia in 2018.
Even if you can't tell the Portuguese Ronaldo from the ones who played for Brazil (hint: look for the hair gel), here's a quick guide so you can celebrate — or commiserate — with your futbol-loving friends during Friday's draw:
WHAT ARE THESE POTS?
FIFA wants the draw to be as fair as possible for every team, be it defending champion Spain or first-time qualifier Bosnia-Herzegovina. It also wants to prevent countries from the same federations — Africa or South America, for example — from facing each other in the early going.
But how best to do all that?
The 32 teams are split into four groups, or pots. The host country, Brazil, and the seven seeded teams — Argentina, Belgium, Colombia, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Uruguay — are in Pot 1. The remaining teams are placed in pots based on their geographical location. The United States is in Pot 3 along with the other nations from the North and Central America and Caribbean region, and the four Asian countries. The non-seeded European teams are in Pot 4. Because there are nine of them, however, one country will be chosen at random and moved to Pot 2, where it will join the remaining two South American squads and the five teams from Africa.
WHY NOT JUST SEED THE ENTIRE FIELD?
If you watch selection of the NCAA tournament field, you know that only creates more grumbling. No matter how many times you crunch the numbers, examine strength of schedules and try to quantify the intangibles, there's going to be arguments over why Team A was seeded 15th and why Team S is higher than Team G. Seeds are simply another word for rankings, which are subjective guesses, at best.
Yes, FIFA seeds the top seven teams, based on their spots in October's world rankings. But even those are open for debate, with many saying Switzerland has no business among soccer's upper crust, regardless of the numbers spit out by FIFA's quirky formula.
Short of using uniform colors or nicknames, geography is the most objective way to pool the field.
OK, SO THEN WHAT?
As the host, Brazil gets the top slot in Group A. The remaining seven teams in Pot 1 are then randomly assigned to the top spot in groups lettered B through H. The Pot 2 teams are then randomly assigned not only a group, but a slot in the group. This can be critical because your slot determines when you play each of your group opponents. It's sometimes an advantage to play strong teams in the final group game, because they may have already clinched a spot in the final 16 and may rest their stars.
Pots 3 and 4 are emptied in similar fashion until all 32 teams have a group and a slot.
ANY CHANCE OF A MEXICO-US GAME IN GROUP PLAY? OR BRAZIL-ARGENTINA? HOW ABOUT ENGLAND-GERMANY?
No, no and maybe. FIFA prevents countries in the same geographical federation from playing each other in the group stage, with Europe being the exception. It has so many teams in the tournament — 13 — that there's no way to prevent some groups from having two European teams.
LET'S GET TO THE GOOD STUFF. WHO GOES TO THE KNOCKOUT ROUNDS?
Each team plays one game against every other team in the group. Teams earn three points for each win and one point for a tie, with a loss getting you nothing. Based on point totals, the top two teams in each group advance to the round of 16. Simple, right? Come on, this is FIFA. If two teams should end with the same amount of points, the first tiebreaker is goal difference — the number of goals scored minus the number of goals allowed. If that's still not enough, the next tiebreaker is who scored the greatest number of goals in all group matches.
There are additional tiebreakers in place, but that's for another day.