The real countdown to the 2018 World Cup in Russia begins on Friday as the draw for the tournament is held at a star-studded ceremony in the Kremlin.
President Vladimir Putin is expected to address the footballing world that has descended upon Moscow, in the midst of a freezing Russian winter, to find out who will play who, when and where at the competition next year.
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The moment has come for Germany to discover who they will meet as they look to become the first nation to successfully defend the title since Brazil in 1962.
Messi and Ronaldo, the two players who have dominated the game’s biggest individual accolades over the last decade, will hope to avoid tough draws for Argentina and Portugal respectively in what will surely be their final opportunity to lift the trophy.
Germany, Brazil and Argentina are all in the first pot along with France, European champions Portugal, Belgium, Poland and the hosts.
But if those nations are certain of avoiding each other, danger lurks in pot two, where the Spanish — the 2010 winners rebuilt into a formidable force by Julen Lopetegui — lie along with England.
“Whatever happens we will accept it gladly and sportingly. I don’t waste energy thinking about who I prefer and who I don’t,” said Lopetegui, but Spain and England must be crossing their fingers in the hope of being paired with Poland or the Russians.
Looking forward to the occasion more than most will be Iceland, the Euro 2016 quarter-finalists making their World Cup debut, and Central American outsiders Panama.
Also eagerly awaiting the draw will be Peru, qualified for the first time since 1982, and Egypt, back after a 28-year absence.
Those nations will add something new to a tournament that will be deprived, among others, of four-time winners Italy, the Netherlands and the United States.
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