FIFA puts troubles aside at glitzy World Cup draw
By Mike Collett
ST PETERSBURG (Reuters) - FIFA put its problems to one side and began the countdown to the 2018 World Cup finals on Saturday when Russian president Vladimir Putin and FIFA chief Sepp Blatter re-assured the nation the tournament would go ahead as planned.
A glitzy preliminary-round draw ceremony was beamed live to 170 countries around the world, sending a powerful message that the finals would take place no matter what enquiries are going on over alleged voting irregularities which secured Russia the hosting rights five years ago.
Blatter confirmed that Russia would stage the tournament, saying that the FIFA executive committee had "full trust and confidence". Putin told the global audience that "Russia will be fantastic hosts."
Putin also pledged to host a World Cup -- in a country where racism is rife at soccer matches -- promising both domestic and foreign players and fans would feel at home at a "grandiose international sporting festival".
All 209 FIFA members registered to take part in the finals, and although 22 teams have already been eliminated, 851 matches will be played over the next 32 months to establish the 31 teams who will join Russia at the tournament in June 2018.
World champions Germany were handed a kind draw when they were placed in the same group as the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino.
There was ironic laughter when Oliver Bierhoff, the general manager of the German national team, drew his country out of the bowl.
"I'm pleased we avoided Spain or Italy, but I am sure all the top teams will go through," Bierhoff said. Continued...