ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — The latest on Saturday’s 2018 World Cup qualifying draw (times are local):
Ireland coach Martin O’Neill showed his usual wry humor after his team landed in a World Cup qualifying group with top-seeded Wales.
Four years ago, Wales slumped into pot six of the World Cup qualifying draw alongside the minnows of European soccer. Today, the Welsh are ranked by FIFA among Europe’s elite despite not playing at a major tournament since 1958.
“It’s been a remarkable rise. To go from sixth into the top seeds,” said O’Neill, whose team was in the pot of No. 4 seeds despite having played at the 2012 European Championship.
“I don’t know what sort of system FIFA use anymore, and I’m not even sure FIFA know what sort of system they use,” said O’Neill, who captained Northern Ireland at the 1982 World Cup, long before FIFA created its rankings.
FIFA weighs results over a four-year cycle, and gives more value to competitive and recent matches.
Group D also includes Austria, Serbia, Moldova, and Georgia.
Defending champion Germany appears to have a relatively straightforward path to the 2018 World Cup after being drawn in Group C on Saturday with the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, and San Marino.
But the Netherlands, France, and Sweden were all paired in Group A alongside Bulgaria, Belarus, and Luxembourg.
Spain, the 2010 champion, is in Group G with Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia, and Liechtenstein.
Neighbors England and Scotland will meet in Group F.
In Oceania, the second round has two groups of four teams — and the top three in each group advance.
Group A includes New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, and either American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa or Tonga.
Heavy favorite New Zealand is in Group B with Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.
The advancing teams are split into two groups for the third round, and the group winners meet in a home-and-away series for the right to meet the fifth-place team from South America in a home-and-away playoff for a berth.
The United States will open World Cup qualifying in November in a four-nation group that includes Trinidad and Tobago.
The other opponents in Group C will be either Guatemala or Antigua and Barbuda, and Aruba or St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Mexico is in Group A with Honduras, Canada or Belize, and El Salvador or Curacao.
Costa Rica is in Group B with Panama, Jamaica or Nicaragua, and Haiti or Grenada.
The top two nations in each group advance to the six-team final round, known as the Hexagonal. The top three qualify, and the fourth meets an Asian opponent in a playoff for another berth.
Among the interesting pairings in Africa’s second round were Angola vs. South Africa, the Chad-Sierra Leone winner vs. Egypt, the Comoros-Lesotho winner vs. Ghana, the Djibouti-Swaziland winner vs. Nigeria, the Liberia-Guinea-Bissau winner vs. Ivory Coast, the Somalia-Niger winner vs. Cameroon, and the Tanzania-Malawi winner vs. Algeria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the World Cup qualifying draw with a 3 1/2 -minute speech and promised fans with tickets will be able to enter the nation for the 2018 tournament without visas.
Dressed in a dark blue suit and dark blue tie, Putin stood beside FIFA President Sepp Blatter and said “today is a special day for millions of fans of the game,” according to a translator.
Blatter told Putin “you make us happy and comfortable,” drawing some applause, and called St. Petersburg the “Pearl of the Baltic.”
Despite FIFA’s scandals, Sepp Blatter says the organization remains committed to 2018 World Cup host nation Russia.
During a meeting Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of the qualifying draw, the FIFA president told Putin that “we say yes to Russia, we are providing our support” and that the Russian people “can be proud” of Putin.
Blatter added that “in the current geopolitical situation, we need not just to talk about our desire to make the world better, but we have to do something” to promote peace.
In brief comments, Putin welcomed Blatter, saying that Russia would “do everything that depends on us” to make players and fans feel at home in 2018.
Putin alluded to FIFA’s controversy, which has seen top soccer officials indicted in the U.S. on corruption charges. Putin says “We see what’s happening around football, but I know how you feel about it. We thank you for concentrating your time and attention on football above all despite this.”
While staying silent on any ambitions to succeed Sepp Blatter as FIFA president, former French star Michael Platini is happy to discuss his work as UEFA president.
Financial Fair Play rules designed to cut club losses have been eased slightly this month to give clubs more freedom to spend on players within budget.
Platini says clubs “want to spend more money … but they want to spend more money they don’t have, that is not so good.”
Manchester City has been spending heavily again, including 49 million pounds ($76 million) on winger Raheem Sterling from Liverpool, now that it is no longer subject to FFP restrictions.
Platini says “if they have the money I don’t care. It’s not a problem, for me. If want to buy a Ferrari you need money, if you don’t have, you don’t have a Ferrari.”
Candidates to succeed Blatter must be nominated by five national federations by Oct. 26.
Gerard Depardieu, the French actor who portrayed former FIFA president Jules Rimet in the much-panned movie “United Passions,” was listed as a guest by FIFA at the qualifying draw.
The film, premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, was released in North America on June 5. While it cost about $30 million to make, it grossed about $900 at the box office in its first weekend of U.S. release.
FIFA finally released details for Saturday night’s draw at Konstantin Palace, which has a television start time of 6 p.m.
The playoff draw that determines which confederations face each other for the final spots is scheduled for 6:18 p.m.
That is followed by Africa at 6:20 p.m., North and Central America and the Caribbean at 6:47 p.m., Oceania at 7:05 p.m., South America at 7:12 p.m. and Europe at 7:27 p.m.
Because South America competes as a one 10-nation group, the draw determines merely the schedule.
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