SAINT PETERSBURG: The starting gun for the 2018 World Cup in Russia will be fired on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) as 141 national sides await their fate in the qualifying draw in Saint Petersburg.
Draws will be conducted for the qualifying process in five of FIFA’s six confederations, excluding Asia where qualifying has already began.
The ceremony will be conducted by a star-studded lineup including Brazilian legend Ronaldo, Samuel Eto’o and Italian World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro in grand surroundings at the Konstantin Palace.
However, Zenit St Petersburg forward Hulk will not take part after being dropped from the lineup just days after criticising the level of racism faced by players in Russia with both FIFA and the Local Organising Committee citing his club commitments as the reason for his withdrawal.
Football’s elite will be joined by Russian president Vladimir Putin, but the lead up to the draw has been dominated by the corruption crisis engulfing FIFA.
Despite being the first official event in the build-up to the World Cup in three years’ time it is also likely to be the last major occasion overseen by Sepp Blatter as FIFA president.
The 79-year-old has been in charge of world football’s governing body for 17 years, but is due to relinquish his duties when a new president is elected on Februay 26.
Blatter’s decision to step down despite winning an election for a fifth term in June was precipitated by US authorities filing corruption charges against seven FIFA officials.
In a separate investigation, Swiss authorities are looking into possible irregularities in the controversial dual process which saw Russia and Qatar awarded the World Cups in 2018 and 2022 respectively.
However, Russia is actively pressing ahead with its preparations to host the tournament with the schedule for both the Confederations Cup in 2017 and the big event a year later unveiled on Friday.
All 12 stadiums in the 11 host cities will host four group games with only Kaliningrad, Volgograd and Ekaterinburg missing out on the knockout stages.
The opening game and the final will take place in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium.
And FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke hailed the state of the preparations in Russia in comparison to the last minute solutions that had to be sought before last year’s World Cup in Brazil.
“We are very happy with the work which has been delivered,” he said.
“The World Cup 2018 is on track, as I have said before it is a high speed train and I can say that in certain parts of the organisation we are in advance based on the current timetable we have.”