The road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ has been laid out for 141 teams from across the globe as St Petersburg's Konstantin Palace hosted a dramatic and star-studded Preliminary Draw.
A global audience of approximately 94.8 million tuned in as the spectacular show, hosted by Dmitry Shepelev and supermodel Natalia Vodianova, blended football with some of the best in Russian music and culture. The draw itself - overseen by Jérôme Valcke, FIFA's Secretary General - also produced its fair share of fireworks, with Spain-Italy and Chile-Brazil on the first South American matchday just a couple of the mouth-watering games left to tantalise the beautiful game's billions of fans.
*Words of welcome
*All of those enthusiasts had earlier been promised the warmest of welcomes by Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, who kicked off proceedings by addressing the 2,000 guests and viewers from across the world. "Our country has a long-standing football history and the World Cup will definitely enhance the game's reputation," said Putin. "This is a tournament that will be wonderful not only for Russia but for all our neighbouring countries. It is Russia's great pleasure to be hosting the World Cup, which will offer a great chance to show our country's many faces to the world."
FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter also expressed his excitement about the tournament, although he sought to shift the focus - for now at least - to the eagerly awaited preliminaries. "This is an important day in the long and winding road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup," said Blatter. "The tournament is very much on track and Russia will be fantastic hosts. But first a much longer competition must take place, lasting no less than 33 months, with over 850 matches taking place. And when all's said and done, we will know the teams that will compete in Russia."
The draw process was interlaced with entertaining performances, the first of which came when the Terem-Quartet and artists and football jugglers from the Leningrad Centre brought a uniquely Russian flavour to a well-known western pop song. 'Get the Party Started' proved a fitting theme, too, because the main event began to unfold immediately afterwards, with the Intercontinental Play-off draw pitting CONCACAF against AFC, leaving OFC's hopefuls to face an opponent from the CONMEBOL region.
This was the only aspect of the draw which concerned teams in Asia, where qualifying is already underway. Tribute was paid, nonetheless, to two of the continent's great early success stories, with Valcke highlighting the momentous wins enjoyed by both Bhutan and Guam.
*Big names and big challenges
*Rinat Dasayev, Soviet goalkeeping legend, and Cameroon icon Samuel Eto'o, then assisted FIFA's Secretary-General in setting out the route for Africa's 2018 contenders, with Somalia having the honour of being the first team picked out in this Preliminary Draw. And while the big guns will only meet later in the process, the first and second round ties look set to include some David and Goliath-style meetings, with Nigeria set to face the winner of a tie between Swaziland and Djibouti, the continent's lowest-ranked nation.
Next up, via a rendition of 'Podmoskovnye Vechera' by opera singers Hibla Gerzmava and Vasily Gerello, it was the turn of teams from North, Central America and the Caribbean to learn the first of their qualifying opponents. This part of the process, led by Italian World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro and beach soccer icon Madjer, left USA and Mexico paired with Trinidad and Tobago and Honduras respectively in Round 4, while CONCACAF Gold Cup finalists Jamaica must first negotiate a third-round tie with Nicaragua.
Oceania's teams would have been feeling nervous by this stage, although they were soothed before their section of the draw by the beauty and elegance of two dancers performing an excerpt of Boris Eifman's ballet Anna Karenina to music by Tchaikovsky. Alexey Smertin and Predrag Rajkovic, captain of Serbia's FIFA U-20 World Cup winners, then assisted Valcke in laying out the continent's groups, one of which pitted top-ranked New Zealand against Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu.
Heavyweight clashes in South America, Europe
The honour of conducting South America's draw fell thereafter to two of the continent's striking greats: Ronaldo and Diego Forlan. In this region, where every team does battle within the same group, the opening-day matches were the centre of attention, and *O Fenômeno *admitted to fearing for Brazil after they were handed a trip to Copa America champions Chile.
The main draw concluded with sights turned to Europe, although only after the guests had been treated to an up-tempo Football Medley by the World Jazz Stars. The musicians were then replaced on stage by Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Oliver Bierhoff, who helped lay out the task facing the 52 teams in a continent with 13 slots up for grabs.
Gasps swiftly followed, with Spain and Italy - winners in 2010 and 2006 respectively - drawn together in Group G, with other pairings including France and the Netherlands and the oldest international rivalry of all: England-Scotland. Defending champions Germany, meanwhile, will face the first challenges to their crown against the likes of Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and Norway.
And, with that, it was over. Polina Gagarina provided the final musical treat for the 2000 guests, while fans from across the world - some delighted, some dismayed - were left to pore over the draw and what it means for their teams' chances of reaching Russia 2018.