By ROB HARRIS, AP Global Soccer Writer
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — A World Cup buildup laced with controversy and geopolitical undertones has evoked the most politically charged clashes on the pitch in Qatar.
Much like during the FIFA showpiece in 1998, the United States will face Iran with diplomatic relations that have yet to be restored between the nations since they were severed in the 1970s.
The mother of all games, part II.
“(A) political group, but I’m not political,” Croatian Iran coach Dragan Skocic said. “I focus on football. I think it’s the best way in sport and we should also give people the chance to improve the situation.
The hope will be for a repeat of the tranquility around the 1998 encounter in France where the Iranians brought white roses to their American opponents before winning 2-1.
“It’s 24 years later from 1998 and even further from the 70s and both nations have come a long way since then,” said USA coach Gregg Berhalter. “For us, it’s a football game.”
But if Group B needed more intrigue, it was supplied in Friday’s draw in Doha by lead entrants England, runners-up at Euro 2020, whose government has endured strained relations with Tehran.
And the ramifications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which spilled over the Doha Convention Center, were evident in the final team drawn from the pool. Ukraine’s ability to qualify for Qatar has been delayed by the war which has brought football to a halt in the country. But if they beat Scotland and then Wales in the playoffs in June, the Ukrainians will play in a World Cup for the first time since 2006.
“Ukraine is (a team) that everyone kind of shoots for because of everything they go through,” Berhalter said.
The focus on Group B overshadowed other notable draws.
Qatar have qualified to host the first World Cup in the Middle East and will make their tournament debut on the opening night on November 21 against Ecuador. They will later face the sides that opened the tournament earlier in the day: African champions Senegal and the Netherlands, whose coach Louis van Gaal said last week was a “ridiculous” decision. to award the World Cup to this small nation.
That FIFA vote in 2010 sparked years of corruption investigations not just into Qatar’s bid, but also into the widespread bribery of world football officials.
When they kick off in November, Qatar will be hoping the focus will be on quality matches.
There is an exciting game in Group E between Spain, champions in 2010, and Germany, winners in 2014.
Group C could see a recent FIFA Best winners encounter with Lionel Messi’s Argentina drawn to face Robert Lewandowski’s Poland. The greatest support for travel could also be seen in the group, as Saudis can cross the border into Qatar. Their last game of the first round is against Mexico.
There is a seemingly low-key start for Portugal in what could be Cristiano Ronaldo’s fifth consecutive World Cup final as their Group H includes Ghana, South Korea and Uruguay.
The South American nations found out ahead of the draw that a $10 million bonus awaits their confederation for being CONMEBOL’s first world champion since Brazil in 2002. Brazil must first overtake Switzerland, Serbia and Cameroon to win a record sixth world title and also cash in on $42 million from FIFA.
The world champion will be crowned in December for the first time, on what will be Qatar’s national day on the 18th. The finals have been moved from their usual July slot to avoid Qatar’s fierce summer heat.
The implausibility of Qatar staging such a gigantic event across eight stadiums within the congested confines of Doha was clear in the desert images that flashed on screens around the draw venue on Friday. Images of skyscrapers jutting out of the sand were a reminder of the vast projects needed to develop this gas-rich nation over the past few decades.
“The world can see Qatar as promised,” the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, told the audience.
The suffering of low-paid migrant workers was not mentioned.
There was an oblique reference before FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s draw to the war on Ukraine launched in February by 2018 hosts Russia.
“Our world is divided, our world is aggressive,” Infantino said, “and we need opportunities to bring people together.”
There was a call for peace.
“To all the leaders and people of the world,” Infantino added, “stop conflicts and wars. Please engage in dialogue. Please engage in peace. We want this to be a Cup of unity and a World Cup of peace.
The day started with a demonstration in front of the FIFA headquarters in Zurich. German artist Volker-Johannes Trieb used sand-filled balls to protest the suffering of migrant workers in Qatar who worked on World Cup-related infrastructure.
Group A: Qatar, Netherlands, Senegal, Ecuador.
Group B: England, USA, Iran, Wales or Scotland or Ukraine.
Group C: Argentina, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia.
Group D: France, Denmark, Tunisia, Peru or Australia or United Arab Emirates.
Group E: Spain, Germany, Japan, Costa Rica or New Zealand.
Group F: Belgium, Croatia, Morocco, Canada.
Group G: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Cameroon.
Group H: Portugal, Uruguay, South Korea, Ghana.
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar contributed to this report.
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