The 31 countries that qualified for the 2014 World Cup and host nation Brazil will cross fingers and toes and hope for the luck of the draw on Friday when their names are plucked from bowls one by one in a globally televised extravaganza to determine where, when and, most importantly, who they will play in Brazil next June at football's showcase tournament.
Will Brazil be paired in a tough opening group of opponents who could sink its campaign for a sixth World Cup victory, souring the tournament that, all told, is costing the nation nearly $11 billion?
Who will triumph if four-time world player of the year Lionel Messi is drawn against Cristiano Ronaldo, his nemesis in the most intense individual rivalry in football? There will be frissons of excitement if the draw groups Messi's Argentina and Ronaldo's Portugal together.
Could defending champion Spain be drawn to play its opening game against the Netherlands? That repeat of the ill-tempered 2010 final would also cause sharp intakes of breath.
With the world title at stake and because of football's rich and deep sporting, historical and political rivalries, the transparent bowls holding the teams' names are bound to cough up mouthwatering match-ups.
Around the world, eyes will be trained on 1998 World Cup winner Zinedine Zidane and other former stars from the eight nations that have won the trophy as they pluck out balls containing slips of paper bearing the teams' names. Even in the 177 football-playing nations and territories that didn't qualify for the month-long tournament, fans will hope for encounters worthy of the sport's showcase.
Bosnia-Herzegovina will get its first taste of the nervous excitement of a World Cup draw, having qualified as an independent nation two decades after its war that killed more than 100,000 people. Other nations are old hands: Seven have qualified for each of the last seven World Cups — Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Spain and the United States.
Although it likes to consider itself the fun-loving soul of football, Brazil will field a team next year that so far is yet to wow with its play like some of its great squads of the past, with jewels including Pele. Brazilian fans, like those from all the strongest nations, will pray their team isn't drawn in the toughest group, which is sure to be dubbed the "Group of Death," a label of questionable taste that football is fond of.
The 90-minute draw ceremony, televised live to more than 190 countries, will shift into higher gear Brazil's efforts to use the tournament as a window on the world. Keen to show that it has more to offer than sandy beaches, samba and soccer, the world's seventh-largest economy has built and renovated 12 stadiums and poured billions more into other public works.
Such expenditure in a country with millions living in third-world poverty has sparked vigorous debate about the value of sporting mega-events, especially with Olympic host Rio de Janeiro also spending heavily to prepare for the summer games of 2016. Protesters who poured into Brazil's streets during the Confederations Cup warm-up tournament in June listed World Cup spending among their grievances.
Some 1,300 guests and 2,000 journalists were converging on the Brazilian Atlantic beach resort of Costa do Sauipe for the draw. Aside from Uruguay's Oscar Tabarez and Miguel Herrera of Mexico, all the team coaches were expected, anxious to find out not only who their opponents will be but where in the world's fifth-largest country they will play.
Depending on how they are drawn, some teams will travel considerably further than others in the country that is more than 4,000 kilometres from tip to toe and across. Some will have to play in the heat and humidity of the Amazon basin, with Manaus in the heart of the jungle considered perhaps the most potentially physically taxing venue for players, especially those from more moderate climes. None of the previous seven World Cups held in the Americas, starting with the first edition in Uruguay in 1930, were won by a European team.
FIFA executives agreed Thursday that all 32 teams will get at least $8 million in prize money, with $35 million for the champion.
The draw procedure itself is fairly straightforward. It should take around 35 minutes to divide the 32 teams into eight groups — labelled from A to H — of four teams each. The basic principle of pulling names from hats has been used by governing body FIFA for decades, although the draw has become increasingly showbiz since it was first televised in 1966.
FIFA and Brazilian authorities say they spent some $11 million organizing this draw. That included erecting a tent the size of an aircraft hangar for the draw, with nearly 50 kilometres of cabling, 36 tons of lighting and 9,000 square meters of floor space — making it larger than nearly all of the world's cathedrals.
Husband and wife team Fernanda Lima and Rodrigo Hilbert, both presenters on Brazilian television, will emcee the show. Samba singer Alcione, Sao Paulo rapper Emicida and others are providing the entertainment.
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Costa do Sauipe contributed.Suggest a correction