RIO DE JANEIRO - The 2014 World Cup begins to take shape on Saturday when FIFA hosts the qualifying draw, laying out each nation's path to try to secure a spot in the tournament.
It will be the first major World Cup-related event in Brazil since 2007, when the South American nation was awarded the competition for the first time in 64 years.
As host, Brazil is the only nation which won't have to qualify, but 203 other teams will have to fight for the remaining 31 spots in qualifiers that will run through November 2013.
Defending World Cup champion Spain will find out in which of the nine Europeans groups it will play. The draw will also allocate the groups for Asia, Africa, Oceania and the North, Central America and Caribbean regions.
Canada will find out who it will be playing in the second round of CONCACAF qualifying. The 105th-ranked Canadians will be placed in a group of four and will have to win the group to advance to the third round when all the top CONCACAF teams join in.
South America will not be included in the draw because the continent's nine teams will be placed in a single group. They will play each other twice, home and away, with the top four finishers securing a World Cup spot. The fifth-placed team will advance to an intercontinental playoff.
The 2014 World Cup will be played from June 12-July 13, and the complete match schedule will be announced in October. The schedule was expected to be made public this week, but delays with Brazil's stadium construction, which led to indecision on which of the 12 host cities will host the opener, have apparently forced organizers to delay the announcement.
Brazilian soccer federation president Ricardo Teixeira on Friday dismissed concerns over the country's preparations, and said that all World Cup projects have been approved. He added that the 12 host cities have the financial guarantees needed to host the monthlong event due to begin in less than three years.
"The draw will present a unique opportunity to start showing the intense transformation taking place in Brazil," Teixeira said. "The draw's success will serve an example of what Brazil will offer to the world in the next few years."
The preliminary draw will be preceded by festivities and attractions staged by local artists, including singer Ivete Sangalo. More than 35 coaches and representatives from 104 national teams are expected to attend. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Pele and Michel Platini are also expected at the event, which will be held at the Marina da Gloria harbour in Rio.
Saturday's draw will take place amid protests from some Brazilians who have criticized the World Cup. Rights groups say construction work for the soccer competition and the 2016 Rio Olympics have come at a cost to some local residents who will benefit very little from the events. Most complaints come from those who are being evicted from their homes so infrastructure projects can be put in place.
Representatives of poor communities are planning a march to promote the "People's Cup" on Saturday, with the protest taking place near the draw venue.
"While the US$20 million party for choosing the qualifying groups for the 2014 World Cup is happening, thousands of the city's residents are being removed from their homes in preparation for the tournament, street vendors are prevented from working and the vast majority of the population will not have enough money to pay for tickets to the World Cup," the representatives said in a statement Friday.
There is also a protest planned against federation president Teixeira, who recently was cleared by FIFA of bribery allegations but has been constantly attacked by local media for alleged irregularities running Brazilian soccer.
The draw comes a few days after FIFA President Sepp Blatter denied suggestions he was a dictator and asked for time to clear up corruption allegations involving soccer's scandal-ridden governing body. FIFA last week banned former presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam over allegations he tried to bribe Caribbean soccer leaders in an effort to unseat Blatter.
There will be 166 countries participating in Saturday's draw, and their pot allocation will be based on the latest FIFA world rankings. FIFA said that it will not draw together Azerbaijan and Armenia nor Russia and Georgia because of political conflicts which could lead to fan violence during qualifying matches.
FIFA also said that Oman was included in the draw after its match against Myanmar on Thursday was halted by the referee in second-leg injury time because fans repeatedly hurled objects onto the field in Myanmar. Oman was winning 2-0 — it had also won the first leg by the same score — and FIFA confirmed the result would stand.
The qualifiers began on June 15 and will end Nov. 19, 2013, after 824 matches.
The total of 203 teams vying for a World Cup spot surpasses the 200 that participated four years ago. The only associations not to have signed up to compete this time around are Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Guam and Mauritania.