Russia ready for World Cup launch

SAINT PETERSBURG: A total of 141 countries spanning five continents will learn their fate for the World Cup 2018 qualifiers on Saturday as the tournament is officially launched with the preliminary draw in Saint Petersburg.

Russian president Vladimir Putin and outgoing FIFA boss Sepp Blatter will address the ceremony with 2,000 guests at the grand Konstantin Palace from 1500GMT.

A total of six draws will take place, five for each of FIFA's six confederations barring Asia where qualifying has already began, and an extra draw to see which continents will face each other for two of the last spots available in the two inter-confederation playoffs.

The draws will be conducted by an all-star cast of World Cup greats including Brazilian legend Ronaldo and Italy's victorious captain from 2006 Fabio Cannavaro.

Zenit St Petersburg forward Hulk will not take part, though, after an embarrassing last minute withdrawal for the organisers with FIFA and the Local Organising Committee citing his club commitments as the reason.

However, suspicions have been raised as the decision came just days after the Brazilian spoke out about the level of racism faced by players in Russia calling it a "disgrace" and raising fears it could blight the World Cup.

Russia are the only side to qualify automatically as hosts, so world champions Germany will have to secure one of the remaining 13 qualifying spots available to the European nations if they are to defend their crown in three years' time.

The nine winners of the European groups will progress along with the winners of four playoff matches between the eight best second-placed sides.

Africa's five representatives will be decided by the winners of five groups of four sides after two preliminary rounds have whittled the participating nations down from 53 to 20.

Four South American sides will qualify directly after a marathon 18-match round robin between all 10 competing nations with the fifth-placed side guaranteed an inter-confederation playoff.

CONCACAF, the North and Central American confederation, will have three direct entrants, whilst the Asian confederation retains its four places despite a poor showing at last year's World Cup in Brazil.

The other three teams for the inter-confederation playoffs will come from the fourth-placed side from CONCACAF, the best side from Oceania and the fifth-best side from Asia.

FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke has described Russia's preparations on the ground for the tournament as a "high speed train".

In contrast to the frenzied build-up to last year's World Cup in Brazil, concerns have been raised over just one venue in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

Yet, the build-up to the draw has been dominated by the ongoing corruption scandal engulfing FIFA.

Seven FIFA officials are among 14 people charged by US authorities over more than $150 million in bribes paid to secure television and marketing contracts for football tournaments.

In a seperate investigation, Swiss authorities have also launched an enquiry into the process which saw Russia and Qatar controversially awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively.

Blatter's address could be one of his last at a major event as head of world football's governing body as he is set to step down when a new president is elected on February 26 next year.

Valcke also admitted on Friday that key sponsors Visa, McDonald's and Coca-Cola had written to FIFA to express their displeasure with recent events.

FIFA is due to meet all three companies next month to discuss the reform process outlined by Blatter earlier in the week including limits on terms for leaders, tougher background checks on executive committee members and the publication of salaries of top officials.