By ROB HARRIS | ASSOCIATED PRESS
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — A World Cup buildup laced in controversy and geopolitical undertones has conjured up the most politically charged of matchups on the field in Qatar.
Just like at the FIFA showpiece in 1998, the United States will play Iran with diplomatic relations yet to be restored between the nations since being severed in the 1970s.
The Mother of All Games Part II.
“(A) political group, but I’m not political,” Iran’s Croatian coach, Dragan Skocic, said. “I focus on football. I think this is the best way in sport and also we should give people the chance to make the situation better.”
The hope will be for a repeat of the tranquility around the 1998 encounter in France where the Iranians brought white roses for their American opponents before winning 2-1.
“It’s 24 years later from 1998 and further removed from the 70s and both nations have evolved tremendously since then,” U.S coach Gregg Berhalter said. “For us, it’s a soccer game.”
But if Group B needed any more intrigue it was provided in Friday’s draw in Doha by the headline participant being Euro 2020 runner-up England, whose government has endured tense relations with Tehran.
And the ramifications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which spilled into the Doha convention center, were evident in the final team drawn in the group. Ukraine’s ability to qualify for Qatar has been delayed by the war halting football in the country. But if they beat Scotland and then Wales in the playoffs in June, the Ukrainians will contest a World Cup for the first time since 2006.
“Ukraine is (a team) everyone’s pulling for in a way because of everything they are going through,” Berhalter said.
The focus on Group B overshadowed other notable draws.
Qatar qualified as the host of the first World Cup in the Middle East, and will make its tournament debut in the opening match on Nov. 18 against Ecuador. Then it faces newly crowned African champion Senegal followed by the Netherlands, whose coach Louis van Gaal said last week it was a “ridiculous” decision to award the World Cup to this tiny nation.
That FIFA vote in 2010 sparked years of corruption investigations into not only Qatar’s bid but widespread bribery of world football officials.
Come the kick-off in November, Qatar will hope the focus is on the quality of the games.
There’s a thrilling matchup in Group E between 2010 champion Spain and 2014 winner Germany.
Group C could see a meeting of the most recent FIFA Best winners with Lionel Messi’s Argentina drawn to play Robert Lewandowski’s Poland. The biggest traveling support could also be witnessed in the group, as Saudis can drive across the border into Qatar. Their final first-round game is against Mexico.
There is a seemingly lowkey start for Portugal at what could be Cristiano Ronaldo’s fifth straight World Cup finals as their Group H includes Ghana, South Korea and Uruguay.
South America nations discovered before the draw that a $10 million bonus awaits from their confederation for being the first world champion from CONMEBOL since Brazil in 2002. Brazil first has to get past Switzerland, Serbia and Cameroon to win a record-extending sixth world title and also bank $42 million from FIFA.
The world champion will be crowned in December for the first time, on what will be Qatar National Day on the 18th. The finals were moved from their usual July slot to avoid Qatar’s fierce summer heat.
The implausibility of Qatar staging such a mammoth event within the congested confines of Doha was clear in the desert imagery that flashed on the screens around the draw venue on Friday. Images of skyscrapers sprouting from the sand served as a reminder of the vast projects required to develop this gas-rich nation in recent 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 went unmentioned.
There was an oblique reference before the draw by FIFA President Gianni Infantino to the war on Ukraine launched in February by 2018 host Russia.
“Our world is divided, our world is aggressive,” Infantino said, “and we need occasions to bring people together.”
There was a plea for peace.
“To all the leaders and all the people of the world,” Infantino added, “stop the conflicts and the wars. Please engage in dialogue. Please engage in peace. We want this to be a World Cup of unity and the World Cup of peace.”
The day began with a protest outside FIFA headquarters in Zurich. German artist Volker-Johannes Trieb used balls filled with sand to protest against the suffering of migrant workers in Qatar who have worked on the infrastructure related to the World Cup.
Group A: Qatar, Netherlands, Senegal, Ecuador.
Group B: England, United States, 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.