World Cup Draw: Of Pots, Presenters and Form

Bristol, Conn.—A handful of journalists were drawn to ESPN headquarters here on Friday to watch how four pots would come to equal eight groups at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Draw.  

At once more transparent and inscrutable than the NCAA’s Selection Sunday schematic to March Madness, the balls from the World Cup Draw from Costa do Sauipe in Bahia, Brazil unspooled before us, courtesy of ESPN2. In its final serve under a $100 million year, multi-tournament deal with FIFA, ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, ESPN3 and ESPNWatch will present all 64 matches from June 12 through July 13.

The U.S. found itself in a Group of Death, with an arduous and long trek ahead, stretching some 8,900 miles across the globe’s fifth largest country, to reach the knockout stage. Hopefully, Sam’s Army will find new life from its G4 positioning, just as the NBCUniversal service did when it received a reprieve from becoming the conversion point for Esquire Network, a function that fell instead to Style.

As for Mexico, whose path to Brazil was preserved by a pair of U.S. goals against Panama in stoppage time in the final CONCACAF Hexagonal match, it was drawn into Group A.  El Tri’s second match will come against the hosts on Tuesday, June 17 at 3 p.m. (ET), an encounter that should play extremely large on U.S. Spanish-language rights-holder Univision, which will also say goodbye to FIFA rights after the 2014 event.

Brazilian actress and model Fernanda Lima was the mistress of ceremony – shimmering and smiling in a gold dress that coruscated more than the World Cup trophy. FIFA secretary general Jacque Valke had less of a chance to shine than he did four years ago when Charlize Theron was the eye candy for the draw in South Africa.

Lima’s performance was immortalized when she fumbled the pass of the “Australian” ball from Uruguayan legend Alcides Ghiggia.  After her recovery, the Socceroos found they had the misfortune to be placed in Group B as the likely roadkill for Spain, The Netherlands and Chile. If only Ghiggia had dropped the ball like that in 1950, when he scored the winning goal in Uruguay’s 2-1 win over the host Brazil in the World Cup final.

An ESPN publicist’s interest in the placement of Nigeria aside--  the Super Eagles are in Group F with Argentina, Bosnia and Iran, with a chance for passage -- the fate of the U.S. was foremost on the assemblage’s collective minds. And FIFA balls certainly bounced the wrong way for the Americans.

Sam’s Army is joined in Group G by Germany, many oddsmakers’ second or third choice to win the World Cup behind the host nation; Portugal, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the world’s best and Irina Shayk's favorite futboler; and Ghana, the African nation the U.S. has never beaten at any level and its conqueror in the last two World Cups. Together, Group D ‘s average FIFA ranking is 11.25, by far the lowest of the eight classifications.

The U.S. opens its 2014 World Cup quest against the Black Stars on Monday, June 16 in Natal at 6 p.m. (ET), followed by Portugal on Sunday, June 22 at 3 p.m. on ABC, from Manuas, the Amazonian venue that most sides wanted to avoid because of its heat and humidity. Sam's Army closes the group stage versus Germany at Recife on Thursday June 26 at noon. 

Jed Drake, senior vice president and executive producer of ESPN’s World Cup coverage, speaking on a conference call from the worldwide leader’s World Cup production headquarters at Clube dos Marimbás on the southern tip of the famed Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, told reporters that ESPN would like to include a conversation with Brazilian soccer legend Pele as part of its overall coverage. He also said that ESPN may lobby for some time changes.  Modifications to schedules are not unprecedented -- at least when it comes to European requests.

New kickoff times or not, Drake’s darkest logistical fears were realized with the draw. As was the case in 2010, ESPN plans to provide on-site, pre- and post-match coverage from the venues hosting the U.S. matches.  With Arena Amazonia located deep in the rainforest, Drake said that means ESPN will have to float mobile units up the Amazon River to execute its coverage plans from Manaus.

U.S. left back DeMarcus Beasley, who graciously joined our crew before the draw and attending to his TV duties, said a date in Manaus might actually prove beneficial to the U.S. team. He pointed to how South Korea made it to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, as some of the European nations struggled in the Asian heat. He said that during the first two weeks of U.S. World Cup training in May, an emphasis will be placed on fitness, so “we can run the same in the last minute as in the first, to have that extra life and get that goal if we need it.” He said being placed in one of the more humid areas “could be a good point in our favor.”

ESPN analyst and former US men’s national teamer Alexi Lalas, after filming additional segments of World Cup Draw analysis, downplayed that notion.  While acknowledging that some U.S. players certainly play in more diverse climates than their European counterpart, he said all World Cup teams are going to be in form.

Asked about his on-air prediction of a Spain-Germany final, Lalas laughed and retorted:  “Which one?” He noted that with six months to go before the tournament, there’s time for another 100 predictions.

One can only hope, that some prognostications have Sam's Army escaping the doom and gloom of Group G.

As it turned out, the draw's denouement had plenty of competition from the sports news cycle on Friday. Before the business got serious in Bahia, ESPN and ESPN 2 were reporting that the NFL’s Houston Texans, the losers of 11 straight, had fired coach Gary Kubiak, not even five weeks removed from the frightening mini-stroke he suffered on Nov. 3 at halftime in a game against the Indianapolis Colts.

Jay Z client Robinson Cano was leaving the New York Yankees for the Seattle Mariners, with $240 million to be put in his pocket over the next decade. Perhaps the hip-hop legend and businessman has put visions of Microsoft and Starbucks ads dancing in Cano's head as he looks to turn the All-Star second baseman into a marketing icon. Good luck with that.

Cano’s former teammate, outfielder Curtis Granderson was also leaving The Bronx, crossing the RFK Bridge to CitiField in Queens as the newest member of the New York Mets at four years worth $64 million.  Amazing.

And not longer after the draw was complete, news began surfacing that Fox Sports had retained the U.S. rights to the next cycle of the UEFA Champions League.  An announcement, it was said, could come as early as Friday. Saying the process was ongoing, ESPN didn’t comment about reports indicating it hadn’t made a bid, but it could gain some matches via a sublicensing deal.  

Ultimately, no official proclamation was made, but the play smacked of the USGA and Fox announcing their new rights deal for the U.S. Open on the eve of the PGA Championship last August.

Considering how closely the interests of FIFA and UEFA and its 13 World Cup entrants align, it was poor form on a futbol day that should have only celebrated the perceived fates and fortunes of the sides and groups of World Cup 2014. Fox, after all, will be televising the famed FIFA tourney in 2018 and 2022.