Russia prepares for World Cup draw amidst FIFA crisis
SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia - Preparations for Russia's 2018 World Cup will get officially underway with the qualification draw across five confederations taking place Saturday just as FIFA continues to reel from a corruption scandal.
Sepp Blatter confirmed earlier this week that he will step down as president after 17 years at the head of the game's governing body when a new president is elected at an extraordinary elective congress on February 26.
Blatter was showered with fake dollar bills by a prankster at a press conference Monday as he outlined reforms for the disgraced organization including limits on terms for leaders, tougher background checks on executive committee members and the publication of salaries of top officials.
The 79-year-old's decision to step down just days after winning a fifth term as president in June came on the back of corruption charges being filed in the USA against seven FIFA officials.
The 7 are among 14 people - soccer officials and sports business executives - accused by US authorities of receiving over more than $150 million in bribes to secure television and marketing contracts for football tournaments.
Swiss authorities have also launched an investigation into the process which saw Russia and Qatar awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively.
However, Russia is pressing ahead with its preparations to host the largest single-event competition in world sport with Russian President Vladimir Putin expected to share the stage with Blatter during Saturday's draw.
Moscow has attempted to portray the US corruption probe as a Western-orchestrated attempt to strip Russia of its right to host the event.
Billions of dollars will be poured into infrastructure projects as well as providing the 12 stadiums across 11 host cities to welcome the tournament between June 14 and July 15, 2018.
The draw will involve 141 national sides from all but the Asian confederation as their qualification process has already begun.
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 drawn at the Konstantin Palace on Saturday will progress along with the winners of four playoff matches between the eight best second-placed sides.
Africa's 5 representatives will be decided by the winners of five groups of 4 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 3 direct entrants, whilst the Asian confederation retains its 4 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.
A draw will also determine which confederations are paired together in the playoffs.