RIO DE JANEIRO, July 29, 2011 (AFP) - The countdown to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil starts Saturday when FIFA holds the preliminary draw for the 20th edition of the world's top sporting event.
In all, some 200 countries will have ploughed through 824 qualifiers for the right to claim one of 32 berths at the extravaganza in three years' time.
|AFP - FIFA's President Joseph S. Blatter (R) and Rio de Janeiro's Major Eduardo Paes pose at City Palace in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 29, 2011|
In the run-up to the draw, to be held at Rio's Marina a stone's throw from the famed Copacabana Beach, FIFA president Sepp Blatter promised that "Brazil and FIFA will together offer an exceptional World Cup in 2014. Brazil is the country of football."
But first, the teams have to qualify -- save for the hosts and five-times champions.
Brazil will join France, Germany, Italy and Mexico in hosting the event twice while the tournament will be the second in succession to be held in the southern hemisphere after South Africa 2010.
A number of big names from the Brazilian game -- past and present -- will attend Saturday's event.
They include Ronaldo, former Brazil coach Mario Zagallo, Zico and also current starlet Neymar, while pop star Ivete Sangalo and composer Daniel Jobim will look to ensure the event goes with a swing.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is also expected to be on hand.
FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke will conduct the draw in a city which two years after the competition will host South America's first Olympic Games.
South America last hosted the World Cup at Argentina 1978, since when Brazil have added two crowns to take their haul to a record five, Italy have added a pair to lift their tally to four and Germany have recorded a third, while France and Spain have both joined the winners club.
The African and Asian game has also come on leaps and bounds with Ghana making the last eight last year, following Senegal in 2002 and Cameroon in 1990, while Japan reached the second phase last time out.
Since Brazil was awarded the event in 2007, questions have been asked, as was the case with South Africa, as to whether the huge country of 190 million will have its venues ready and security in place in time for the big kickoff.
For now, the hosts, qualified by dint of staging the event, have three years to finalise their plans -- which include a multimillion dollar revamp of the mythical Maracana Stadium in downtown Rio.
Valcke said Thursday that the Maracana will host the final -- though a senior FIFA spokesman later indicated the decision must still be ratified by the organisation in October.
In South America itself, the qualifying formula is simple - everyone plays each other in an 18-game programme with four guaranteed places available - as well as Brazil - plus one via the playoffs held at the end of the two-year process.
Elsewhere, most notably in Europe, the process has to be broken down into smaller groups whose composition will be revealed Saturday.
Europe, which will have nine seeds, will be awarded 13 places with 53 teams competing in the qualifiers comprising eight groups of six and one group of five.
The group winners will qualify along with the eight best runners-up going into four two-legged playoffs with the winners advancing.
Asia had 43 teams scrapping for four or five berths, the last one decided through a playoff, and Africa will have five berths available for 52 teams from a continent yet to land the ultimate prize.
A total of 35 North, Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) teams were fighting for three guaranteed plus one play-off berth, while Oceania's best finisher from 11 countries will get a place only via a play-off.
Come the actual finals, 12 cities from an original pool of 17 candidates will host matches.