COSTA DO SAUIPE, Brazil (AP) — France was perhaps the biggest beneficiary when FIFA decided on its procedure for the World Cup draw Tuesday, as the team now has better odds of avoiding Brazil and Argentina.
As the lowest-ranked of nine unseeded European qualifiers, France was expected to go in the Africa-dominated draw pot — meaning it could not be placed in the same group as a top-seeded European team.
But instead of following its format from the 2006 World Cup, FIFA decided that all nine European teams enter an open ballot which starts the draw ceremony on Friday.
That team selected will effectively enter Pot 2 alongside the five African teams, plus Chile and Ecuador.
France could yet face the top South Americans but now also has the unexpected chance of drawing seeded Switzerland or Belgium.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter said the decision followed talks with confederation presidents, including UEFA's French president Michel Platini. However, he sidestepped a question asking him to explain a procedure that seemingly ignored FIFA's own precedent and favored France.
"Let us (hold the) draw and not let us speak of teams," Blatter said.
FIFA traditionally tries to create pots based on geography, so that groups will include teams from up to four different continents and avoiding scenarios where three European teams get grouped together. For the 2006 tournament — the last time there were nine unseeded European teams — Serbia and Montenegro was the lowest-ranked team from the continent. That time, FIFA put it in a separate pot, and Serbia and Montenegro found itself in the toughest group: with Argentina, Netherlands and Ivory Coast.
The eight top-ranked teams in Pot 1 also include Colombia, Uruguay, Germany and Spain. The five African teams in Pot 2 are Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria, while Pot 3 includes the teams from the Asian and CONCACAF regions — Australia, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico and the United States.
In other decisions Tuesday, FIFA's World Cup organizing committee declined to switch early kickoff times in tropical cities despite concerns by the international players' union over the heat and humidity.
Blatter had suggested in Rome last month that seven 1 p.m. kickoff times in Fortaleza, Natal, Recife and Salvador could be re-evaluated.
FIFPro, the international players' union, had formally asked FIFA to consider moving the matches to later in the day.
"We were perfectly aware of the weather conditions when this match schedule was organized," FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke said of the October 2011 agreement. "It was done in a professional way."
Valcke confirmed FIFA's budgeted commitment to increase World Cup prize money by around one-third, but the exact breakdown will be decided later this week.
FIFA shared $348 million among the 32 national federations in 2010, including $30 million to Spain for winning and a minimum of $8 million to each team.
FIFA has previously said the prize fund will be $454 million next year.