The favorites to win next year’s World Cup in Russia were given navigable paths to the last 16 with the coaches of Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Spain having reason to feel reasonably optimistic after Friday’s draw.
Even hosts Russia, the lowest-ranked of the 32 nations taking part, breathed a sigh of relief after learning they are to open the 21st edition of the tournament against Saudi Arabia before tackling Egypt and Uruguay in Group A.
Holders Germany will open their bid for a fifth title against dark horses Mexico, with Sweden, conquerors of Italy in last month’s playoffs, and South Korea also in Group F.
Five-time champions Brazil have Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia for company in Group E, while Argentina face an intriguing opener against Iceland in Group D.
Lionel Messi’s Argentina, beaten by Germany in the last World Cup final and still awaiting their first title since 1986, will also face Croatia and Nigeria.
While there was no obvious “group of death,” France were handed some tricky fixtures with 10th-ranked Peru, back after a 36-year absence, Denmark and Australia in Group C.
The standout group match will be European champions Portugal against 2010 world champions Spain, although with Morocco and Iran also in Group B they both should progress.
England, who have made next to no impression at the last two World Cups, will face fifth-ranked Belgium in Group G after they have played Tunisia and first-time qualifiers Panama.
Diego Maradona, whose “hand of God” goal for Argentina helped eliminate England in 1986, the last time the South American side won the trophy, drew England’s ball out of the bowl in a draw ceremony featuring several former greats.
“He’s good with his hands,” quipped host Gary Lineker, who played in that match in Mexico.
Seven years after Russia won the vote to host the tournament for the first time, coaches and officials from the qualifiers assembled in the State Kremlin Palace to learn their fate in a lavish draw attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The most coveted trophy will be won by the team showing the most resilience,” Putin said shortly before Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov learned who his side would face.
Cherchesov’s 65th-ranked team will hope to put a smile on the face of Russian sport blighted by doping scandals.
“I cannot say if I am happy or not after the draw,” he said. “The group is what it is. Uruguay have [Edinson] Cavani and [Luis] Suarez, but these are just names. The pitch shows it all.”
Germany, who qualified with a 100 percent record, will be the team to beat, although they face some lengthy trips with matches in Sochi and Kazan following their opener in Moscow.
“I was generally relaxed. There is no reason for us to be nervous,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said.
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