RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, July 31 – Fortune shone on England at the 2014 World Cup draw as defending champions Spain and 1998 winners France were locked on a collision course in the race for the Brazil finals.
England, one of the top seeds, on Saturday were drawn with Euro 2012 rivals Montenegro, Ukraine, Poland and makeweights Moldova and San Marino in Group H.
If England slip up then they will have to go through the playoffs for one of four remaining berths, assuming they at least finish as one of the best eight runners-up in the nine groups across the continent.
“I am confident,” said England manager Fabio Capello, who will be stepping down after Euro 2012.
“But it’s not going to be easy. Ukraine and Montenegro are going to be tough.”
While the 1966 champions had little cause to feel hard done by it was a different story for France, drawn in the same group as world and European champions Spain.
Belarus, Georgia and Finland make up their Group I.
“Three years is a long time and 2014 isn’t now. Spain are currently the best team there is. But we don’t know if that will be the case in two or three years time,” said France coach Laurent Blanc.
Brazil are pre-qualified as hosts, but for hundreds of millions of fans from around the world watching the draw unfold there was tension as they waited on their teams’ fate.
Scotland were drawn with a Wales side whose recent slide down the rankings has them lower in the standings than the Faroe Islands. The pair will face off with Croatia, Serbia, Belgium and Macedonia in Group A.
Also in Europe, 2010 runners-up Holland will face Turkey — coached by Dutchman Guus Hiddink — Hungary, Romania, Estonia and Andorra in Group D.
Four-time champions Italy are in Group B with difficult matches against Denmark and the Czech Republic standing in their way with Bulgaria, Armenia and Malta also in the section.
Three-time winners Germany lead Group C with tricky ties with Sweden and Ireland in prospect while Austria, Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan make up the pool.
“The players love playing in Ireland – it’s always a great atmosphere. On paper they are behind Sweden but we see them as being as strong as Sweden,” said Germany assistant coach Oliver Bierhoff.
Group E features Norway, Slovenia, Switzerland, Albania, Cyprus and Iceland while Group F pits Portugal against 2018 hosts Russia, Israel, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.
Former European champions Greece are in Group G with Slovakia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lithuania, Latvia and Leichtenstein.
Saturday’s draw for the 20th World Cup featured a total of 166 nations and was made 91 years to the day since the first final saw Uruguay emerge as champions.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter opened the occasion at Rio’s Marina, a stone’s throw from the Copacabana beach, by noting that “Brazil holds a special place in the world of football”.
“We are happy to be back in Brazil because it is now 61 years since the last World Cup was organised in Brazil. We look forward to an exciting World Cup.”
Before the main draw, the fifth-placed team in South American qualifying was drawn to play the fifth-placed team in Asian qualifying for a finals place.
The the leading nation from Oceania was selected to meet the fourth-ranked country from the North, Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) zone.
CONCACAF gets three guaranteed places plus one play-off berth, while Oceania’s 11 countries are fighting for just a single place via that same play-off.
Africa will have five qualifiers and in the draw West African giants Ghana and Ivory Coast were handed tough tasks.
Ghana, quarter-final losers on penalties to Uruguay in 2010, will face formidable Zambia and Sudan plus minnows Lesotho or Burundi in one of 10 second-round groups.
Ivory Coast, seeking a third consecutive finals appearance, drew the second seed no one wanted — Morocco — in a mini-league completed by Gambia and Chad or Tanzania
In Asia, reigning Asian champions Japan and North Korea came out together.
Australia’s bid to qualify for a third successive finals begins in Group D, where they will take on Saudi Arabia, Oman and Thailand.
“I’m massive fan of all three countries and I respect them a lot,” said Australian star Tim Cahill.
South Korea, who were semi-finalists on home soil in 2002, are in Group B alongside Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon.
China are in Group A with Jordan, Iraq and Singapore.
In Group E, Iran, bidding to qualify for a fourth finals, may be favourites, but Bahrain, who lost out to New Zealand in a playoff for the 2010 competition, and 2022 hosts Qatar will be keen to make an impression.
The top two nations from each of the five groups go through before the 10 surviving teams split into two groups, with the leading two nations in each progressing to the finals.