MOSCOW, Dec 2, (Agencies): The favourites to win next year’s World Cup in Russia were given a fairly straightforward path to the last 16 with the coaches of Germany, Brazil, France, Argentina and Spain among those likely to feel relaxed after Friday’s draw.
Hosts Russia, despite being the lowest-ranked of the 32 nations taking part, were also breathing a sigh of relief, after learning they will open the tournament against Saudi Arabia before facing Egypt and Uruguay.
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.
Ever-present five-times champions Brazil, who will be playing in their 21st World Cup, have Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia for company in Group E while Argentina face an intriguing opening match against debutants Iceland in Group D.
The standout match in the opening group games will be European champions Portugal against 2010 world champions Spain, who will be anxious to make up for their flop in 2014.
Panama, the other nation preparing for a first World Cup adventure, were drawn in Group G with Belgium, England and Tunisia. England were drawn out by Argentina great Diego Mardaona, famous for his ‘Hand of God’ goal against them.
France, winners in 1998, face Australia in their Group C opener, with Peru and Denmark making up a testing section.
Seven years after Russia won the vote to host the tournament for the first time, coaches and officials from all the qualifiers, assembled in the State Kremlin Palace to learn their fate in a quickfire draw attended by 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.
“I wish success to all the teams and I call upon all loyal fans to come to Russia and enjoy the finals of 2018.”
Germany, who qualified for the tournament with a 100 percent record, will be the team to beat in Russia, although they face some lengthy trips with matches in Moscow, Sochi and Kazan.
“At such a draw everything is possible. Whatever the group, we have to advance. I was generally relaxed. There is no reason for us to be nervous,” Germany coach Joachim Loew said.
Lionel Messi’s Argentina, beaten by Germany in the last World Cup final and still awaiting their first title since 1986, will face Croatia and Nigeria as well as Iceland.
The top two teams from each of the eight groups go through to the last 16 knockout phase.
Russia, and soccer’s world governing body FIFA, have both been through torrid times since the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
While Russia’s sporting reputation has been dragged through the mud by a “state-sponsored” doping scandal, which threatens their participation at the 2018 Winter Olympics, FIFA has been engulfed in a corruption scandal that forced former president Sepp Blatter to stand down.
Blatter’s successor Gianni Infantino presided over his first World Cup draw ceremony in snowbound Moscow on Friday and would have been relieved that it went off without any hitches.
Unlike previous laborious draw ceremonies, Friday’s spectacle cracked along at a rapid pace after speeches by Putin and Infantino and a display of traditional Russian dancing.
The draw, involving 32 balls in four pots being placed in the eight groups, was presided over by former England turned TV presenter Gary Lineker and Russian journalist Maria Komandnaya.
Japan will face a tough task to finish in the top two of Group H that features Robert Lewandowski’s Poland, Sadio Mane’s Senegal and Colombia.
The tournament that spans 11 cities and 12 stadiums kicks off when host nation Russia take on Saudi Arabia on June 14 in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, which will also host the final on July 15.
The ceremony was staged inside the State Kremlin Palace, where Communist Party Congresses were held during the Soviet era.
President Putin said Russia had a “strong affection” for football.
“Our country is looking forward to the championship and intends to hold it at the highest level,” Putin said.
The build-up to the tournament has been somewhat overshadowed by the controversy that surrounded the awarding of the tournament to Russia, and by fears of terrorism and hooliganism, as well as of Putin’s relations with the West.
The draw also came just as Russia is dealing with allegations of widespread doping in other sports, including when it hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics.
But Infantino denied that doping was a problem in football.
“If you would have a serious doping issue in football this would be known by now, whether in Russia or any other country of the world,” he said at a press conference.