Spain and Portugal, the last two European champions, were drawn yesterday to meet in the first round of the World Cup, one day after Russia open the tournament in one of the easiest groups of the competition.
The Russians will play their first match at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14 against Saudi Arabia – the only team ranked lower than the hosts. Egypt and Uruguay are also in Group A.
Spain, who eliminated Portugal in the last 16 on the way to winning their first World Cup in 2010, will open against the European champions on June 15 in Sochi. Group B also includes Morocco and Iran.
“Everyone wanted to avoid Spain in Pot 2. We inherited it. Thanks for that,” Morocco coach Herve Renard said. “We have to face these two ogres (Spain and Portugal) and do everything to qualify for the last 16, even if it seems very difficult.”
Defending champions Germany will open against Mexico in their quest to become the first country to win back-to-back World Cup titles since Brazil in 1962. The Germans will then face Sweden and South Korea in Group F.
“We got opponents that are not unknown to us,” Germany captain Manuel Neuer said. “That’s what I like best, when we know what to expect.”
Five-time world champions Brazil are in Group E with Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia. That means the Brazilians won’t play any games in its base city of Sochi.
Iceland, the country with the smallest population of the 32 World Cup teams, will face qualifying opponents Croatia in Group D along with Argentina and Nigeria.
“Croatia have an excellent midfield, Nigeria are unpredictable and have some very fast players, and Iceland comes in with little pressure,” Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said.
Another newcomer, Panama, will take on England, Tunisia and Belgium in Group G.
“We’ve been good at writing off teams and then getting beaten by them,” said England coach Gareth Southgate, who is preparing for his first tournament leading the team.
ANOTHER WCUP DEBUT
Roberto Martinez will also be making his World Cup debut. But the Belgium coach knows England well after spending two decades there as a coach and player.
“It is going to be one of those games with no secrets,” said Martinez, a former Everton manager. “We have 25 players in the British game. That brings that understanding. That brings that competitive level.”
Peru, the last of the 32 teams to qualify for Russia, are in Group C with 1998 champions France, Australia and Denmark.
“It could have been worse,” France coach Didier Deschamps said.
The only group without a former World Cup champion is Group H, which is made up of Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the draw ceremony at the Kremlin, seven years after landing the hosting rights. Putin urged fans to visit and enjoy his “big and multi-faceted” country, a rallying cry which follows concerns about racism and hooliganism.
“We will do everything to make it a major sporting festival,” Putin said, looking forward to a World Cup of “friendship and fair play, values that do not change with time.”