THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Defending champion Spain was drawn into a difficult qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup on Saturday, pitted against 1998 winner France, Georgia, Belarus and Finland.
Officially kicking off proceedings for what will be the first World Cup in Brazil in 64 years, the draw placed England with 2012 European Championship co-hosts Ukraine and Poland in Group H. Montenegro, Moldova and San Marino also are in the group.
“It will be interesting, there won’t be easy matches,” England coach Fabio Capello said. “England will have to be very careful, especially against Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine.”
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Italy will meet Denmark and the Czech Republic in Group B, while Germany faces Sweden, Austria and Ireland in Group C.
“Sweden and Ireland are very strong teams and that makes the group interesting,” Germany general manager Oliver Bierhoff said.
The draw in Rio de Janeiro determined the path of 166 teams in their bid to qualify for the tournament in three years’ time. It was the first major World Cup event in Brazil since the South American nation was awarded the competition in 2007. As host, Brazil is the only nation that doesn’t have to qualify.
“We are happy to be back in Brazil,” FIFA President Sepp Blatter said.
Fifty-three European nations were divided into nine groups, with the winners automatically qualifying and the eight best group runners-up advancing to a playoff. The European qualifying matches will begin Sept. 7 and end Oct. 15, 2013.
Spain is in a difficult Group I, the only one with five teams instead of six.
The Netherlands, last year’s runner-up in South Africa, was drawn in Group D with Turkey, Hungary and Romania, while Portugal will have to face Russia and Israel in Group F.
Group A has Croatia, Serbia, Belgium and Scotland. Greece will play Slovakia in Group G, while Norway was drawn in Group E with Slovenia and Switzerland.
The United States was drawn with Jamaica in qualifying for the North, Central America and Caribbean region. The other two teams in Group A will come from preliminary qualifying matches that include Haiti, Guatemala, the U.S. Virgin Islands and five other nations.
Canada was drawn in a preliminary stage group against St. Kitts and Nevis, Puerto Rico and St. Lucia.
If Canada advances first in its group, it would join Group C in the qualifying stage, which includes Honduras and Cuba. Mexico is in Group B with Costa Rica. All three group winners and runners-up will advance to a final qualifying round, beginning February 2013.
In Asia, Japan will face Uzbekistan, Syria and North Korea in Group C, while Australia will play Saudi Arabia, Oman and Thailand in Group D.
Iran, Bahrain and Qatar were drawn in the same Group E, along with Indonesia, while China is in Group A with Iraq, Jordan and Singapore.
The African teams were divided into 10 groups for qualifiers beginning in November. South Africa, last year’s World Cup host, was drawn in Group A along with Botswana. Ghana, the best African team last year, is in Group D with Zambia and Sudan.
South America was not included in the draw because the continent’s nine teams will be placed in a single group. They will play each other twice, home and away, with the top four finishers securing a World Cup spot. The fifth-place team will advance to an intercontinental playoff against a team from Asia. The other playoff will pit teams from CONCACAF and Oceania.
The qualifiers began June 15 and will end Nov. 19, 2013, after 824 matches. Twenty-eight teams were eliminated in preliminary rounds before Saturday’s draw.
The World Cup will be played from June 12 to July 13, and the complete match schedule will be announced in October.
“We love football,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said at the draw. “Today, Brazil is admired for more than just football, music and its popular festivities. I invite you to come visit us. You will find a country very well prepared for the World Cup.”
Brazilian media reported that about 1,000 protesters were protesting near the site of the draw against the removal of families from areas where the World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics will be held. Some were also protesting against the nearly $20 million of public funds said to have been spent for Saturday’s event.
Riot troopers and mounted police were negotiating to end the demonstration, which remained peaceful by the time the draw began.
.There were some protesters holding banners criticizing Brazilian football federation president Ricardo Teixeira and FIFA.
The total of 203 teams vying for a World Cup spot surpasses by three the number that participated four years ago. The only associations not to have signed up to compete this time around are Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Guam and Mauritania.
Seven nations have qualified for each of the last six World Cups — Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Spain and the United States. Germany has been the most successful team in World Cup qualifiers so far, with only two losses in 74 matches.
Ronaldo, Neymar, Zico and Zagallo were among the current and past Brazilian players participating in the draw, which also had local artists such as singer Ivete Sangalo. More than 35 coaches and representatives from 104 national teams were in attendance. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Pele and Michel Platini were also at Marina da Gloria harbour in Rio.
Strong wind damaged part of the auditorium holding the draw just before it was to start, but workers fixed the problem in time and the event was not disrupted by the event.