CAPE TOWN // Brazil have been drawn into the toughest group for next year's World Cup in South Africa, facing Portugal and Côte d'Ivoire in the first round. Brazil will face two teams in the top 16 of Fifa's rankings as well as North Korea in Group G. Algeria, the only Arab nation at the finals, were drawn with England, Slovenia and the USA. The north Africans will start in the northern town of Polokwane against Slovenia on June 12, the third day of competition.
The defending champions Italy are in Group F with Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. Spain, the European champions, were drawn into one of the easiest groups, facing Switzerland, Honduras and Chile, while France will face hosts South Africa in Group A, which also includes Mexico and Uruguay. The hosts will kick off the 2010 World Cup football finals against Mexico on June 11, but the inclusion of France in their group threatens early elimination for the home side. There were gasps from the audience in Cape Town when France's name was read out at the live draw, presented by the South African actress Charlize Theron and Fifa general secretary Jerome Valcke, last night.
It means the unseeded French avoided any of the major contenders and has left the first-round groupings decidedly mild. While Brazil's group is likely to be termed "The Group of Death", major seeds such as Argentina, Germany, Italy and Spain look to have avoided a really tough start to the competition. "It's a very tough group, we didn't expect an easy one," said South Africa's iconic defender Matthew Booth, one of the assistants at the draw. Organisers had feared a tough start for the hosts, whose form over the last two years has been poor. Early elimination for South Africa could spark a massive loss of interest in their own tournament.
Brazil's first game is against North Korea, the maverick side who are at the finals for only the second time. They will meet in Johannesburg on June 14. The German coach, Joachim Low, smiled as his country drew Australia and Ghana but grimaced when Serbia were the last addition to the group. Former England players and coaches were delighted with the team's draw with Terry Venables said that the draw was "as good as we could have expected." In Cape Town, the England coach Fabio Capello called it "one of the more well-balanced groups," but said his team would "have to be careful.» England will open against the Americans on June 12 in Rustenburg, then face Algeria in Cape Town on June 18 and Slovenia in Port Elizabeth on June 23. Former England captain David Beckham, also taking part in the draw, said: "It's just an honour and a privilege to be at the first finals in Africa". The ceremony included a televised address to the world from former South African president Nelson Mandela. The country's current president Jacob Zuma appeared on stage to make the bold prediction that the trophy would stay in Africa after the continent staged the tournament for the first time. * With agencies
GROUP A 1. South Africa 2. Mexico 3. Uruguay 4. France GROUP B 1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. South Korea 4. Greece GROUP C 1. England 2. United States 3. Algeria 4. Slovenia GROUP D 1. Germany 2. Australia 3. Serbia 4. Ghana GROUP E 1. Netherlands 2. Denmark 3. Japan 4. Cameroon GROUP F 1. Italy 2. Paraguay 3. New Zealand 4. Slovakia GROUP G 1. Brazil 2. North Korea 3. Côte d'Ivoire 4. Portugal GROUP H 1. Spain 2. Switzerland 3. Honduras 4. Chile