The 2014 World Cup officially kicked off with the draw for the tournament at Rio de Janeiro, and there are no easy paths to Brazil.
2014 World Cup draw leaves 'no easy matches' to Brazil
The World Cup qualifying draw Sunday at Rio de Janeiro has thrown up an intriguing contest between Spain, the World champions, and France, the 1998 winners.
The European heavyweights have been drawn together in Group I, along with Georgia, Belarus and Finland for the 2014 tournament - the first World Cup in Brazil in 64 years.
Officially kicking off proceedings for the tournament, the draw placed England with the 2012 European Championship co-hosts Ukraine and Poland in Group H.
Italy will meet Denmark and the Czech Republic in Group B, while Germany face Sweden, Austria and Ireland in Group C.
Spain and England were the final two teams to find out their qualifying opponents in the draw, and either one had a chance to end up in France's group.
"Either one would be difficult, but getting Spain was worse," Laurent Blanc, the France coach, said of the European champions. "Spain still will be one of the best teams in the world by 2014."
Fifty-three European nations were divided into nine groups, with the winners automatically qualifying and the eight best group runners-up advancing to a play-off. The European qualifying matches will begin on September 7 and end on October 15, 2013.
Group I is the only one with five teams instead of six.
"Apparently, France is the toughest rival in the group, but it would be dangerous and a grave mistake to underestimate the other teams," Vicente del Bosque, the Spain coach, told the news agency, Efe. "We have to respect all our rivals ... you can't take anyone for granted."
The draw in Rio de Janeiro determined the path of 166 teams in their bid to qualify for the tournament. Brazil, as the hosts, are the only nation that does not have to qualify.
"We are happy to be back in Brazil," Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, said.
Montenegro, Moldova and San Marino also are in England's group.
"It will be interesting, there won't be easy matches," Fabio Capello, the England coach, said. "England will have to be very careful, especially against Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine."
Oliver Bierhoff, the Germany general manager, was expecting a difficult time in Group C, which also has the Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan.
"Sweden and Ireland are very strong teams and that makes the group interesting," Bierhoff said.
Italy also were likely to have a tough time in their group, which includes Bulgaria, Armenia and Malta.
"About a year before qualifying actually begins it's very hard to judge our chances," Michal Bilek, the Czech Republic coach, said. "At the moment it looks like there's no clear favourite in the group. Italy is undergoing certain changes but it could be different next year."
Lothar Matthaeus, the Bulgaria coach, acknowledged his team will be an underdog.
"Other groups were definitely easier," he said. "It's never good when you have to play against Italy. We are outsiders, but hopefully we can surprise everyone in the end."
Holland, last year's runner-up in South Africa, were 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 were 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 US Virgin Islands and five other nations.
Mexico are in Group B with Costa Rica, while Cuba and Honduras are in Group C. 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 are 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 hosts, were drawn in Group A along with Botswana. Ghana, the best African team last year, are in Group D with Zambia and Sudan. Egypt have Guinea and Zimbabwe in Group G, and Cameroon face Libya in Group I. Morocco are pitted against Ivory Coast in Group C.
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 play-off against a team from Asia. The other play-off will pit teams from Concacaf and Oceania.
The qualifiers began June 15 and will end November 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.
Brazilian media reported that about 1,000 people held a protest 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.