Rio draw pits Spain against France
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The road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ shifted firmly into focus as 166 countries around the globe discovered the challenges ahead at the Preliminary Draw in Rio de Janeiro.
Eighty-one years to the day since Uruguay became the first team to win the Jules Rimet Trophy on home soil in Montevideo, world football’s biggest prize was in the limelight once more and if FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, in his introductory speech, described football as Brazil’s “beating heart”, there were pulses accelerating inside the Marina da Gloria and far beyond as the draw unfolded.

Some of the greats of Brazilian football helped FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke in conducting the draw – including Bebeto, Cafu, Ronaldo, Mario Zagallo and Zico – and it threw up some intriguing contests, not least in the European Zone where holders Spain were drawn against France, winners in 1998, in Group I. These rivals last met in the second round of the 2006 finals in Germany where France won 3-1 en route to the final. The third seeds in Group I are Belarus who have taken four points off France in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying.

Four-times winners Italy will face Denmark in Group B, Germany, the most successful team in qualifying history, must tackle Sweden in Group C, while England – 45 years to the day of their 1966 FIFA World Cup triumph – were pitted against Ukraine and Poland, the co-hosts of next year’s UEFA European Championship, as well as a Montenegro side they are currently competing against for a place at the European finals.

In the African Zone, a Côte d’Ivoire side who were present at Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010 will face Morocco – four-time finalists and the first African side to win a World Cup match – in Group C of qualifying Round Two. As for Ghana, quarter-finalists in South Africa, they will count Zambia as their most formidable rival in Group D.
Zico, the one-time coach of Japan, helped make the draw for Round Three of the Asian qualifying competition and his old team must pit their wits against Korea DPR in Group B – a potentially daunting section given these were two of the region’s four South Africa 2010 representatives and they must also face Uzbekistan. In Group D, an Australia side chasing a third successive finals appearance will face Saudi Arabia.

In the CONCACAF Zone, Mexico will face a Costa Rica team led by their former coach Ricardo La Volpe in Group B of preliminary Round Three. The duo could also find themselves up against 2006 finalists Trinidad and Tobago should they prevail in Round Two Group B. USA’s opponents in their section will include the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica.

In Oceania, New Zealand – who went home from South Africa 2010 as the only unbeaten team – may not have it all their own way in Group B where they find themselves up against a traditionally strong Fiji side, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Should New Zealand prevail in Oceania qualifying they would face CONCACAF opposition in the Intercontinental play-offs while teams from Asia and South America would contest the other play-off. The South American group is as always save for the absence of Brazil, who qualifying automatically.

A record 203 teams will be competing in the preliminary competition for Brazil 2014 – a number that will be whittled down to the 31 who will join the hosts for the 20th FIFA World Cup finals which kick off on Thursday 12 June 2014.