Putin and Blatter at the World Cup Draw (All photos Getty)

(WFI) The preliminary draw for the Russia 2018 World Cup has thrown up some tantalising ties, with defending champions Germany set for comfortable qualification.

The draw at St Petersburg’s Konstantin Palace on Saturday was the first milestone of a World Cup that will be played in 11 cities spread around Russia, laying out the road to Russia for 141 teams. FIFA said a global audience of 94.8 million tuned in to watch the show.

In Group C, Germany will face the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino.

The Netherlands, 2010 finalists in South Africa, have the hardest route to Russia. France and Sweden will provide the toughest of tests, with Bulgaria, Belarus, and Luxembourg also vying for the one automatic berth at the World Cup.

The 2006 world champions Italy also have a challenge on their hands, drawn in a group with 2010 champs Spain. Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg are the other opposition.

Elsewhere in Europe, there’s an intriguing rivalry in Group F, with old foes England and Scotland clashing for the first time in World Cup qualifying.

Eight of the top second-placed teams in the nine UEFA groups have the chance to qualify through the playoffs; there are 13 slots up for grabs in all.

Despite growing concerns over the scourge of racism in Russian football, the 2018 host nation’s president Vladimir Putin promised a warm welcome for players and fans. “Our country has a long-standing football history and the World Cup will definitely enhance the game’s reputation,” he said in a speech at the draw ceremony.

“This is a tournament that will be wonderful not only for Russia but for all our neighbouring countries. It is Russia’s great pleasure to be hosting the World Cup, which will offer a great chance to show our country’s many faces to the world.”

FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who was making his first trip abroad since the new bribery and corruption scandal broke in May, described the draw as “an important day in the long and winding road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup”.

“The tournament is very much on track and Russia will be fantastic hosts. But first a much longer competition must take place, lasting no less than 33 months, with over 850 matches,” he said in a short speech.

In CONCACAF, the USA, Mexico and Costa Rica are expected to see off the challenge from the relative minnows to reach Russia.

In Oceania, New Zealand, who impressed at the Brazil 2014 tournament, are favourite to qualify. They are pitted against Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu.

In the CONMEBOL region, Brazil were handed a trip to Copa America champions Chile. Argentina will also strongly fancy their chances of qualifying alongside Uruguay in a tough group. Four-and-a-half slots in Russia are available.

The African Zone is also wide open, believes Cameroon’s leading goalscorer Samuel Eto’o. 

The veteran of four World Cups has his three favourite teams, he told FIFA.com. “Cameroon, obviously. They’re the love of my life. Then there’s Gabon, a country I love, and Côte d’Ivoire, which is half of me, because that’s where my wife is from,” he said.

World Cup qualification is already under way in Asia.

The World Cup qualification period will span 32 months featuring a total of 851 matches (between March 2015 and November 2017). Only then will it be known who will join the Russian hosts in the 32-team line-up at the World Cup.

FIFA has confirmed the dates of the Confederations Cup, the traditional warm-up tournament for its flagship competition when venues and Russia 2018 organisers will be put to the test.

The festival of champions will be staged from June 17 to July 2 in 2017. Eight teams compete: Russia (hosts), Germany (reigning world champions), Asian Cup winners Australia, and Copa América champions Chile have already qualified. Representatives from the other confederations will join them.

The next meeting of the FIFA World Cup Organising Committee meeting will take place in Zurich on March 16.

By INSIDER editor Mark Bisson

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