World champions Germany avoided facing some of their strongest rivals when the draw for the European qualifying groups for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia was made on Saturday.
Germany, who won the World Cup for the fourth time in Brazil last year, will face the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino in Group C.
Uefa’s decision to place their six top-seeded teams — Germany, France, England, Italy, Spain and Netherlands — in six-team groups rather than five-team groups to maximize revenue from TV and commercial opportunities, threw up tough draws for four of those countries.
Netherlands and France were drawn in Group A, along with Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg, while Spain, world champions in 2010, and Italy, who won the last of their four titles in 2006, were also drawn together. The Spaniards will also face Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein in Group G.
England, whose only World Cup win came in 1966, were paired with their oldest rivals Scotland in Group F, along with Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta.
The nine group winners qualify automatically for the finals while the eight best runners-up will go into a playoff round of four two-legged home-and-away ties with the four winners going through.
Hosts Russia qualify automatically meaning 14 European teams will be in the finals in three years’ time.
Fifa and Sepp Blatter put their corruption crisis aside and got back to World Cup business at the 2018 tournament qualifying draw hosted by Vladimir Putin in a Russian state residence on Saturday.
The two presidents joined on stage for speeches to open a draw ceremony that is the Fifa leadership’s first major public event since American and Swiss criminal investigations of corruption in world football were unsealed two months ago.
"Thank you President Putin, you make us happy and comfortable," said Blatter, making his first trip outside his native Switzerland since mid-May. He has avoided Fifa business in countries which have extradition treaties with the United States.
Putin and Blatter got a standing ovation from Russian and football officials and guests when they walked on stage together in a temporary venue built in the splendid grounds of Konstantin Palace.
"We are here to launch a football marathon," Putin said through a translator, of a 32-team tournament that will kick off in almost three years’ time after around 850 qualifying matches. "It is a good chance to visit a multi-faceted and open Russia that can surprise and inspire," Putin said.