World Cup qualifying draw: Spain land Italy in group stages
The draw for the preliminary stages of the 2018 World Cup has been taken with France taking on Netherlands, Spain and Italy drawn in the same group and England finding themselves placed with Scotland.
Germany will start defending their World Cup title in a six-team UEFA pool where the Czech Republic seems the biggest barrier to advancing as group winners.
"I'm happy that we won't play against France or Italy," said former German international and current team official Oliver Bierhoff.
Italy, the 2006 world champions, paid the price for recent poor results by being drawn once again in qualifying with 2010 winner Spain in Saturday's ceremony at Konstantin Palace.
"It will be very stimulating for our team," Italy coach Antonio Conte said through a translator in St. Petersburg. "Spain is very strong."
Spain ended Italy's European Championship hopes in the 2008 and 2012 finals before they both embarrassingly exited the last World Cup in the group stage.
"The World Cup was a slight misadventure, the same as for us," Conte said. "At the moment, they are constructing something new."
Perhaps the toughest European group puts the Netherlands with France and Sweden, whose star forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic has perhaps his last chance to play again on football's biggest stage.
"It's not really easy to think after the draw, do we qualify for the next World Cup?" France coach Didier Deschamps said. "It won't be very easy."
Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal got a more favourable draw with Switzerland their highest-ranked rival.
In the CONCACAF portion of the draw, sport mixed with politics as the U.S. will travel to Trinidad and Tobago, where indicted former FIFA vice president Jack Warner is fighting extradition to America.
Opening the draw, FIFA paired four continents whose teams take part in two-leg playoffs in November 2017 that will complete the World Cup lineup. A CONCACAF team will face an Asian team, and Oceania's best will play a South American team.
FIFA gathered football officials -- including outgoing president Sepp Blatter -- from around the world to the coastal parkland setting on the south-west fringe of Vladimir Putin's home city. The palace previously hosted world political leaders for meetings of the G8 and G20 nations.
A total of 141 of FIFA's 209 member federations were involved in the draw, including top-ranked Argentina, joint No. 207-ranked Djibouti and Cook Islands, plus South Sudan on their World Cup debut.
The 2018 World Cup kicks off on June 14 and the final is on July 15. Those matches are at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, the main venue of the 1980 Olympics which is being rebuilt for the world's most-watched sports event.
The qualifiers begin in September 2016 and run through to November 2017.
First round: Ties to be played October 2015:
Third round: Ties to be played September 2015:
Ties to played between November 2015 and September 2016. The winners and runners-up advance into Round Five.
Next month a group tournament between American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga will be played with the winner advancing to Group A. The group matches will be played May to June 2016 with the group winners, runners-up and third placed teams advancing.
The six teams who qualify will be placed into two groups of three. The winners of the groups playoff to qualify for the intercontinental playoff.
Ties to be played November 2017: