World Cup draw pits political foes together
DURBAN, South Africa -- Politics and soccer will mix in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, which can't make FIFA happy.
South and North Korea will meet in Asian qualifying for the tournament, and the United States could face Cuba in the CONCACAF semifinals.
England also was drawn with the same Croatia team that stopped it from qualifying for the European Championship earlier in the week.
The qualifying draw for the 2010 World Cup on Sunday began the countdown to the event in South Africa, the first World Cup to be held in Africa.
FIFA, soccer's world organizing body, insists that politics and sports should not come together. It might be difficult to separate the two after this draw.
The Americans have a first-round bye before they play the winner of an opening-round series between Barbados and Dominica. The U.S. team will be heavily favored to make the semifinals, where the Cubans could be waiting. Cuba will play the winner of the Aruba-Antigua and Barbuda opening series.
Cuba and the United States have not met in World Cup qualifying since 1949 in Mexico, when the Americans went 1-0-1 against the Cubans to advance to the tournament in Brazil.
Veteran U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller pulled his team's name out.
"There is no easy draw as players and teams continue to improve," Keller said. The team's goal, he said, was to qualify for this "most historic World Cup ... the motivation is there for our players to make sure we grasp that with both hands."
Mexico heads CONCACAF Group Two and will play the winner of Belize vs. St. Kitts and Nevis in the second round.
Six teams will make the CONCACAF finals, with the top three in round-robin play during that round moving into the World Cup field. The fourth-place team from the regional finals will play the fifth-place club from South America for another spot in the tournament.
South American qualifying has already started, with the teams having played four rounds of matches.
The highlight of the Asian leg of the draw was the 2008 meetings of North and South Korea. The neighbors, who fought a war in the early 1950s and remain political foes -- although relations have warmed a bit in recent years -- are grouped with Jordan and Turkmenistan completing the group.
When Croatia was drawn into England's Group Six in Europe, there were applause in the auditorium. And gasps.
"Everyone in Croatia was saying 'Give us England again,' but I wanted to avoid England," said Croatia coach Slaven Bilic, who masterminded his team's home and away victories over the English in Euros 2008 qualifying.
"It is a very, very hard draw because they are by far the best team from the second pot. The only team I wanted to avoid was England. We are not afraid of them, but they have got a terrific team and brilliant players. They should jell and they are going to jell."
The other teams in World Cup Group 6 are Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Andorra. Ukraine was in the 2006 tournament and made the quarterfinals.
Italy, which won its fourth world title last year, was satisfied by the sight of Bulgaria, Ireland, Cyprus, Georgia and newcomer Montenegro in its qualifying group. None of those teams has ever made it to a major championship game.
"Bulgaria, Ireland, Georgia and Montenegro are countries that do not have a great soccer tradition, but they are difficult teams," Italy coach Roberto Donadoni said.
"On paper, Bulgaria could be the one that competes with us for qualification. Like all countries from the former Yugoslavia, Montenegro is a stubborn team. Let's not even talk about Ireland. We are familiar with Georgia, having faced them in qualifying for the European Championship."
Three-time World Cup winner Germany has Russia, Finland and Wales as its toughest opponents, and there are relatively easy tasks for Spain and the Netherlands, who also will be among the main contenders from Europe.
France, a World Cup winner in 1998 and runner-up to Italy last year, is in probably the toughest European group, with Romania and Serbia to deal with.
Only the winners of each of the nine European groups are guaranteed spots in the finals. The eight best runners-up will move on to playoffs for the other four spots.
Jean-Pierre Escalettes, president of the French football federation, was satisfied with the outcome.
"It's never easy, but it could have been worse," he said. "Romania is solid, Serbia is solid. Austria, you never know what they are capable of doing. We will do everything to finish first."
Greece, which defends its European title next year, must play Israel, Switzerland, Moldova, Latvia and Luxembourg in Group Two.
Australia, which lost on a disputed penalty kick in the second round to Italy at last year's World Cup, switched from Oceania to get a better chance of reaching the tournament. But the Socceroos have long journeys for tough games against China, Iraq and Qatar.
The five winners and five runners-up move to another stage of group games to decide four Asian qualifiers for the tournament. A fifth will take part in a playoff with a side from Oceania, which has already begun qualifying play.
Host South Africa doesn't have to qualify, but was still in the draw because it doubles as qualifying for the African Cup of Nations, which takes place in Ghana next year.
Five African group winners will advance to the championship.