MOSCOW — Spain and Portugal, the last two European champions, were drawn Friday to meet in the first round of the World Cup, one day after Russia opens the tournament in one of the easiest groups of the competition.
The Russians will play their first match at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14 against Saudi Arabia — the only team ranked lower than the hosts. Egypt and Uruguay are also in Group A.
Spain, which eliminated Portugal in the last 16 on the way to winning its first World Cup in 2010, will open against the European champions on June 15 in Sochi. Group B also includes Morocco and Iran.
“Everyone wanted to avoid Spain in Pot 2. We inherited it. Thanks for that,” Morocco coach Herve Renard said. “We have to face these two ogres (Spain and Portugal) and do everything to qualify for the last 16, even if it seems very difficult.”
Defending champion Germany will open against Mexico in its quest to become the first country to win back-to-back World Cup titles since Brazil in 1962. The Germans will then face Sweden and South Korea in Group F.
“We got opponents that are not unknown to us,” Germany captain Manuel Neuer said. “That’s what I like best, when we know what to expect.”
Five-time world champion Brazil is in Group E with Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia. That means the Brazilians won’t play any games in its base city of Sochi.
“We couldn’t control that,” Brazil coach Tite said. “Despite the (travel) distances, there are quick way to get there.”
(The map above shows the nations involved in the 2018 World Cup with their group on the marker icon. Click the icon for more information about each nation’s current ranking and past World Cup participation.)
Iceland, the country with the smallest population of the 32 World Cup teams, will face qualifying opponent Croatia in Group D along with Argentina and Nigeria.
“Croatia has an excellent midfield, Nigeria is unpredictable and has some very fast players, and Iceland comes in with little pressure,” Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said.
Another newcomer, Panama, will take on England, Tunisia and Belgium in Group G.
“We’ve been good at writing off teams and then getting beaten by them,” said England coach Gareth Southgate, who is preparing for his first tournament leading the team.
Roberto Martinez will also be making his World Cup debut. But the Belgium coach knows England well after spending two decades there as a coach and player.
“It is going to be one of those games with no secrets,” said Martinez, a former Everton manager. “We have 25 players in the British game. That brings that understanding. That brings that competitive level.”
Peru, the last of the 32 teams to qualify for Russia, is in Group C with 1998 champion France, Australia and Denmark.
“It could have been worse,” France coach Didier Deschamps said.
The only group without a former World Cup champion is Group H, which is made up of Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin opened the draw ceremony at the Kremlin, seven years after landing the hosting rights. Putin urged fans to visit and enjoy his “big and multi-faceted” country, a rallying cry which follows concerns about racism and hooliganism.
“We will do everything to make it a major sporting festival,” Putin said, looking forward to a World Cup of “friendship and fair play, values that do not change with time.”
The Olympic doping scandal surrounding Russia hung over the final countdown to the draw. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who is the head of the World Cup organizing committee, defended himself against accusations that he helped to orchestrate state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“Nowadays everyone is trying to make some kind of axis of evil out of us, just because we’re a great sporting power,” Mutko said.
The International Olympic Committee executive board will decide on Tuesday whether to ban Russia from the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics.
— with files from Graham Dunbar and James Ellingworth