| Michael Schumacher, Sepp Blatter, Pele and Franz Beckenbauer at Saturday’s preliminary draw function for the 2006 World Cup in Frankfurt. (AP)
Frankfurt, Dec. 6 (Reuters): The 2006 World Cup came sharply into focus on Friday when 157 hopeful nations were paired or grouped with each other to launch a long battle to join hosts Germany in the finals.
Former world champions France, among the early favourites despite their flop at last year’s finals, were placed in the same group as Ireland, Switzerland, Israel, Cyprus and the Faroe Islands — less than a week after being grouped with Switzerland in next year’s European Championship finals in Portugal.
The Netherlands were curiously grouped with the Czech Republic after playing them in the qualifiers for Euro 2004 — and after being grouped with them again at last week’s Euro 2004 finals draw in Lisbon.
Italy, who along with France, Spain and England were ranked among the top seeded European nations, face a challenge from Slovenia, Scotland, Norway, Belarus and Moldova.
England will face British rivals Wales and Northern Ireland — and renew hostilities with their old rivals Poland for the fifth time in the qualifiers. Austria and Azerbaijan complete the group.
Spain will face Belgium, Lithuania, San Marino, Serbia & Montenegro and the Serbs’ neighbours Bosnia.
Other highlights of the European draw saw old rivals Turkey and Greece placed together while Portugal will meet Russia — just as they will next summer in Euro 2004.
The French are bound to have mixed feelings about what appears to be an easy draw for the 2006 finals in Germany.
As well as facing Ireland for the fifth time in the qualifers, French fans will remember a shock home defeat to Israel which cost the team a place in the 1994 finals and a surprise draw with Cyprus which led to them missing out on the 1990 tournament in Italy.
However, France has avenged those shocks with home and away wins over both countries in the Euro 2004 qualifiers and French coach Jacques Santini said: “Our wish was to avoid two or three big teams, particularly Netherlands, and we did it.
“We will respect every opponent but if we play like we have been lately, we should be ok.”
Germany as hosts are the only team directly qualified for the finals which start on June 9, 2006 in Munich and end with the final in Berlin exactly one month later.
Thirty-one other nations will join them through more than the estimated 850 qualifiers which took shape on Friday.