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Brazil, U.S. get best & worst of draw

Host country in weak group, Americans face long, tough road

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COSTA DO SAUIPE, Brazil -- One of the worst finals in World Cup history -- Spain vs. the Netherlands -- will be reprised in one of the first games at the 2014 edition.

But Friday's draw proved kind for host nation Brazil.

It also put three former winners -- Italy, Uruguay and England -- together in one daunting group.

The United States drew one of the shortest straws. Its game schedule will send Jurgen Klinsmann's team pinging around on a 15,000-kilometre trip across the world's fifth-largest country.

Having only squeezed into the tournament via the play-offs, 1998 winner France could hardly believe its luck, drawing a manageable group of Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras.

Argentina, champion in 1978 and 1986, first plays Bosnia-Herzegovina, the only World Cup newcomer among the 32 teams. After that game at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, the Argentine team of four-time world player of the year Lionel Messi then plays Iran and finally Nigeria. In six previous World Cup encounters, Nigeria has beaten Argentina just once.

Argentina will be heavily favoured to come out top of its Group F. If so, it could find either Switzerland or France in its way in its first knockout game. Those European nations will be hoping to top their Group E.

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Defending champion Spain and the Netherlands, a three-time finalist, first play each other, on June 13, a Friday. Hopefully, it won't be a repeat of the horror show that was the 2010 final, when referee Howard Webb showed a record 14 yellow cards and could have sent off several. The Netherlands was blamed for most of the dirty play.

"The history of the final is also a challenge to do it better," said Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal.

With their other group opponents being a strong Chile side and Australia, Spain and the Netherlands will be favoured to advance. Both will want to come out top of Group B, because the second-placed team is likely to then find Brazil barring its path in the first knockout game.

"We can't say we were handed an easy draw. It's a complicated group with tough sides. It's going to be difficult," said Spain coach Vincent del Bosque.

He warned against underestimating Chile, saying: "Their style of play is very impressive, they make it very uncomfortable for opponents. They are very hard-working, a very difficult team."

England's first match will be in the heat and humidity of the Amazon basin, which coach Roy Hodgson was anxious to avoid. That night game in the Amazon city of Manaus pits the 1966 champion against Italy, a four-time winner.

Both will have to play their best to advance from Group D, since it also includes 2010 semifinalist and two-time champion Uruguay and Costa Rica.

"It's a tough group, there's no doubt about that. In Italy and Uruguay it's almost as though we have got two number one seeds in our group. We know how good Italy are because we lost to them in the quarter-finals at the Euros. The game is going to be tough from a climate point of view for both teams," said Hodgson.

England could also face hostility from the crowd in Manaus, after Hodgson voiced concerns about the climate. The city's mayor took offence at that, saying before the draw: "We hope to get a better team and a coach who is more sensible and polite."

Brazil kicks off its campaign for a sixth World Cup title with the opening match on June 12 against Croatia. That could be a daunting experience for the Croats, playing their fourth World Cup. Full-throated support from home fans helped lift Brazil at the Confederations Cup warm-up tournament in June, where it beat world champion Spain in the final.

In Group A, the home team also plays Mexico, which is competing in its sixth successive World Cup but which had to beat New Zealand in a playoff to qualify for the 2014 tournament.

Brazil's last match is against Cameroon, which has only advanced once from the group stage in six appearances.

Topping Group A would then see Brazil play the second-placed team from Group B, likely to be either Spain or the Netherlands.

With a field tougher than at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the draw was never likely to produce an easy group. But some were easier than others, not only because of the quality of opponents but also because the lucky teams will travel less and avoid some of the hottest venues.

France coach Didier Deschamps was thrilled his team plays its games in Rio and Porto Alegre in the south and Salvador on the Atlantic coast. That good fortune favours France's chances of reaching the knockout stage, perhaps with Switzerland, the seeded team in their Group E.

"We won't play in the northern regions, where the temperatures and the level of humidity are very high and the distances are very long. We stay more or less in the same area, which is not too far from our training camp. It's rather good news," said Deschamps.

Colombia, which will have one of the potential stars next June in striker Radamel Falcao, got one of the weakest groups of Greece, the Ivory Coast and Japan.

Topping that Group C would then see Colombia play the second-best team in Group D, where Uruguay striker Luis Suarez, who cannot stop scoring for his club Liverpool, will be expected to shine.

Belgium, one of seven seeded teams in the draw, will fancy its chances of advancing from Group H. Playing its first World Cup since 2002, containing some of Europe's most exciting young players, Belgium first takes on Algeria, which has never moved beyond the group stage in three previous appearances.

Coach Marc Wilmots' team will also play 2018 World Cup host Russia and South Korea, a semifinalist in 2002. If Belgium tops that group it would then play the second-placed team from Group G. That is likely to be whichever team from Portugal, Ghana or the United States finishes behind Germany, one of the favourites to win the monthlong tournament.

Germany, champion in 1954, 1974 and 1990, first plays Portugal, with 2008 world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo. Germany's last group game is against the United States, which will be particularly memorable for its coach, Klinsmann. He won the 1990 World Cup as a forward for Germany and coached his country to the semifinal in 2006.

"I kind of had in my stomach that we were going to get Germany," said Klinsmann. "Obviously it's one of the most difficult groups in the whole draw, having Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo and then Ghana, who has a history with the United States. It couldn't get any more difficult or any bigger."

"But that's what a World Cup is about. It's a real challenge. And we'll take it. We'll take it on, and hopefully we're going to surprise some people there."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 C8

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