Forty-five years to the day since they lifted the World Cup for the first and only time, England embarked on another hopeful crusade last night. At a glittering 2014 qualification draw in Rio de Janeiro, England got lucky – not for the first time – when they headed Group H and found themselves paired with Euro 2012 joint hosts Poland and Ukraine, current Euro 2012 qualifying adversaries Montenegro, Moldova and minnows San Marino who, as Graham Taylor will remember only too well, still hold the record for the quickest goal scored in World Cup qualifying.
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Scotland and Wales were handed a mouth-watering clash in Group A while Northern Ireland will fancy their chances in a group featuring Russia and Israel as the strongest sides. World champions Spain meet France – who all the powerhouses wanted to avoid – in the only group of five teams, though England came ever so close to swapping places with the Spanish as tension mounted at the business end of the draw.
Fabio Capello was one of only 38 coaches who attended the $20m pageant, the first major test of Brazil's organisational skills. It overran by more than 20 minutes while a 200-strong human rights protest greeted delegates. But as colourful ceremonies go, it was compelling stuff, a forerunner perhaps of what to expect in three years' time.
Capello, of course, will not be around then. He leaves after next year's Euros but insisted his successor will have every chance of reaching Brazil courtesy of a new crop of young players. "I am confident as we have some really interesting young players and the future will be them," Capello said. "Some young players will play more at Manchester United, some like [Kieran] Gibbs will play more games at Arsenal, Wilshere is the future, and [Jordan] Henderson and [Andy] Carroll at Liverpool."
England drew 0-0 with Montenegro in October and Capello added: "It is not an easy draw. You have to be really, really focused and play every game like a final – but that will be another manager's job. We know Montenegro very well and we have to play against them again. Poland are improving and will be really focused and will be a tough game. With Ukraine I remember the game we lost against them in the last match during the qualification for South Africa."
The winners of the nine groups qualify automatically and the eight best runners-up play off for the four places remaining. Fifa's president Sepp Blatter launched the draw insisting the world governing body had confidence that Brazil would overcome delays in airports, transport and stadium construction. "We need the support of the government of Brazil, the state governments, the organising committee and the 190 million fans of football that is the population of Brazil," he said.
"It is a matter of trust and confidence, and Fifa have trust in Brazil and are confident of its abilities. Football is the beating heart of Brazil. It is a multi-cultural country of joy and celebration blessed with natural beauty and a booming economy ranking number seven in the world."
Although they have won the trophy a record five times, this huge nation where football never sleeps – and a ball seems to be kicked virtually everywhere you look – has not played host to the tournament since 1950, ironically England's darkest hour.
So keen were the organisers to ensure the draw ran smoothly that Rio's second largest airport was closed for four hours to avoid the kind of deafening screeching that greeted Blatter's only news conference as well as a string of promotional events.
The qualifying tournament will involve 824 matches played over 880 days before the identity of the 31 nations joining hosts Brazil in the finals will be known. Five of Fifa's six confederations went into the draw, since the South American qualifiers consist of all its member nations, minus Brazil of course, playing against each other home and away.
The draw was based on Fifa's world rankings which, intriguingly, placed France among the second-seeded teams. Laurent Blanc, the France manager, was not amused. "I don't understand why France is in the second group," he said. "Why are Greece, Norway and Croatia ranked higher?"
Sadly the draw was partially overshadowed by a long-running feud between the greatest player in World Cup history and the boss of the local organising committee. Astonishingly, Pele was snubbed by Brazilian FA chairman Ricardo Teixeira after years of animosity between the pair and only received an invitation when an embarrassed Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, intervened and named him as the tournament's global ambassador. "You only go to a party if you are invited. If I wasn't invited, it's logical I wouldn't go," said Pele, now 70. "Teixeira is president of the federation. If he doesn't invite me, I don't go."
Teixeira recently described the British as "pirates" after allegations that he was involved in corruption during the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bid process – he was later cleared. "Unfortunately people say more than they know," said Pele. "There's always some confusion or misunderstanding when he [Teixeira] replies or gives an interview. I hope from now on we can clear everything up and we can work properly for the World Cup."Reuse content