Spain, Portugal in same group for 2018 World Cup

World powers to meet in first round; host Russia opens against Saudi Arabia

Former English soccer international Gordon Banks holds a lot during the 2018 soccer World Cup draw in the Kremlin in Moscow, Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

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.

Defending champion Germany will play first against Mexico in Group F and then face Sweden and South Korea. Five-time world champion Brazil is in Group E with Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia.

“None of us wanted an easy group,” Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said. “If you’re playing the World Cup, you want to face the best. And if you want to reach the final, you have to play great matches.”

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.

Iceland, the country with the smallest population of the 32 World Cup teams, was drawn with Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria in Group D. Another newcomer, Panama, will take on England, Tunisia and Belgium in Group G.

Peru, the last of the 32 teams to qualify for Russia, is in Group C with 1998 champion France, Australia and Denmark.

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.

AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Here are the groups for the World Cup:

Group A — Russia, Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia

Group B — Portugal, Spain, Iran, Morocco

Group C — France, Peru, Denmark, Australia

Group D — Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria

Group E — Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

Group F — Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea

Group G — Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama

Group H — Poland, Colombia, Senegal, Japan

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