The Associated PressMOSCOW (AP) — A World Cup shrouded in corruption controversies and struggling to attract sponsors could have the dreariest of starts.
Host Russia and Saudi Arabia play June 14 at Moscow in an opener lacking global appeal, but things pick up the next day when 2010 champion Spain and defending European champion Portugal meet in Sochi.
The Iberian neighbors were drawn into Group B at a Kremlin ceremony Friday. Morocco coach Herve Renard hoped to avoid the “two ogres” but will face them along with Iran.
“It’s a complicated group,” Spain coach Julen Lopetegui said. “It will be tough. Portugal is a great team. It is the defending European champion and has a squad filled with top players.”
None more so than Cristiano Ronaldo, who recently joined Argentina’s Lionel Messi as the only five-time winners of FIFA’s player of the year award. Messi’s quest for his first World Cup title begins the following day when Argentina takes on Iceland — at 334,000 the least-populous country to qualify for the World Cup.
Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson already knows what he must tell his team: “Watch out for No. 10.”
The United States is missing from soccer’s top event for the first time since 1986 and four-time champion Italy will be watching from afar for the first time since 1958.
Germany remains the favorite. Its depth was clear when an experimental squad won the Confederations Cup in Russia in July. Germany opens against Mexico in its quest to become the first country to win back-to-back World Cup titles since Brazil in 1962. The Germans 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.”
Germany is hoping to be based in Sochi with Brazil. The only five-time world champion does not intend to move its training camp despite a schedule that has none of its games in the Black Sea resort. The Selecao, beaten 7-1 at home by Germany in the 2014 semifinals, were drawn in Group E with Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia.