Brazil start quest for sixth title against Croatia

By Mike Collett

COSTA DO SAUIPE, Brazil (Reuters) - Hosts Brazil will get the ball rolling against Croatia, holders Spain face 2010 runners-up Netherlands and U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann is up against compatriots Germany after Friday's World Cup draw.

For a few hours at least the problems concerning stadium construction, infrastructure costs, and civil unrest surrounding the staging of next year's World Cup were forgotten as soccer took centre stage in the north-eastern holiday resort in Bahia.

Following a brief tribute to former South Africa president Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday, more than 2,000 celebrities, guests and media endured a typically cheesy stage show before the serious business started and the 32 finalists were placed in their eight first-round groups of four.

At least two of those groups produced tough obstacles for their participants to progress to the knockout rounds.

The first is Group B which features world and European champions Spain, their final opponents from four years ago the Netherlands, the dangerous Chile and the whipping boys from Australia, at 59 the lowest ranked team in the tournament.

The other gruelling-looking quartet involves three teams who have won the World Cup seven times between them - South American champions Uruguay (two titles), Italy (4) and England (1) - plus the unpredictable Costa Rica in Group D.

England and Italy will meet in their opening match in Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon jungle on June 14.

Among the standout first round games are three-times world champions Germany, who won one of their titles with Klinsmann in the side in 1990, playing his United States team.

They meet in Recife in their last Group G match on June 26.

Argentina will meet African champions Nigeria in Group F, the fourth time they have met in six World Cups, while Brazil, as well as facing Croatia and Cameroon, will play their bogey team Mexico in Group A.

CUP PROMISE

Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who has promised his countrymen that Brazil will win the World Cup for an unprecedented sixth time next year, was not unhappy about facing Croatia in the opening game, due to be played in Sao Paulo on June 12.

"It's always good to start off against a European team because they have to go through an adaptation period in Brazil and there are a series of things they'll need to implement," he said after the draw.

"It will be a balanced first match but we live here, we work here and we know this country better than anybody."

Scolari, who steered Brazil to World Cup success in 2002, not only knows the expectations on him and his players, but also on the politicians, organisers and workers to get the Sao Paulo stadium ready on time for the finals.

It fell behind schedule when a crane collapsed on to its structure killing two construction workers last week and is now not due to be ready until April, just two months before the world's greatest sporting spectacle kicks off in South America for the first time since it was held in Argentina in 1978.

Argentina, who won then and would like nothing more than to lift the trophy on the soil of their arch-rivals next year, face debutants Bosnia and Iran as well as Nigeria in Group F.

Bosnia could hardly have had a tougher first, meeting Lionel Messi and his countrymen at the Maracana on June 15.

One former champion is sure to go out from Group D, with England facing Italy in the jungle city of Manaus in a mouth-watering opener for the two European sides.

"We know how good Italy are because we lost to them in the quarter-finals at the (2012) Euros," said England boss Roy Hodgson. "The game is going to be tough from a climate point of view for both teams. We're both in the same boat."

Uruguay forward Diego Forlan, who helped his country reach the semi-finals in 2010, said: "In comparison with what other teams got, it's the hardest group of this World Cup.

"But you have to play the matches and at the last World Cup we were in a very complicated group but came through well."

FINAL REPEAT

Spain begin their title defence with a repeat of the physical 2010 final against the Netherlands in the Maracana.

"We will have to be prepared right from the first day, focus ourselves," said coach Vicente Del Bosque, knowing the runners-up are likely to face Brazil in the first knockout round.

"I expect that Brazil will be first in their group so we will have to take great pains to do the same," he added.

Germany will come face-to-face with their former striker and coach Juergen Klinsmann and his United States team, with Portugal and Ghana completing the Group G lineup.

"Of course, a special moment for me to play against Germany but we beat them in a friendly this year and once you get on the pitch they are the just the opponent," said Klinsmann, who also coached Germany to the semi-finals at home in 2006.

France, who qualified via the playoffs, will be pleased with a Group E placing alongside Ecuador, Switzerland and Honduras.

"It could have been more complicated," said coach Didier Deschamps.

"We know Switzerland well, they were seeded so obviously the toughest opponent. We don't know Ecuador and Honduras that well and it will have an influence on our preparation."

Fancied Belgium head up Group H alongside Algeria, Russia and South Korea while Group C,, containing Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan, looks the toughest to predict.

The final is at the Maracana in Rio on July 13.

(Editing by Ken Ferris)