Dec 1 (Reuters) - Germany rarely struggle in the group phase but they will have to concentrate for their tricky trio of games.
“From a sports perspective this is a very interesting group of opponents,” said coach Joachim Loew. “What we want to do in the group stage is set a foundation for the successful title defence.”
“We know Mexico from this year’s Confederations Cup, Sweden we know from Europe. South Korea is a bit more unknown for us but I look forward to this group. At such a draw everything is possible. Whatever the group, we have to advance. I was generally relaxed. There is no reason for us to be nervous.”
German FA (DFB) President Reinhard Grindel added: “A very interesting group and a challenging task for our team. Preparation for Joachim Loew’s team ahead of our first three group opponents starts now.”
On paper England look favourites from Group G. They have not lost to Belgium in their last 11 games – their only defeat in their 23 meetings came in 1936.
They drew with Tunisia in a 1990 friendly and beat them in the 1998 World Cup, while they have never met Panama.
Manager Gareth Southgate, however, was not taking anything for granted. “We’ve had a habit of writing teams off then losing to them,” he said.
Belgium boss Roberto Martinez, who spent more than 20 years in the British game, said: “It’s a very special draw, though it’s probably the most demanding group in terms of travelling.”
Belgium play their three group games in Sochi, Moscow and Kaliningrad and will travel 2890km in the process.
Saudi Arabia will be the first Asian team to have the honour of playing in the World Cup’s opening match when they take on hosts Russia in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on June 14.
The usual search for a “Group of Death” looks to be a fruitless one as, partly down to the new rankings-based format none of the “bigger” teams face more than one tough-looking rival.
Defending champions Germany probably have the most difficult of the top seeds as they face awkward games against Mexico and Sweden, with South Korea the outsiders in Group F.
Croatia, debutants Iceland, and Nigeria will all fancy their chances of joining favourites Argentina in the knockout phase from Group D. It is the fifth time Nigeria have been grouped with Argentina in their six World Cups.
Group E has a similar look with Brazil hot favourites but little to choose between Switzerland and Costa Rica, who both qualified via the playoffs, and Serbia.
The hosts will be pleased with their group as they face Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while Group H looks the most open with little on paper between Poland, Colombia, Senegal and Japan.
England will break new ground when they face Panama for the first time and with Belgium and Tunisia also in Group G, they will expect to advance.
The groups are complete after the addition of fourth seeds.
Group A Russia, Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia
Group B Portugal, Spain, Iran and Morocco.
Group C France, Peru and Denmark and Australia
Group D Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, and Nigeria.
Group E Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Group F Germany, Mexico, Sweden and South Korea.
Group G Belgium, England, Tunisia and Panama.
Group H Poland, Colombia, Senegal and Japan.
The first match of the tournament on June 14 will be Russia v Saudi Arabia.
The assistants are brought on to the stage and line up behind their allocated lecterns but the ceremony is running behind schedule.
Gary Linker, who earlier defended his presence despite sending previous tweets condemning FIFA, is last out.
“They are making lots of changes, a massive amount. There is hardly anyone left from the old guard, if (former president Sepp) Blatter had still been in charge I would not have done it,” Linker said earlier.
“You have a lot of new people and a lot of ex-footballers now. I have spoken to (Zvonimir) Boban who is quite high up in the hierarchy there and he’s very impressive, Marco van Basten is there, (Luis) Figo, (Emilio) Butragueno.
“So they are making changes and it is only fair to give them the opportunity. I never had a massive problem with Russia hosting the World Cup. It’s a proper football country that has never had it. It’s the next one that I am not supportive of where that’s going, and they know that.”
Vladimir Putin got things underway by welcoming the guests and watching millions, saying: “Russia has a passion for football and have had many outstanding players over many generations.
“The most coveted trophy will be won by the team showing the most resilience. I would like to wish success to all the teams and I call upon all loyal fans to come to Russia and enjoy the finals of 2018. “Thank you to all the Russian people who have worked hard over the last seven years to bring us one step further to the final tournament. Thanks to all 11 host cities who are doing a tremendous job” FIFA President Gianni Infantino had preceded the start by giving the assembled journalists “guidance” on the type of questions they should ask.
He then added his on-stage welcome before the screening of a video showing three cosmonauts counting down to the ceremony.
The snow is falling heavily in Moscow as coaches from the 32 finalists assemble in the main hall in the State Kremlin Palace where the draw ceremony will begin at 1500GMT.
Media representatives are being held outside though some have been diverted to a meeting Vladimir Putin is hosting with some of the draw assistants - former greats of the game including Pele, Diego Maradona, Ronaldo and England’s 1966 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks who said this week that he had had to “deny” reports of his death.
Pele, now 77, has been taken into the auditorium in a wheelchair.
Russia, the lowest ranked team of the finalists at 65 in the FIFA rankings, have been allocated place “A1” in the draw and then the balls for the rest of the hopefuls will be drawn by the assistants.
Iceland, who stunned England in the 2016 European championships, and Panama, who made it via an 88th-minute winner in their final qualifier, are appearing at the World Cup for the first time.
The draw ceremony for the 2018 World Cup begins at 1500GMT (1800 local time) at the Kremlin in Moscow. The actual drawing of the balls is expected to start around 30 minutes later and is scheduled to last around half an hour.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who also serves as the head of the Russian Football Union and the chairman of the tournament’s local organising committee, have already held a news conference ahead of the draw when questions about Russian doping dominated .
Infantino declined to get involved, saying: “FIFA doesn’t participate in any speculations about any situation,” referring to allegations of state-sponsored doping in Russia that could see the country banned from the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February.
Mutko vehemently denied the existence of state-backed doping in Russia and said the country was being unfairly targeted by international sports authorities.
“I am ready to go to any court, to any disciplinary body and say that there was never, isn’t and never will be any doping cover up programme,” he said.
Mutko also denied that Norwegian TV station TV2 had been banned from the draw because of anti-Russian output, saying it had merely been a “technical problem” and that their accreditation had been restored.
The draw ceremony will be led by former England striker and 1986 World Cup Golden Boot winner Gary Lineker and Russian sports journalist Maria Komandnaya and is a far simpler format than in previous tournaments.
The 32 teams have been equally divided into four pots based on FIFA world rankings with the exception of Russia, who as hosts are placed in the top seeds’ pot.
Each pot will be emptied one by one into eight groups — Group A to Group H — which will contain four teams each.
Two teams from the same confederation cannot be in the same group, other than Europe, which has 14 teams, and cannot have more than two teams in the same group.
The first match of the tournament will take place in Moscow on June 14, featuring Russia, with the final also in Moscow on July 15.
Pot 1: Russia (hosts), Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, France
Pot 2: Spain, Peru, Switzerland, England, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Croatia
Pot 3: Denmark, Iceland, Costa Rica, Sweden, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Iran
Pot 4: Serbia, Nigeria, Australia, Japan, Morocco, Panama, South Korea, Saudi Arabia (Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge and Ken Ferris)