Croatia, England face off again in World Cup qualifying

In qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, England will play Croatia — the team that stopped it getting to the 2008 European Championship.

In qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, England will play Croatia — the team that stopped it getting to the 2008 European Championship.

Defending champion Italy, Germany, Spain, Netherlands and European champion Greece all received comparatively easy groups when the qualifying draw was made Sunday in South Africa, while France is in what looks like the toughest alongside Romania and Serbia.

The 53 European soccer teams were divided into eight groups of six and one of five, and only the winners are sure to go to the June 11-July 11 tournament in South Africa. The best eight runners-up go into playoffs to determine the other four spots.

Croatia beat England twice in qualifying for Euro 2008 and Wednesday's 3-2 victory at Wembley meant the English failed to qualify. Coach Steve McClaren was fired the following day.

The other teams in World Cup Group 6 are Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Andorra.

France, which won the World Cup in 1998 and was runner-up last year, will meet Lithuania, Austria and the Faeroe Islands, as well as Romania and Serbia.

Italy, which won its fourth World Cup last year, will be confident of finishing top against Bulgaria, Ireland, Cyprus, Georgia and Montenegro in Group 8.

Three-time World Cup champion Germany will play Russia, Finland, Wales, Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein in Group 4.

Greece, which defends its European title next year, must play Israel, Switzerland, Moldova, Latvia and Luxembourg in Group 2.

Spain, which has never won the World Cup, faces Turkey, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia and Estonia.

Group 1 has Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary, Albania and Malta, and Group 3 is Czech Republic, Poland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia, Slovenia and San Marino.

In the only group with five teams, the Netherlands will be pleased to draw Scotland, Norway, Macedonia and Iceland, although the Scots beat France home and away in Euro 2008 qualifying.

The highlights of the Asian leg of the draw was the meeting of North and South Korea and Australia's first group opponents since moving from Oceania.

The Korean neighbours, who fought a war in the early 1950s, remain political foes although relations have warmed in recent years. Now they must meet competitively on the soccer field with Jordan and Turkmenistan completing the group.

Australia, which lost to Italy on a disputed penalty in the second round of last year's World Cup, switched from Oceania to get a better chance of qualifying. The Socceroos will face China, Iraq and Qatar.

The other groups are: Japan, Bahrain, Oman and Thailand; Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, Singapore; and Iran, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Syria.

The five group winners and five runners-up move to another stage of group games to decide four Asian qualifiers. A fifth team will take part in a playoff with a team from Oceania, which has already begun qualifying.

The draw was held before an audience of 3,000, including South Africa President Thabo Mbeki, at Durban's International Convention Center.

South American qualifying, which has all 10 teams in one group, has already started.

Host South Africa doesn't have to qualify but was still in the draw because the African competition doubles as qualifying for the African Cup of Nations.

So instead of meaningless friendlies, Bafana Bafana faces tough matches against Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone.

In another tough group, Senegal and Algeria were drawn into Group 6 with Liberia and Gambia.

The five African group winners will advance to the final tournament.