07/30/2011 03:16 EDT | Updated 09/29/2011 05:12 EDT

2014 World Cup officially kicks off with draw of qualifying groups

RIO DE JANEIRO - World champion Spain was drawn on Saturday with 1998 winner France, Georgia, Belarus and Finland in a qualifying group for the 2014 tournament — the first World Cup in Brazil in 64 years.

Officially kicking off proceedings for the event, the draw placed England with 2012 European championship co-hosts Ukraine and Poland in Group H. Italy will meet Denmark and the Czech Republic in Group B, while Germany faces Sweden, Austria and Ireland in Group C.

Spain and England were the final two teams to find out their qualifying opponents in the draw, and either one had a chance to end up in France's group.

"Either one would be difficult, but getting Spain was worse," France coach Laurent Blanc said of the European champions. "Spain still will be one of the best teams in the world by 2014."

Fifty-three European nations were divided into nine groups, with the winners automatically qualifying and the eight best group runners-up advancing to a playoff. The European qualifying matches will begin Sept. 7 and end Oct. 15, 2013.

Group I is the only one with five teams instead of six.

"Apparently, France is the toughest rival in the group, but it would be dangerous and a grave mistake to underestimate the other teams," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque told news agency Efe. "We have to respect all our rivals ... today, you can't take anyone for granted."

The draw in Rio de Janeiro determined the path of 166 teams in their bid to qualify for the tournament in three years' time. It was the first major World Cup event in Brazil since the South American nation was awarded the competition in 2007. As host, Brazil is the only nation that doesn't have to qualify.

"We are happy to be back in Brazil," FIFA president Sepp Blatter said.

Montenegro, Moldova and San Marino also are in England's group.

"It will be interesting, there won't be easy matches," England coach Fabio Capello said. "England will have to be very careful, especially against Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine."

Germany general manager Oliver Bierhoff was expecting a difficult time in Group C, which also has the Faeroe Island and Kazakhstan.

"Sweden and Ireland are very strong teams and that makes the group interesting," Bierhoff said.

Italy also was likely to have a tough time in its group, which includes Bulgaria, Armenia and Malta.

"About a year before qualifying actually begins it's very hard to judge our chances," Czech Republic coach Michal Bilek said. "At the moment it looks like there's no clear favourite in the group. Italy is undergoing certain changes but it could be different next year."

Bulgaria coach Lothar Matthaeus acknowledged his team will be an underdog.

"Other groups were definitely easier," he said. "It's never good when you have to play against Italy. We are outsiders, but hopefully we can surprise everyone in the end."

The Netherlands, last year's runner-up in South Africa, was drawn in Group D with Turkey, Hungary and Romania, while Portugal will have to face Russia and Israel in Group F.

Group A has Croatia, Serbia, Belgium and Scotland. Greece will play Slovakia in Group G, while Norway was drawn in Group E with Slovenia and Switzerland.

The United States was drawn with Jamaica in qualifying for the North, Central America and Caribbean region. The other two teams in Group A will come from preliminary qualifying matches that include Haiti, Guatemala, the U.S. Virgin Islands and five other nations.

Mexico is in Group B with Costa Rica, while Cuba and Honduras are in Group C. All three group winners and runners-up will advance to a final qualifying round, beginning February 2013.

In Asia, Japan will face Uzbekistan, Syria and North Korea in Group C, while Australia will play Saudi Arabia, Oman and Thailand in Group D.

Iran, Bahrain and Qatar were drawn in the same Group E, along with Indonesia, while China is in Group A with Iraq, Jordan and Singapore.

The African teams were divided into 10 groups for qualifiers beginning in November. South Africa, last year's World Cup host, was drawn in Group A along with Botswana. Ghana, the best African team last year, is in Group D with Zambia and Sudan. Egypt has Guinea and Zimbabwe in Group G, while Cameroon faces Libya in Group I.

Marocco is pitted against Ivory Coast in Group C.

South America was not included in the draw because the continent's nine teams will be placed in a single group. They will play each other twice, home and away, with the top four finishers securing a World Cup spot. The fifth-place team will advance to an intercontinental playoff against a team from Asia. The other playoff will pit teams from CONCACAF and Oceania.

The qualifiers began June 15 and will end Nov. 19, 2013, after 824 matches. Twenty-eight teams were eliminated in preliminary rounds before Saturday's draw.

The World Cup will be played from June 12 to July 13, and the complete match schedule will be announced in October.

"We love football," Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said at the draw. "Today, Brazil is admired for more than just football, music and its popular festivities. I invite you to come visit us. You will find a country very well prepared for the World Cup."

Brazilian media reported that about 1,000 people were protesting near the site of the draw against the removal of families from areas where the World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics will be held. Some were also protesting against the nearly US$20 million of public funds said to have been spent for Saturday's event.

Riot troopers and mounted police negotiated to end the peaceful demonstration.

There were some protesters holding banners criticizing Brazilian soccer federation president Ricardo Teixeira and FIFA.

The total of 203 teams vying for a World Cup spot surpasses by three the number that participated four years ago. The only associations not to have signed up to compete this time around are Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Guam and Mauritania.

Seven nations have qualified for each of the last six World Cups — Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Spain and the United States. Germany has been the most successful team in World Cup qualifiers so far, with only two losses in 74 matches.

Ronaldo, Neymar, Zico and Zagallo were among the current and past Brazilian players participating in the draw, which also had local artists such as singer Ivete Sangalo. More than 35 coaches and representatives from 104 national teams were in attendance. Pele and Michel Platini were also at Marina da Gloria harbour in Rio.

Strong wind damaged part of the auditorium holding the draw just before it was to start, but workers fixed the problem in time and the event was not disrupted by the incident.