Showing little of the form that took the team to the European Championship final, the Italians were denied victory in their Group B opener when Georgi Milanov equalized for Bulgaria — ranked 89th in the world — in the 66th minute in Sofia.
That was the only big surprise of the opening round of qualifiers, although Portugal was hardly impressive in rallying to a 2-1 win over unheralded Luxembourg, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring the equalizer for the visitors in a week when he has been speaking of "feeling sad" because of professional reasons at Real Madrid.
Germany would also have been expected to beat the Faeroe Islands by a bigger margin than 3-0, leaving England to record the most eye-catching result of the continent's big guns — 5-0 at Moldova in Group H.
The Netherlands ended a four-match losing run by beating Turkey 2-0 in what looked to be a tricky opening match for the Dutch in Group D, while France overcame Finland 1-0 thanks to a goal by Abou Diaby in coach Didier Deschamps' first competitive match as France coach. The standout score came in Liechtenstein, where the hosts were thumped 8-1 by Bosnia.
In South American qualifying, Argentina beat Paraguay 3-1 to go to the top of the standings, while Colombia and Ecuador notched important victories to boost their chances of booking a place at Brazil 2014.
Argentina's victory resulted from a combination of the Spanish league powers. Real Madrid pair Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain scored first-half goals, followed by Barcelona star Lionel Messi. Messi had hit the woodwork twice before scoring on a splendid free kick in the 65th minute.
Jonathan Fabbro, an Argentine-born defender who is a nationalized Paraguayan, had temporarily brought the visitors level with a first-half penalty.
The result left Paraguay bottom of the standings with just four points from six games and with an uphill task of qualifying for 2014, having made the quarterfinals in 2010.
Colombia moved within a point of Uruguay with a convincing 4-0 win. Atletico Madrid striker Falcao put the hosts ahead in the second minute, Teofilo Gutierrez padded the lead with two goals in four minutes early in the second half and Camilo Zuniga added a fourth in stoppage time.
Ecuador struggled past lowly Bolivia 1-0, with the sole goal coming in the 74th minute when substitute Felipe Caicedo converted a penalty. Ecuador moved up to third in the standings while Bolivia is only above last-placed Paraguay on goal difference.
Peru won 2-1 at home against Venezuela to move out of last place while dropping Venezuela out of the top five. Juan Arango had put Venezuela ahead in the 43rd minute, but the hosts quickly repaired the damage in the second half, as Jefferson Farfan scored in the 47th and 59th minutes. The visitor's chances of mounting a comeback were dashed when Gabriel Cichero was sent off in the 67th.
In CONCACAF region World Cup qualifiers, the surprise result was Jamaica's 2-1 home win over the United States. Rodolph Austin and Luton Shelton scored from free kicks as the Jamaicans beat the U.S. for the first time in 19 attempts despite having gone goal down after just 35 seconds when Clint Dempsey scored.
Mexico, still riding a high from its Olympic gold medal, won 2-0 away at Costa Rica to extend its perfect start to three wins from three in this group stage, while Canada beat visiting Panama 1-0.
Brazil disappointed its expectant fans by labouring to a 1-0 home win over South Africa in a friendly, increasing the pressure on coach Mano Menezes.
On the night that Spain flexed its muscles with a 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia in a friendly, the team it thrashed 4-0 in the Euro 2012 final continued its hangover from that match.
Italy's only other game since its mauling at the hands of Spain was a 3-2 loss to England in a friendly last month and the draw in Sofia — where the Azzurri has never won in five matches — means a likely battle with the Czech Republic and Denmark for the sole automatic qualifying spot in the group.
"We always have problems at the beginning of the season. It's a shame we didn't manage to score a third goal when we were winning 2-1," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "We lacked pace and rhythm."
With Mario Balotelli injured and Antonio Cassano dropped, the Argentine-born Pablo Osvaldo staked his claim for a regular run as striker in the team with two goals before half time, after a rare mistake by goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon allowed Stanislav Manolev to put Bulgaria in front in the 30th.
However, Milanov's goal means Italy has conceded as many goals in one World Cup qualifier as it did in the entire qualifying campaign for Euro 2012. Prandelli's side should gain revenge in Tuesday's match against lowly Malta.
Ronaldo celebrated his goal against Luxembourg, which took his tally in internationals to 37, with a clenched fist but it needed a well-taken effort by Helder Postiga to get the Portuguese out of trouble against a home team ranked 106th in the FIFA list.
Mario Goetze's first-half goal and a double after the break by fellow playmaker Mesut Oezil saw Germany labour to victory over Faeroe Islands, when many would have expecting a score closer to double figures.
"We knew they would defend well," Germany forward Thomas Mueller said, "but we won, we took the three points. We missed some chances but we can live with 3-0."
Frank Lampard scored twice in the opening 29 minutes while Jermain Defoe, James Milner and Leighton Baines added further goals as England secured its biggest away win in 19 years.
"It's the first match in a qualifying group for a World Cup, which is always a nervous occasion," England manager Roy Hodgson said. "You're always concerned you'll not produce the performance you want, or the result, but we got off to the best possible start and controlled the game throughout.
"I don't think the scoreline flattered us."
Robin van Persie scored in the 17th minute for his 30th international goal and Luciano Narsingh grabbed the other in second-half stoppage time as the Netherlands earned a first win since May. Just as pleasing will have been the clean sheet kept by a revamped back four, with its porous defence having been a problem in recent years.
Diaby, fully fit after a series of injury problems in recent seasons, has started the new Premier League campaign in impressive fashion with Arsenal and the rangy midfielder continued his good form by netting France's only goal, in the 20th minute.
"I hadn't played for France for a long time," said Diaby, whose last competitive match for his national team came in June last year. "I'm happy to be back. It's a huge satisfaction to get the win."
Next up for France is a home match against Belarus, the team that beat Les Bleus away in Euro qualifying two years ago.
David Villa, making his first appearance for Spain since November because of injury, extended his national-record tally for Spain to 52 goals in the reigning world champions' easy win over Saudi Arabia.
Pedro Rodriguez scored a goal in each half, while Santi Cazorla and substitute Xavi Hernandez also found the net for the Spanish, who begin their World Cup qualifying campaign on Tuesday.