The draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup took place in St Petersburg's Constantine Palace today ©Getty Images

FIFA President Sepp Blatter and Russia President Vladimir Putin were on hand to open today’s draw ceremony for the 2018 World Cup in St Petersburg's Constantine Palace as defending champions Germany avoided arguably the strongest second-seeded teams, France and Italy, in the qualifying section for Europe.

The winners of last year’s tournament in Brazil have been pitted against Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino in a favourable looking Group C.

“I’m happy that we are not playing against Italy and France,” said Germany's business manager Oliver Bierhoff.

“We can be satisfied about that.”

France will provide stern opposition for top seeds The Netherlands, as well as Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg in Group A. 

Italy, the 2006 champions, have been pitted against the 2010 winners Spain in Group G, while the other highlight of the draw for Europe is England’s pairing with old rivals Scotland in Group F.

The winner of each of the nine European groups will qualify automatically alongside hosts Russia, with the best eight runners-up entering the play-offs in November 2017.

A total of 141 teams were drawn in the ceremony, which also determined the passages of those in the African Football Confederation (CAF), the Central and North American and Caribbean Football Confederation (CONCACAF), the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL).

Qualifying in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has already begun.

"We are here to launch a football marathon," Putin said.

“It is a good chance to visit a multi-faceted and open Russia that can surprise and inspire.”

FIFA President Sepp Blatter and Russia President Vladimir Putin delivered speeches to open the 2018 World Cup draw
FIFA and Russia Presidents Sepp Blatter and Vladimir Putin delivered speeches at the 2018 World Cup draw ©Getty Images

Blatter was making his first trip outside his native Switzerland since mid-May, when American and Swiss criminal investigations of corruption in world football were unsealed.

FIFA this week set a date of February 26 for an Extraordinary Elective Congress at which a replacement for Blatter, President for 17 years, is expected to be chosen.

“Yesterday, and I’m so happy to announce it to you, Mr President, and for the Russian people, Fifa’s Executive Committee expressed again its trust and confidence in Russia for the organisation of this competition,” Blatter said in addressing Putin.

“Trust in Russian authorities, organising committee, and in the Russian people.”

The draw, conducted by FIFA general secretary Jérôme Valcke, began by pairing four continents whose teams take part in two-leg play-offs in November 2017 that will determine the final World Cup line-up.  

A CONCACAF team will go up against an Asian side, while an OFC team will face a South American side.

One nation not involved in the draw was Zimbabwe, with CAF confirming that they will not compete in the qualifiers after failing to pay money owed to former coach Jose Claudinei Georgini, nicknamed Valinhos. 

It is understood that the cash-strapped Zimbabwe Football Association owes the Brazilian $67,000 (£43,000/€61,000) in salary and allowances from his spell as coach between January and November 2008

The 2018 World Cup is scheduled to start on June 14 with the final taking place on July 15.

Related stories
July 2015: FIFA general secretary Valcke set to exit alongside Blatter
May 2015: FIFA to help Russia to tackle racism problem ahead of 2018 World Cup
February 2015: Alan Hubbard: Problems for Putin ahead of 2018 World Cup in Russia
February 2015: Asian Football Confederation underdogs to kick-off road to 2018 FIFA World Cup
December 2014: Russia 2018 to "rely on individual donations", claims Mutko