( AFP ) - Holders Italy were pitched against Bulgaria and England found themselves up against their recent nemesis Croatia in Sunday's draw for qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The 1966 winners were handed a rapid chance to gain revenge on 1998 World Cup semi-finalists Croatia, whose 3-2 win at Wembley on Wednesday ensured that England failed to qualify for a major finals for the first time in 14 years.
Managerless England were also drawn against last year's quarter-finalists Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Andorra in Group 6 while Italy also come up against Republic of Ireland, Cyprus, Georgia and Montenegro in Group 8.
Italy coach Roberto Donadoni cited Bulgaria as the biggest threat to the quest for repeat glory, acknowledging his side were group favourites.
" Bulgaria, Eire, Georgia, Montenegro don't have a great football tradition but they are difficult opponents," he said.
"On paper Bulgaria should be the one to push us closest for qualification. Like all former Yugoslavian countries Montenegro are a difficult and stubborn team."
The 1998 world champions and 2006 finalists France meet Romania and Serbia in Group 7 and 2006 hosts and semi-finalists Germany come up against Russia, Finland and Wales in Group 4.
Scotland, who gave France and Italy a run for their money in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, found themselves up against Holland in Group 9 which will also includes Norway, Iceland and Macedonia.
Dutch coach Marco van Basten said that Scotland deserved respect.
"I watched their match against Italy last week and they were very good and we know they will always fight to the last minute."
The winners of the nine European groups qualify automatically with the eight best runners up entering two-leg play-offs to decide the remaining four spots for the region.
Meanwhile China were drawn against group seeds Australia, Asian champions Iraq and Qatar in an Asian zone 'group of death' while Japan must come up against Bahrain, Oman and Thailand in Group 2.
Australia's caretaker coach Rob Baan acknowledged it was tricky draw.
"It's one of the toughest groups but at the same time we have enough information on each country so we can prepare well."
In an intriguing match-up in Asia's Group 3, North and South Korea were drawn together.
The only team guaranteed to appear at the finals, which begin on June 11 2010, are the hosts South Africa.
However they could affect the chance for qualification of African powerhouses Nigeria after being drawn in the same group as the Super Eagles, with the results also counting towards the 2010 African Cup of Nations.
South America's qualifying campaign, which got underway last month, is organised on the usual lines with the 10 countries in the region playing in one round-robin group with the top four qualifying automatically and the fifth-placed side playing off against a team from the North/Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF).
In the CONCACAF confederation, regional giants Mexico will now have to face the winners of a tie between Belize and St Kitts and Nevis while the United States will meet the winners of Dominica v Barbados playoff.
With the focus for once on football, concerns about stop-start stadium construction, security in one of most crime-ridden societies on the planet and all the other logistical issues associated with hosting the finals in Africa for the first time were put aside.
At a glittering ceremony in Durban, FIFA president Sepp Blatter and South African President Thabo Mbeki both pledged preparations were well on track.
"It's the kick-off, it's the window to South Africa," said Blatter at the start of the draw which was attended by some 3,000 delegates as well as being watched by a worldwide television audience of tens of millions.
"Now there's no doubt that the 2010 World Cup will be here, will be a big success."
Mbeki said the tournament would be a "significant catalyst which will assist our efforts as a country and continent" in the post-apartheid era.
"Africa is ready, Africa's time has come. Africa is calling, come to Africa in 2010," Mbeki said.