LEIPZIG, Germany (AP) – South American powers Brazil and Argentina drew European opponents they might want to avoid in the first round of the World Cup. That was still better than the United States, which got double trouble Friday.

Defending champion Brazil will play its first match against 1998 semifinalist Croatia. Argentina wound up with the powerful Netherlands.

The United States, which advanced to the quarterfinals of the last World Cup in 2002, was drawn into a strong group with Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana.

“It’s a very difficult group,” U.S. captain Claudio Reyna said. “You have perhaps three teams that could have been top seeds.”

The United States opens against the Czech Republic on June 12 at Gelsenkirchen, then plays Italy on June 17 at Kaiserslautern and finishes the first round against Ghana on June 22 at Nuremberg.

“We will have our hands full. We know they are all going to be difficult games,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “Italy is always nice because of my heritage.”

The Americans lost to Czechoslovakia and Italy in their first two games of the 1990 World Cup, the first appearance in the tournament for the U.S. team since 1950. The Americans are 0-3-2 against Italy and have never played Ghana or the Czech Republic, which split from Slovakia in 1993.

“Please write down Italy is the favorite,’ ” Czech Republic coach Karel Bruckner said of Group E.

The opening match will be host Germany against Costa Rica in Munich on June 9. Three-time winner Germany also plays Poland and Ecuador.

Five-time champion Brazil also faces Australia and Japan in Group F.

“It’s a group many will consider technically easy, but it won’t be like that,” coach Carlos Alberto Parreira told the Brazilian SporTV channel. “We will need to be very alert.”

Croatia played Brazil for the first time in August in Croatia, a 1-1 tie.

“It will be tough, but it will also definitely be memorable considering both teams like to control the ball,” said Croatia’s naturalized Brazilian, striker Eduardo da Silva.

Croatian coach Zlatko Kranjcar was confident his team would get through to the knockout phase despite having to face Brazil.

“I don’t think there should be any room for discontent. It’s a fair group, a good group,” Kranjcar said. “There are stronger groups for sure.”

Such as Group C, where Argentina has to play the Netherlands, the Ivory Coast and Serbia-Montenegro. Argentina failed to get past the first round in 2002 and this draw means it could struggle again.

“It’s a tough group. It’s the toughest,” said Carlos Bilardo, who coached Argentina to the 1986 title. “The good thing is that it will be defined against the Netherlands, probably the team to beat”

England was drawn in Group B with Sweden, the home country of England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson.

“It’s a destiny, I suppose, Sweden again in a World Cup,” Eriksson said. “I thought with statistics that we shouldn’t have drawn them because we played them at the last World Cup, but that’s life, and sooner or later we have to beat them.”

But the rest of that group, Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago, is not considered strong.

Dennis Lawrence, whose goal in a playoff against Bahrain put Trinidad into its first World Cup, was delighted to be facing England, where he plays for Wrexham.

“I can imagine how the fans are feeling because I am so excited about it myself,” Lawrence said. “It was brilliant looking at our name come out in the same group as England.”

France, the 1998 champion, must start against one of the teams it faced in qualifying, Switzerland. South Korea, a semifinalist in 2002, and newcomer Togo are also in Group G.

Also in Mexico’s Group D are Portugal, Angola and Iran. Joining Spain in Group H are Ukraine, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

The last time Portugal and Angola met in an exhibition in Lisbon four years ago, four Angolan players were ejected for brutal tackles and dissent and the game was stopped with 20 minutes to play. That match was supposed to be a celebration of the long-standing cultural ties between the European country and its former African colony.

“The meeting with Angola will be a very special moment. It’ll be a great festival because our countries are related,” Portugal forward Luis Boa Morte said.

Half of the 32 teams, two from each group, will advance after round-robin play. Then come single-elimination games leading to the final July 9.

in Berlin.

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