Australia will face a dream opening date with holders France should they make it to the World Cup finals in Qatar.
The Socceroos were drawn on Friday in a difficult – and eerily familiar-looking -group D alongside the 2018 world champions as well as Denmark and Tunisia, but they have to first get through two tough play-off ties in June.
Remarkably, they also played both Denmark and France in the 2018 group stages in Russia, losing 2-1 to the eventual champions and drawing 1-1 with the Danes as they ended up being eliminated at the bottom of the group.
Of course, though, it’s far from a done deal that Australia will even make it to the big show at all.
Graham Arnold’s side must first beat the United Arab Emirates in the Asian play-off in Doha on June 7 and then Peru in the inter-continental play-off a week later, just to make it to the end-of-year finals.
But if Australia, currently ranked 42nd in the world, can successfully negotiate those two one-off ‘finals’ – a big ask on the strength of their recent unconvincing form – they will be the first opponents for France on Tuesday, November 22 as the world’s No.3 side and two-time champions set out on their title defence.
The Socceroos would then play 35th-ranked Tunisia, traditionally one of Africa’s strongest sides, on Saturday, November 26 with the final group match being on Wednesday, November 30 against 11th-ranked Denmark.
That may mean another date with Christian Eriksen, who scored against Australia in 2018, should he again feature in the Danes’ squad following his remarkable comeback after nearly dying on the pitch at the European Championships.
The times and venues for the fixtures will be decided later this month, as FIFA tries to allocate matches to prime broadcast slots for viewers in a team’s home country.
New Zealand, who must also first try to win a tough inter-continental play-off against Costa Rica as they seek to qualify, have been drawn in their own hellish ‘group of death’ with former winners Spain and Germany, as well as Japan.
The most competitive preliminary, in truth, looks set to be Group G which puts five-times World Cup winners Brazil against Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon.
Other highlights of Friday’s draw in the Qatari capital Doha, where France coach Didier Deschamps was on hand clutching the World Cup itself, include the US facing England and Iran in a highly-charged group B, which will also feature the winners of the European play-off featuring Wales, Scotland and Ukraine.
It means there’s potential for the first-ever ‘battle of Britain’, as England have never played either Wales or their oldest rivals Scotland in a World Cup finals.
There will also be some delicious head-to-heads.
Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski – holders of the Ballon d’Or and FIFA Best player in the world awards, respectively – will meet in group C as Argentina play Poland.
Group H will feature Luis Suarez’s reunion with Ghana for the first time since the infamous 2010 quarter-final when the Uruguayan was sent off for punching away an almost certain extra-time winner for the African side.
Cristiano Ronaldo will also open his fifth straight finals for Portugal in that group against Ghana.
The tournament will run from November 21 to December 18, the first time the trophy’s been competed for in the Middle East, with Qatar opening proceedings against Ecuador.
Group A: Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands,
Group B: England, Iran, USA, Scotland or Wales or Ukraine
Group C: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland
Group D: France, Peru or UAE or Australia, Denmark, Tunisia
Group E: Spain, Costa Rica or NZ, Germany, Japan
Group F: Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia
Group G: Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon
Group H: Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, Korea