ZURICH: Europe finally kicks off its 2018 World Cup qualifying program on Sunday, as the last of FIFA's six continents to join the road to Russia.
Defending champion Germany and European champion Portugal head 54 teams — including new FIFA members Kosovo and Gibraltar — in European action from Sunday through Tuesday.
They are competing for 13 qualifying places in world sport's biggest event. Each will play 10 matches in one of the nine six-team groups over the next 14 months.
Among intriguing home-and-away games ahead: Italy-Spain; France-Netherlands; and, the oldest international rivalry, England-Scotland.
Who will join the 32-team lineup in Russia? Group winners and the winners of four playoffs in November 2017 involving the eight best runners-up.
There are no second chances for third-place teams, unlike in the European Championship qualifying groups and final tournament groups.
Here are some things to know about World Cup qualifiers in Europe:
History is against a repeat Germany title: No European team has won back-to-back World Cups since Italy in 1934 and 1938.
Still, history also says that the Germans have never failed to qualify for a major tournament.
Coach Joachim Loew's begins its defense against Norway in Oslo on Sunday, and without two veterans. Midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and forward Lukas Podolski are retiring from the national team.
The group includes two other Euro 2016 teams, Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic.
Newly crowned European champion Portugal is without star forward Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo was left out of the squad to play Switzerland in Basel as he seeks full fitness after injuring his left knee in the Euro 2016 final.
Portugal landed in one of the tougher groups with three Euro 2016 teams, including Hungary. The Hungarians led Portugal three times, and Ronaldo equalized twice, in a thrilling 3-3 draw when they met in Lyon in June during the European Championship.
Portugal is top-seeded but has no cause to panic if it finishes second. It advanced to the past two World Cups via playoffs.
Of several quick rematches after Euro 2016, Italy vs. Spain on Oct. 6 in Turin is the most attractive. Italy picked apart the two-time defending European champion to win 2-0 at Stade de France in the round of 16.
Slovakia vs. England, however, is a tough sell on Sunday in Trnava. It has to be better than a drab 0-0 draw in Saint-Etienne in June when Slovakia knew a point was enough to advance from the group in third place. New England coach Sam Allardyce has promised his players will have more fun on his watch.
Croatia vs. Turkey on the opening weekend of Euro 2016 was lit up by Luka Modric's volleyed shot to settle the match. They meet again on Monday, with Modric now captain after Darijo Srna's retirement, though in an empty Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb.
FIFA ordered Croatia to play two home qualifiers in empty stadiums as punishment for persistent incidents of racism and offensive behavior by fans.
Iceland fans' memorable Viking clap salute won't be seen in its first two away qualifiers.
The surprise Euro 2016 quarterfinalists visit Ukraine on Monday, and Kiev's Olympic Stadium will be empty because of a FIFA punishment for racist fans.
Iceland goes to Zagreb on Nov. 12 to face Croatia — which will be serving its second match of a similar FIFA sanction for racism.
The World Cup homecoming for Iceland — at the 10,000-capacity Laugardalsvollur stadium in Reykjavik — is against Finland on Oct. 6.
Iceland has a tough task to become the smallest nation ever to qualify for a World Cup.
It is in Group I which seems the deepest pool of talent with four Euro 2016 teams plus Kosovo, which is likely the best of the minnows pot of No. 6 seeds.
Like all new FIFA members, Kosovo and Gibraltar — both accepted in May and fast-tracked into 2018 qualifying — start their international careers at the bottom of the seeding.
Kosovo makes a World Cup debut at Finland on Monday, and hosts Croatia on Oct. 6. Three days later, Kosovo will play at Ukraine which does not recognize it as an independent state.
Gibraltar is in perhaps the weakest group of the nine, with only top-seeded Belgium having played at Euro 2016.
Gibraltar kicks off with a home game — in Faro, Portugal, while its own stadium is being built — against Greece on Tuesday.
Group A: Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxembourg
Group B: Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faeroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra
Group C: Germany, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino
Group D: Wales, Austria, Serbia, Ireland, Moldova, Georgia
Group E: Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Kazakhstan
Group F: England, Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta
Group G: Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia, Liechtenstein
Group H: Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus, Gibraltar
Group I: Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland, Kosovo.
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