Big Euro teams to avoid small World Cup qualifying groups

ZURICH — Commercial interests are set to be a factor in the European qualifying groups draw for the 2018 World Cup.

Teams from Europe’s biggest television markets are likely to be guaranteed the most possible matches in six-nation groups, FIFA said Thursday in detailing procedure for the July 25 draw in Russia.

FIFA said that a UEFA proposal asks for England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain to avoid being drawn into groups containing five teams.

It would allow popular teams to play the most matches, and increase the value of broadcasting rights which UEFA sells on behalf of member associations.

Four years ago, defending champion Spain and 2006 World Cup winner France were both drawn in a five-team group and played only eight matches. France then played two more in the playoff round.

With 52 European teams chasing 13 qualifying places in this World Cup draw, those in the seven six-nation groups will play 10 qualifying matches.

Teams in the two five-nation groups will play only eight qualifiers.

Nine group winners qualify direct and the eight best runners-up advance to a playoff round.

UEFA said Thursday that it applied the same draw proposal to 2016 European Championship qualifying. Then, the single five-nation group got Portugal as its main attraction. The other eight groups were made up of six teams.

FIFA’s World Cup organizing committee must approve the proposal one day before the draw in St. Petersburg.

The panel should also agree that European seeding will be judged by FIFA ranking alone.

That would send France and Italy into the second-seeded pot, setting up potential blockbuster groups with top-seeded Germany and Spain.

Romania and Wales entered the top 10 on FIFA’s rankings on Thursday after going unbeaten to lead their Euro 2016 qualifying groups. Both are likely to be seeded by FIFA despite neither playing at the World Cup since 1998 and 1958, respectively.