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Israel's dream of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years received a massive boost Sunday when it was handed a relatively easy draw in Durban, South Africa.
The national team will face Greece, Switzerland, Moldova, Latvia and Luxembourg in Group 2, which will get under way next September.
The group winner will qualify automatically for the World Cup finals with the eight best runners-up from the nine qualifying groups going into a two-legged playoff for the remaining four spots.
"This is a reasonable draw," Israel coach Dror Kashtan said. "It would have been much tougher had we got Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain or France. "Besides Greece, we have already hosted all the other teams in the group and we're looking forward to playing the European champion."
Representatives from six teams will meet in Tel Aviv January 8 to determine the schedule for the group.
"I'm hope this draw will get us to the World Cup after 40 years," Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon said.
The reigning European champion cruised to Euro 2008 qualification, winning 10 of its 12 matches and finishing top of Group C, seven points ahead of Turkey. Greece, which is guided by Otto Rehhagel of Germany, last reached the World Cup in 1994, but failed to collect any points or score any goals. It followed up its amazing success in Euro 2004 with a disappointing 2006 qualifying campaign, finishing fourth in its group with six wins, three draws and three defeats.
Switzerland, which is hosting Euro 2008 together with Austria, reached the 2006 World Cup after beating out Israel to second in the qualifying group and getting the better of Turkey in the playoff. It lost to Ukraine in the round of 16 in Germany two years ago, drew its two matches with Israel in qualifying and finished ahead of the blue-and-white on goal differential.
The former Soviet state finished fifth in its Euro 2008 qualifying group, winning three and drawing three. Moldova's highlights were a 3-0 win over Hungary and a 1-0 win over Bosnia. But the team suffered a humbling 5-0 defeat to Turkey and was held to a 1-1 draw against Malta at home.
Moldova has improved with each qualifying campaign, but has never come close to challenging for a place in a big tournament.
Latvia shocked Europe by qualifying for Euro 2004, defeating Turkey 3-2 on aggregate in a playoff. The team lost to the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, but managed an impressive draw against Germany. Latvia finished fifth in 2006 World Cup qualification and suffered an embarrassing loss to Liechtenstein in Euro 2008 qualifying. It finished in fourth place with four wins.
The European minnow lost 11 of its 12 Euro 2008 qualifiers, scoring just two goals. The three points Luxemburg picked up in its recent qualifying campaign were an improvement on its 2006 World Cup qualification when it was one of only two teams to fail to secure a point. Its 1-0 win over Belarus in October ended a run of 55 consecutive defeats since 1995.
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