Heat is on ahead of 2010 draw
Cape Town - More than three years after qualifying first began, 32 teams will go into the hat here next Friday for the crucial Soccer World Cup draw, as the countdown to South Africa 2010 begins in earnest.
The 90-minute ceremony will determine not just who plays who, but where they play in a country so crime-ridden that Germany's World Cup stars have been warned to wear bullet-proof vests if they venture away from their hotel.
The teams will be split into eight groups of four with the seedings and draw procedure only finalised next week, although no more than two European nations can be drawn together.
It seems likely that the system used for the 2006 World Cup will be retained, whereby a team's world rankings over the past three years and performances at the last two tournaments are taken into account .
This would mean Brazil being top seeds, followed by Germany, Spain, Italy and England.
Once the lineups are decided the focus will switch to next year and the opening game at the gleaming new Soccer City in Johannesburg on Friday June 11 between teams one and two from Group A.
The 63 matches that follow will span South Africa, from Polokwane in the north-east to Cape Town in the south-west with 10 stadiums being used, culminating in the final at Soccer City on July 11.
The journey so far has been dramatic.
It all began on August 25, 2007 in Oceania when just 60 supporters turned up to watch Samoa play Vanuatu.
Since then, over 20 million fans have flocked to stadiums to witness 204 countries whittled down to 32, with Uruguay the last to book their ticket.
Thirty-one of the teams have been here before with Slovakia the newcomer. Minnows New Zealand made it through and North Korea qualified for the first time since 1966, when England last lifted the trophy.
England are one of the favourites to do it again with Fabio Capello moulding a disciplined team where morale is sky-high, with Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry his lynchpins.
The Italian taskmaster has told his players that reaching the final is the least he expects.
"Playing in the final would be success," he said. "For now, playing in it will do, rather than winning it. But if people are asking me what my aspiration is, then it is to reach the final.
"I know the expectations will rise. Other people will help that, as well as our results."
Capello has identified Brazil as the team to beat but coach Dunga is reluctant to accept the tag of World Cup favourites.
"I think Brazil is in balance, technically and tactically, and also the physical conditioning of the players is very good," he said.
"But it is not so long since people were saying we were not favourites at all. We need to look for our space to make our game and not pay any attention to what people are saying. All that matters is what we do on the pitch."
France are on the plane, but only just, with the run-up to the draw mired in controversy after the blatant Thierry Henry handball incident which put Raymond Domenech's side into the hat at the expense of Ireland.
The fallout has been so severe that FIFA president Sepp Blatter has called a crisis meeting for December 2 here to deal with the issue and also to discuss an ongoing investigation into match-fixing in Europe.
European champions Spain are currently the world's number one ranked team, running hot since Vincente Del Bosque took over with a perfect 10 wins out 10 in qualifying.
They have never won the World Cup but the former Real Madrid boss is not getting carried away.
"We must prove it on the pitch and not in our dreams, because there are giants of world football such as Brazil, Germany and Italy, who will have the same aspirations," he said.
Like Spain, no team from Africa or Asia has ever lifted the World Cup, and appears unlikely to do so next year.
But the prospects are brighter in South America with Brazil leading the pack, although an exciting and young Chilean side also proved their credentials.
Mighty Argentina is an unpredictable element after only just hauling themselves over the line with Diego Maradona enduring a see-saw ride as coach that generated more questions than answers.
But the national idol remains combatative.
"For the people who didn't believe in this team, for the people who treated me like rubbish, I have one thing to say: Today we are in the World Cup," he said.
More than 3 000 international dignitaries are expected for the draw ceremony, with Blatter and South African president Jacob Zuma leading the festivities.
The draw starts at 19:00 SA time.