The draw, beamed to a television audience of millions across the globe, went off successfully as the first major Fifa event on African soil, with a stunning line-up of artists mixing African colour and rhythm in with the serious business of lining up the teams contending for a place at the 2010 tournament.
On a spectacular stage with three rotating sections for the performers, an orchestra and the draw itself, South African President Thabo Mbeki and Fifa President Sepp Blatter – accompanied by a host of Fifa delegates and soccer greats of yesteryear – welcomed the world to the start of the race to the 2010 finals.
‘A sport that touches the whole world’
Mbeki said the game had the amazing ability to promote unity through its educational, cultural and humanitarian values.
“Football is a sport that touches the whole world,” he said, adding that South Africa aimed to “stage an event that will send ripples of confidence from the Cape to Cairo – an event that will create social and economic opportunities throughout Africa.
“We want to ensure that one day, historians will reflect upon the 2010 Fifa World Cup as a moment when Africa stood tall and resolutely turned the tide on centuries of poverty and conflict.”
Blatter said the decision to bring the World Cup to Africa for the first time would give the world the opportunity to give back to Africa. “The continent has done so much for this sport in terms of players and clubs, and it is justice that Africa hosts the World Cup,” Blatter said.
“There is no doubt the World Cup will be held here and it will be a success. No doubt.”
The football world then watched in earnest as Fifa General Secretary Jerome Valcke and his draw assistants – George Weah, Ali Daei, Marcel Desailly, Kasey Keller, Kaizer Motaung, Abedi Pele, Doreen Nabwire, Jomo Sono, Lucas Radebe and Christian Karembeu – guided 170 teams into their respective qualifying pools.
As Fifa.com reports, some will have a tough road to travel. These include Croatia, England and Ukraine, who will compete against one another in the European zone’s group 6, as well as group 1 rivals Portugal, Sweden and Denmark.
Bulgaria and Ireland must tackle reigning world champions Italy, while Romania and Serbia have to navigate Germany 2006 runners-up France.
Australia, who narrowly missed out on a quarter-final place in Germany last year, will face reigning Asian champions Iraq, China and Qatar in their pool, from which two teams will advance to the concluding stage of Asian qualifying.
South Africa, who qualify automatically as 2010 hosts, will nonetheless compete in the preliminaries, which double up as qualifiers for the 2010 African Nations Cup, in a group that includes African powerhouse Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone.
In the Concacaf (North and Central America and the Caribbean) region, Canada landed the stiffest stage 2 challenge in the form of St Vincent and the Grenadines, who impressed during the qualifying rounds for the 2002 World Cup.
“Perhaps the most intriguing development was how the Stage 4 groups will appear if the favourites avoid upsets,” Fifa.com reports. “Indeed, Mexico, Canada, Jamaica and Honduras could do battle for two places in the deciding phase, while USA, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba and Guatemala may have to do the same.
“In the Asian zone, Korea Republic and Korea will clash, with the latter looking to reverse two unanswered losses to their neighbours in Fifa World Cup preliminaries. Kuwait will also be out to upset a trend: in six qualifiers for the competition against Iran they have failed to win.
“Over in Europe, Czech Republic and Slovakia, the two sides that formerly made up two-time Fifa World Cup finalists Czechoslovakia, will face off, and memories are bound to resurface when Scotland take on Netherlands, whom they beat 3-2 in a memorable match at Argentina 1978.”
These are just some of the great matches lined up for football fans around the world as the journey to South Africa 2010 gets under way.