Excitement growing as WC draws near
Five years after FIFA broke new ground by awarding its most prized possession to an African country, the eyes of the sporting world converge on Cape Town on Friday when the 32 finalists for next summer's World Cup finally learn their fate.
German celebrity Heidi Klum's shimmering dress stole the show four years ago. This time, it is South African actress and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron along with Nobel Peace Prize-winners Desmond Tutu and FW de Klerk who will be among the star-studed cast. Nelson Mandela, too frail at 91 to make a personal appearance, will make his address by video message.
David Beckham will also play his part, hoping for a draw that will be favourable to England, regarded by no less an ambassador than Franz Beckenbauer as genuine World Cup hopefuls. We have heard it all before, of course, but this time there is a growing momentum among serious pundits that Fabio Capello can become the first English manager - sorry, manager of England - to emulate Sir Alf Ramsey.
The cynics will point to the fact that, even under Capello, England have lost when facing the best - Brazil and Spain being painful cases in point when Capello's team were thoroughly outplayed. FIFA's decision not to seed 1998 champions France has left Raymond Domenech's team as the most dangerous floater among the 32 finalists. No one will want to meet them, especially as they have something to prove.
Appropriately for Africa's first World Cup, African music and dancing will dominate the proceedings but, when all the razzmatazz is stripped away, several mouth-watering ties lay in wait. Most of the coaches of the 32 teams will attend, although Diego Maradona will be conspicuous by his absence as he continues to serve his ban for that foul-mouthed tirade following Argentina's last-gasp qualification.
A few things are known in advance, such as hosts South Africa being in Group A and playing their opening match at the breathtaking Soccer City stadium on the outskirts of Soweto on June 11. All the seeds will be placed in pot one and, while the European seeds will meet another European opponent in the group phase, FIFA have managed to design the draw so that South Africa can't face another country from the African continent too early.
The fact that South Africa are seeded at all is a strong talking point. Tradition is tradition and we all know host nations have to be given a fair crack of the whip. But there is growing concern that Bafana Bafana, cynically nicknamed 'Banana Banana', may become the first host nation to get eliminated before the knockout phase.
Such a scenario would be a huge blow for the African continent - unless, that is, an African country can go all the way. Pele famously predicted this could happen by the turn of the millennium. He is still waiting, but the Ivory Coast look a fearsome unit and will be best avoided early on.
Capello, for one, predicts a strong performance from at least one African nation. "I think about the Africans and I believe this will be one of the most important World Cups for the African teams," he said. "I believe one of these countries will get to the last four. I saw the Ivory Coast play against Germany and they are a very strong team."