For the second time in the last eight years, the World Cup is entering uncharted waters when South Africa plays host next summer. As Japan/South Korea 2002 ushered in the World Cup to Asia, so, too, will South Africa 2010 introduce the world's greatest sporting event to a new continent.
And if the World Cup is the greatest sporting event on the planet, the World Cup draw is a close second, even if it doesn't feature any actual games. It's the draw that smashes or buoys dreams and hopes as the stage is prepared for international soccer's quadrennial spectacle.
The process is actually simple. All 32 qualified teams have been split up into four different groups, or pots. One team from each pot will be randomly drawn into each of the eight groups.
Pot 1 has been set aside for the host South Africans and seven of the world's upper crust (see chart at right). The rest of the pots have been split up geographically, so no team from the same region can meet in the first round (the sole exception being European teams).
So even though there will be no U.S.-Mexico, Argentina-Uruguay or South Africa-Nigeria in the group stage, there are plenty of other scenarios that could play out when the world focuses on South Africa in earnest for the first time.
South Africa 2010 will be a unique and historic World Cup regardless of what happens. Even if form holds and a major power wins -- or if a surprise team breaks through and claims a World Cup trophy for the first time -- South Africa 2010 is breaking down barriers and taking the world's greatest sporting event to a brand new audience. By the time the tournament ends in Johannesburg next July 11, the World Cup will have been disputed and fought over on five different continents.
The path for success and failure will be laid out on Friday (noon ET, ESPN2, Univisión). Here's a guide to how it will go down, and some other plotlines to follow.
The U.S. national team already faced and survived a monster group in South Africa. At last summer's Confederations Cup, the U.S. was in a group with Italy, Brazil and Egypt. Despite losses to the reigning World Cup champions and the five-time champs, respectively, the U.S. squeaked into the second round with a 3-0 win over Egypt in its last group-stage game. Logic would dictate the U.S. can't possibly get a tougher group than that. No matter what the pots spit out, the Americans' opponents won't have a combined nine World Cup titles between them.
But that doesn't mean the U.S. won't get a group that could be as tough, if not tougher, than its nightmarish Confederations Cup group. Any team from Pot 1 will be tough. Brazil, Italy, Germany and Argentina each have talent to spare and have won multiple World Cups; Spain and the Netherlands are the two best nations never to have won a World Cup, while England is a perennial favorite as well. South Africa might seem like the weakest team in Pot 1, but consider this: A World Cup host has never failed to advance past the first round.
No matter what, all teams, including the U.S., will face an unenviable matchup from the start.
History will be made when the host nation takes the field for the first kick on June 11. But aside from locale, will another first be forthcoming? Never in any of the previous 17 World Cups has an African team advanced as far as the semifinal stage. Previous final fours have featured such otherwise nondescript footballing nations such as South Korea and Turkey (semifinalists in 2002), Croatia (1998), Sweden and Bulgaria ('94), Belgium ('86), Poland ('82 and '74) and even the U.S. ('30).
Aside from South Africa, the African nations all reside in Pot 3. Ivory Coast is seemingly the strongest African team in the World Cup, featuring the likes of Chelsea's
The strength of each group will be determined by the caliber of the team it draws from Pot 4, where the remainder of European teams reside. Draw a France or Portugal and you're asking for trouble. Get a Slovenia or Greece and, suddenly, the group looks manageable. But for many in this group of European nations, a World Cup appearance is no given. Denmark, for instance, has only reached three previous World Cups; Switzerland's appearance in South Africa will be its third since 1966; Greece has only ever participated in one World Cup, back in '94.
For these nations, the chance to play in a World Cup could be a once-in-a-generation type opportunity, and they'll give their best shot because there are no guarantees they'll return anytime soon.
While exciting and tense matches were common in the '06 World Cup, many things went according to form: A European team won it; no real surprise teams reached the semifinals; the teams who were expected to do well, did. But when the World Cup was last played in a new continent, things went wonky from the start.
The Netherlands didn't even qualify for Japan/Korea '02, the first ever to be played outside Europe and the Americas. Argentina and England were drawn into the same group; Argentina crashed out in the first round, as did Portugal, France, Cameroon and Nigeria.
This World Cup could be more of the same, and the draw will determine as much. The draw could provide for some interesting and intriguing matchups such as:
France vs. Italy: How about a rematch of the '06 final right off the bat?
Germany vs. U.S.: Americans vow revenge for '02 quarterfinal loss.
Argentina vs. Mexico: These two Western Hemisphere rivals are no strangers, having met in the Copa América, Confederations Cup and previously in the World Cup.
Spain vs. Portugal: A matchup made in the Iberian Peninsula.
Brazil vs. Ivory Coast: Talent galore would dominate this potential goal-fest.
England vs. Greece: The best team never to win a European title against the most improbable European champion ever.
No matter what matchups the world will get -- and there will be plenty of intrigue and excitement regardless of what the groups look like -- the planet can begin salivating and counting down the World Cup after Friday.