CAPE TOWN, December 1- Football's high and mighty were heading for Cape Town this week ahead of Friday's World Cup draw which will set the scene for the June 11-July 11 tournament.
More than three years after qualifying began, the 204 countries who set out to reach the sporting showpiece have been whittled down to 32 drawn from the six FIFA global federations.
They go into the hat at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT) on Friday with the 90-minute ceremony determining not just who plays who, but where they play in a crime-ridden country entrusted with hosting Africa’s first World Cup.
It has not been an easy ride for organisers, with the country’s ability to deliver top-class tournament infrastructure heavily scrutinised.
While the five new and five renovated stadiums are now almost complete, concerns remain over transportation and accommodation shortfalls, as well as security in a nation where 50 people are murdered every day.
But for national coaches like England’s Fabio Capello, Dunga of Brazil, Spain’s Vicente Del Bosque and Italy’s Marcello Lippi, who will be among those in Cape Town this week, all they want to know is who their teams will play.
They will be split into eight groups of four with the seedings and draw procedure only due to be finalised on Wednesday, 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 northeast to Cape Town in the southwest, culminating in the final in Johannesburg on July 11.
The journey 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. Japan was the first team to book its ticket and Uruguay was the last.
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 Capello moulding a disciplined team where morale is high, with Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry his lynchpins.
The Italian taskmaster expects to reach the final.
"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."
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 finals at the expense of Ireland.
The fallout has been so severe that FIFA president Sepp Blatter has called a crisis meeting for Wednesday here to deal with the issue and 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 Del Bosque took over with a perfect 10 wins out 10 in qualifying.
But they have never won the World Cup and 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 has also proved its 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.