One small voice

2009-11-28 00:00

NOW the fun starts. The draw for the 2010 World Cup finals takes place in Cape Town on Friday. Millions of fans will be following closely to discover who their country will play.

Thirty-one teams advanced from the qualifying groups to join hosts South Africa in the final tournament. On Friday, these 32 countries will be drawn into eight round-robin groups of four, from which the top two teams in each pool will proceed to the knockout phase, starting with the last 16, then the quarter-finals, then the semi-finals and, on July 11, the final. The format is simple; the reality is laced with intrigue.

Fifa, as masters of all they survey, determine all the processes and procedures and, even now, less than a week before the draw, the methodology has not yet been confirmed. The Fifa executive will meet next week and finalise the rules, in the best interests of the game.

What will happen? Well, the 32 teams will be divided into four pots, and each group will comprise a team from Pot 1, a team from Pot 2, a team from Pot 3 and a team from Pot 4.

The eight teams in Pot 1 will be South Africa, as hosts, and the seven seeded nations. It would be simple if the seedings were determined by the current Fifa rankings … simple and dull; instead, the seedings are likely to be determined by a combination of world ranking and recent World Cup performances.

A consensus is emerging that the seven teams, joining Bafana in Pot 1, will be Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany, Italy, Spain and either Holland or the French Olympic handball team (France). It would seem logical for these teams to be drawn at random into the various groups, but will that happen?

Maybe Fifa will prefer to place the Pot 1 teams according to alphabetical order. Before anyone asks “who cares?”, it is important to know that such a decision could be crucial.

The format of the knockout phase is predetermined, with, for example, the winner of Group A playing the runners-up in Group D in the last 16 and so on.

This structure means that, if all the seeds progress, the final has to be played between one team from Groups A, B, C or D and another from Groups E, F, G or H.

By general consent, Brazil versus Spain would be the dream final. If it is considered important to ensure such a final remains possible after Friday’s draw, Fifa may opt to decree the top seeds are allocated to the eight groups by alphabetical order. With SA already designated A1, then Brazil would be C1 and Spain would be H1. If Fifa allowed a random draw, they would run the risk of Brazil and Spain being drawn to meet in the quarter-finals … and that may not be “in the best interests of the game”.

As much as any team, Bafana Bafana will be hoping for a favourable draw. In line with the tradition that the host team plays the opening match, SA will open their campaign against a team from Pot 2 at Soccer City, Johannesburg, on the evening of Friday June 11, 2010. This is certain to be a European side and, looking at the possible options, a best case scenario could bring the rookies Slovenia into the seething calabash on opening day, while the worst case could bring France or Holland.

SA’s second match will be played at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on Wednesday, June 16, against either Asian or South American opponents, pending Fifa’s decisions next week. Options include Japan, South Korea, Paraguay or Chile – none easy, none impossible. The result of this match will probably determine whether Bafana qualify for the knockout phase or become the first hosts ever to be eliminated in the group stage.

Bafana’s third and last group match – which will be either the day of decision or, if their first two matches are lost, an irrelevance – will be played in Bloemfontein on Tuesday, June 22, against one of the minnows, ideally New Zealand.

All will be revealed at 7pm next Friday.

Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby and general manager of SABC sport, and has been involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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