Africa passes first big test to get World Cup running

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Durban, Nov 26: Africa passed the first big test of its ability to stage the continent's first World Cup finals with a successful preliminary draw that gets the campaign to reach the 2010 finals off in earnest.

Hosts South Africa put on a slick show, with just one little glitch in yesterday's draw, sending visiting delegations from more than 150 nations away today in various degrees of hope, expectation and, in a few cases, dismay.

Only 31 will return to join South Africa in the 2010 finals at the end of the two-year qualification trail of twists and turns.

The hosts stuttered a little when the build-up to an announcement of the tournament's slogan ended in embarrassment. South African organising committee chairman Irvin Khoza was just about to reveal that ''Celebrating Africa's humanity'' was the choice when he was cut short.

Television producers switched over to open the international feed to more than 170 countries, leaving the audience in Durban's International Convention Centre bemused and bewildered.

The draw itself produced some bemusement, particularly for England whose delegates looked shocked when the fates conspired to land them in the same European qualifying group again as Croatia.

Only four days earlier, Croatia had caused a huge embarrassment by stopping England's expected progress to the Euro 2008 finals with a shock 3-2 victory at a rain-drenched Wembley.

Other teams came away much happier. World champions Italy look sure to dominate a group in which only Bulgaria and Ireland should provide meaningful opposition and European champions Greece were exuberant at getting nothing harder in their section than Israel and Switzerland.

South Africa will be thankful they do not have to qualify as hosts. The African part of the draw doubles as a qualifying competition for the 2010 African Nations Cup and South Africa were drawn in the same group as traditional continental heavyweights Nigeria.

The organisers will doubtless congratulate themselves too on switching the Soweto derby between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs to Durban for the occasion.

Saturday's thrilling 2-2 draw, and particularly the uninhibited and passionate support of more than 50,000 fans, left a deep impression on international soccer visitors and whetted their appetite for what should be the biggest sporting party in history in 2010.

UNI

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