The World Cup is still 242 days away but it is unlikely that anything which occurs in Germany next summer will match the drama in Yaounde on Saturday as the African zone qualifying campaign drew to a close.
Cameroon were on course for the win they required to reach a fifth successive finals when Egypt, who were already out of contention, equalised with 10 minutes remaining.
The home side attacked frantically and, having hit the bar and missed a sitter, won a penalty in the fifth and final minute of injury time when Salomon Olembe, once briefly of Leeds, was tripped.
With Arsenal's Lauren, a regular penalty-taker, off the pitch and Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o unwilling, the awesome responsibility fell upon the former Fulham left-back Pierre Womé, now of Internazionale. Before a nation transfixed by fear and hope, Womé hit the post.
Seconds later the final whistle blew and, a thousand miles west, the strife-torn Ivory Coast erupted in rare joy. "The Elephants", who minutes earlier won 3-1 in Sudan, Chelsea's Didier Drogba scoring the third goal, had reached their first finals.
Three other African newcomers also qualified: Togo, Angola and Ghana. Togo's "Sparrowhawks" twice trailed Congo before emerging 3-2 victors, thus rendering academic Senegal's 3-0 defeat of Mali. Wigan's Henri Camara had scored twice for Senegal and Bolton's El Hadji Diouf once.
A nervous Angola beat Rwanda 1-0 to become only the second southern African nation to reach the finals. They edged out perennial qualifiers Nigeria, who had thrashed Zimbabwe 5-1.
Michael Essien's Ghana cruised to a 4-0 win in the Cape Verde Islands to top a group in which 2010 hosts South Africa came third. The final African place went to Tunisia. Visitors Morocco, needing to win to qualify, twice led but Charlton's Talal El Karkouri, who had earlier conceded a penalty, scored an unfortunate own goal to put Tunisia through.
The automatic places were also filled in the Americas with Costa Rica taking the third Concacaf (North and Central America) slot and Ecuador and Paraguay qualifying in South America. "The Ticos" beat an understrength United States team 3-0 to reach Germany, Paulo Wanchope starting the rout with a Costa Rican record 43rd international goal.
A goalless draw at home to Uruguay was enough for Ecuador while Paraguay won 1-0 in Venezuela. That left Uruguay, Chile and Colombia vying for a play-off place against Australia, the Oceania region winners. Uruguay must defeat bitter rivals Argentina on Wednesday to make sure.
A play-off place is also available in Concacaf with Trinidad & Tobago slight favourites after a goal from Coventry's Stern John beat Panama yesterday. The prize is a play-off against Bahrain or Uzbekistan who are all square 1-1 after the replayed first-leg of their regional play-off. The unhappy Uzbeks, coached by the Englishman Bob Houghton, once manager of Bristol City, had won the original tie, declared void because of a refereeing error, 1-0. The second leg, on Wednesday, will be refereed by Graham Poll.
In Europe, Italy, Portugal, Croatia and the Netherlands joined England and Poland in securing qualification. The Dutch, whose win ensured England's progress, were inspired by Erwin van der Sar's penalty save from Tomas Rosicky at 0-0 before Hamburg's in-form Rafael van der Vaart put them on course for victory in Prague.
Italy required a late goal from substitute Cristian Zaccardo, on his home ground in Palermo, to defeat Slovenia 1-0. The Portugese, incredibly, trailed Liechtenstein, who had held Portugal at home, at half-time in Aveiro. Pauleta equalised and Nuno Gomes's 86th-minute winner secured victory. Croatia's 1-0 win over Sweden ensures they will qualify as either group winners or a best runner-up.
Of the undecided sections Group Seven promises a tense finish with Serbia & Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, who were at war a decade ago, meeting in Belgrade on Wednesday with both still in with a chance of qualifying. If Serbia fail to win, Spain, who won 2-0 in Belgium on Saturday, can progress with a big win in San Marino.
On the same night Russia must win in Slovakia to secure a play-off place, while Greece, the Euro 2004 winners, having lost 1-0 to Denmark, need to beat Georgia and hope Turkey and Denmark both lose, in Albania and Kazakhstan respectively, just to make the play-offs.
Qualifiers so far for 2006
Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Tunisia.
Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea.
* NORTH AMERICA
Costa Rica, Mexico, US.
Croatia, England, Germany (hosts), Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Ukraine.
* SOUTH AMERICA
Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay.Reuse content