The World Cup trophy arrived in South Africa on Tuesday night and yesterday England's chances of taking it home come July were given a fillip with confirmation of their place among the eight top seeds for tomorrow's draw.
There had been fears that England could find themselves in the second tier of seeds if Fifa chose to base them on November's world rankings, but instead it is France, finalists last time, and Portugal, England's conquerors in 2006, who miss out.
A poor day for France was compounded with the news that Fifa will open a case against Thierry Henry for his handball in the play-off against Ireland last month, with the striker facing a suspension from their opening game in South Africa.
The world governing body also announced that there would not be extra officials in place for next summer's finals, as had been mooted by the organisation's president, Sepp Blatter, in the wake of the Henry controversy, but they will continue to explore the issue. According to Blatter, who earlier in the week had appeared all in favour of the move, the finals come too soon for the introduction of an extra official, as currently being trialled in the Europa League.
England will be alongside the hosts South Africa, Brazil, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Argentina in pot one for the draw and will face one team from each of the other groups. At worst that could mean France or Portugal, Ivory Coast and the US; at best Slovakia, Algeria, and North Korea would present a seemingly straight-forward path to the knockout stages. For an omen look no further than France, Uruguay and Mexico, which would be a repeat of the 1966 group stages.
France's place in pot two sparked claims that Fifa was punishing the country for Henry's actions, but Jérôme Valcke, the body's general secretary, stressed that there was no hidden agenda. Fifa based the seedings on October's alone and, unlike in past tournaments, did not take into account performances in previous finals. November's rankings moved France above England thanks to their play-off success. "France qualified after additional matches and were not even first in their group. Why should playing more matches and gaining more points kick out England who qualified with a good campaign?" asked Valcke.
But the former France coach, Michel Hidalgo said: "I am asking myself if this is not a sanction for the handball of Henry. It is an injustice. It looks like France is being sanctioned."
Any French persecution complex can only have been heightened by the prospect of a ban for Henry after yesterday's emergency executive committee meeting in Cape Town decided to investigate his actions. "It was blatant unfair play and was shown all around the world," said Blatter when asked why Fifa appears to be making a special case of Henry, "but I have not said Thierry Henry will be punished."
A busy day for Blatter – Fifa also dispatched a letter to Diego Maradona, Argentina's coach, reminding him he is banned from attending tomorrow's draw – concluded with an apology to Ireland over the 33rd team fiasco.
"We have received a letter from the FAI withdrawing their demand to be team No 33," he said. "I would like to express my regrets to a wrong interpretation of what I said, and to the FAI I'm sorry about the headlines going around the world. I have nothing against the Irish, they were very sporting."
Draw details: How the groups shape up
Pot 1 (seeds) South Africa, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Germany, Argentina, England.
Pot 2 (Asia, Oceania and North/Central America) Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Australia, New Zealand, US, Mexico, Honduras.
Pot 3 (Africa and South America) Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria, Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay.
Pot 4 (Europe) France, Portugal, Slovenia, Switzerland, Greece, Serbia, Denmark, Slovakia.
England's dream group
North Korea – ranked 84th
Algeria – 28th
Slovenia – 34th
England's nightmare group
US – 14th
Ivory Coast – 16th
France – 7thReuse content