Football draws used to be clandestine affairs. It was not until 1935, 63 years into the tournament, that anyone outside the Football Association was permitted to attend the FA Cup draw. It was another half-century before the television cameras were admitted. North of the border the suspicion that some balls were warmer than others in the fabled velvet bag lingered even longer due to the extraordinary way Celtic and Rangers avoided each other in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup.
The game's authorities have since realised that transparency is desirable and, perhaps more pertinently, draws are a draw in themselves and therefore a money-spinner. Thus today's World Cup draw in the South Korean port of Pusan has been turned into a 90-minute extravaganza. Much of this will be broadcast live around the world to the pleasure of football's world governing body, Fifa, and its sponsors, notably Sony, who have the main musical adornments under contract.
Not that everyone will watch it. The England captain is unlikely to be able to smuggle a television into the dressing-room at Old Trafford this morning. Nevertheless, it would not be surprising if, as the Manchester United and Chelsea players prepared for their noon kick-off, David Beckham turned to Frank Lampard, or Fabien Barthez to Emmanuel Petit, and whispered: "Have you heard the draw? What do you reckon to our group?"
It could be that quartet will be drawn together, a scenario neither England nor France would welcome, but it is quite possible. Apart from a few well-intentioned provisos, this draw will not be rigged. Fifa proved, in pairing Iran and the United States last time, that such shenanigans are a thing of the past. English and Irish prospects are wide open – the draw's structure means they could face anyone, including each other. Apart from the obvious six seeds, Sven Goran Eriksson and Mick McCarthy will be keen to avoid Portugal, Sweden, Paraguay, Nigeria, Cameroon, Mexico and, perhaps, Costa Rica.
Fifa's decision to regionalise the draw could throw up some seriously unbalanced groups. All but one will have two European teams but the difference between a group containing France and Portugal, compared to Slovenia and Poland, is considerable. Similarly in pot four Nigeria will be feared far more than Senegal while the co-hosts are clearly the weakest seeds.
History suggests European and South American teams are most likely to emerge from the group stages but there is a significant caveat. The first jointly hosted tournament promises to be a World Cup like no other and past performance may be an unreliable guide. Will South American teams prosper most in the monsoon conditions, as many anticipate? Or will the nations of football's Third World flourish? It would not be before time. Only one African country in 18 attempts, Cameroon in 1990, have gone beyond the second round. The Concacaf region have fared little better. They have reached three quarter-finals but, since Cuba in 1938, only done so when Mexico were hosts.
The worst regional performer, however, is Asia. North Korea, in 1966, are the only quarter-finalists and Saudi Arabia, in 1994, the only other team to get past the first round. Asian teams have produced four wins in 47 World Cup final ties and will have to perform better to justify their request for five places at the next World Cup.
It would help the tournament if two of them, Japan and South Korea, reach the later stages. Though both populations are wildly enthusiastic about staging the World Cup, there will be an inevitable downturn when their favourites go out. That said, there is much for any football fan to enthuse over even after their team goes out.
The field contains an attractive mix of old and new. Uruguay's weekend victory over Australia ensured that all seven previous winners will be present for the first time in 16 years and only the third occasion in the 17 tournaments. While many will have enjoyed the qualifying struggles experienced by Brazil and, especially, Germany, their participation is good for the tournament. They give the competition greater legitimacy and two classic teams. Brazil are the romantic lead, albeit a badly compromised one given the ugly leadership of Felipe Scolari, the coach. Germany, especially to the English, are the pantomime villain. With the exception of the Dutch the other old favourites, such as Italy, Argentina and Cameroon, are all present.
Senegal are the most exotic of the four newcomers, Slovenia the strongest and Ecuador the most unexpected. But it will be China who receive the greatest attention, the most populous nation on earth following up their Olympic bid triumph by finally qualifying for the world's other great sporting event. Their appearance confirms Bora Milutinovic to be one of the great coaches, having previously been to the World Cup with Mexico, USA, Costa Rica and Nigeria. That said there is political pressure in China to appoint a Chinese coach for the finals, a move their FA should resist if they are to prosper.
Conversely, in Nigeria, the pressure is on their FA to appoint a foreign coach despite Shaibu Amodu reviving a failing qualifying campaign. His chances of becoming the first black African to coach at a World Cup would appear to lie in a respectable showing in next month's African Nations' Cup in Mali. Should Amodu survive, and prosper, it would be an immense boost to native coaches in Africa and beyond.
The players of the Netherlands, Colombia, Romania and the Czech Republic will be missed, so will the fans of Scotland and Jamaica. The absence of Australia, too, is regrettable not least because a huge swathe of the world, south of China, east of Saudi Arabia and west of the Americas, is without representation. But then again, Australia are already champions of the world in both rugby codes and cricket and their tennis players are currently contesting the Davis Cup final. Perhaps it is only fair that, in one sport at least, bragging rights continue to elude them. For the privileged fans of 32 other nations the final countdown starts today.Reuse content