The prospect of England's footballers claiming a pot of gold in the Rainbow Nation next summer was enhanced last night after the draw for the World Cup finals placed them in an opening group that presents few obvious dangers. Even the stern Fabio Capello must have been struggling to suppress a smirk.
England will open their campaign in South Africa in Rustenburg on 12 June against USA and follow that with games against Algeria and Slovenia. A likely second-round meeting with Serbia, Australia or Ghana could set up a quarter-final with old rivals Argentina or France. With a bearded David Beckham looking on as one of the celebrities making the draw, it could barely have turned out better. England are now third favourites behind Spain and Brazil.
The highlight of a colourful ceremony in Cape Town that began with Zulu dancers, Nobel Peace Prize winners FW de Klerk and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and a video message from Nelson Mandela, turned out to be Group G, the obligatory "Group of Death". Brazil, the pre-draw favourites, will have to overcome Portugal, who knocked England out in 2006, and the Ivory Coast, the strongest of the African nations, who field Chelsea's Didier Drogba as their stellar striker. The group also brings together Portugal and North Korea in a repeat of the famous 1966 game in England when the great Eusebio inspired the Portuguese to recover from a three-goal deficit against the tournament's surprise package. It will be the first time since that North Korea are in the finals.
The tournament, the first to be staged in Africa, opens on 11 June with the hosts – ranked 86th in the world – playing Mexico. Fears that Bafana Bafana, as the home side are known, will struggle to stay in the competition – and maintain local interest – were heightened by the presence of France in the same group. There were gasps around the Convention Centre when the 1998 champions were pulled out of one of the glass bowls.
Charlize Theron, the South African Oscar-winning actress, hosted the draw in a style reminiscent of a 1970s Eurovision Song Contest, alongside Fifa's Jérôme Valcke – the "Drawmaster". "You're a fact machine," smiled Theron as Valcke droned through the process. "Hurrrraaaay," she said when South Africa's name was announced.
"We announce the death of doubt," Danny Jordaan, the tournament's chief executive and a former ANC activist, said yesterday, but for his all efforts serious doubts remain.
Kevin Miles, of the England's Football Supporters Federation, said there are still three main areas of concern: "Safety, accommodation and transport." The crime rate is one of the highest in the world, but as Mr Miles pointed out, from a tourist's perspective, much is "opportunist theft". The Foreign Office advice is: "There is a high level of crime, but most occurs in townships and areas away from tourist destinations." There are fears, acknowledged by Mr Jordaan, that some smaller venues might struggle to cope with the influx of fans. Rustenburg is close enough to Johannesburg for fans to be based there. England play their second game in Cape Town, which also has ample accommodation. Port Elizabeth, where England finish the group stage, is not so well equipped and organisers could yet order a switch of venues.
The majority of tickets for the finals are released for sale today – more than two-thirds. Supporters can buy "Team Specific Ticket Series", allowing them to follow their country up to the final. Tickets will be distributed through a ballot and range in price from £48 to £542. For those who bought tickets blind before the draw and don't fancy New Zealand versus Slovakia, for example, there is a way out. Early next year, supporters will be able to return or exchange tickets through the organisers.
In Britain, there will be a fan park in Trafalgar Square, with our own Nelson.
The last word belongs to the global one. "May the World Cup prove that the long wait has been worth it," said Mandela last night. "Kenako – it's time."