by Matshelane Mamabolo and Lebogang Seale

The soccer gods dealt South Africa a very bad hand at the World Cup draw in Cape Town last night. Seeded top, the host nation had expected a favourable draw for next year’s 32-nation soccer spectacle that takes place from 11 June to 10 July. But fate ensured that Bafana Bafana’s path to the second round will be a difficult one. Mexico, Uruguay and France will provide tough opposition for Carlos Alberto Parreira’s lowly ranked Bafana, and history suggests the Brazilian and his boys will need a miracle to get through the group.

The sigh of disappointment that engulfed the packed Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) when Mexico and France were drawn in Group A was confirmation that all realised the enormity of the task that awaits Bafana. But Springbok captain John Smit and Bafana defender Matthew Booth, both of whom assisted with the draw, broke the gloom with their positive outlook.

“I’m pretty happy that we will have good practice before we reach the semifinals and final,” said Smit, clearly choosing to look beyond the group stage. Booth was equally optimistic: “We did not expect it to be easy. But I don’t envy the Mexicans, who will be subjected to 90 000 vuvuzelas.” Mexico will provide stiff opposition for Bafana in the opening match at Soccer City on June 10 while France will be their last group opponent in Mangaung.

Sandwiched between the two will be a clash with Uruguay in Pretoria. In eight combined matches with the three countries, Bafana have only one win to boast of – a victory against Mexico in 2005. That poor record is going to have to change dramatically if we are not to become the first host nation in World Cup history to be knocked out in the first round. Bafana’s deadly draw notwithstanding, the 40-minute, made-for-television event itself was a huge success, going off without any glitches.

Opening to a resounding African beat and kaleidoscope of colour, it provided a foretaste of the grand spectacle that awaits fans next year. The CTICC erupted in rapturous applause when Johnny Clegg gave a rendition of his hit song Scatterlings of Africa against the background of glowing images of South Africa’s colours.

The glamorous ceremony graced by an array of dignitaries and celebrities from the sporting (Portuguese legend Eusebio), political former presidents FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki and movie (Charlize Theron) worlds, marked another milestone in South Africa’s road to 2010. Not even an earlier bomb scare at the CTICC, when a foreign journalist allegedly claimed he had a bomb in his bag, could damp the spirits among the dignitaries.

Nelson Mandela was not there, but his message of goodwill was relayed from a giant screen. “In Africa, soccer enjoys great popularity and has a particular place in our hearts. We must strive for excellence while ensuring the event leaves a lasting legacy for the benefits of our people. “The Fifa World Cup proves that the long wait for Africa has ended. Ke nako (It’s time)!” the frail Mandela said, to loud applause. Fifa president Sepp Blatter reiterated Madiba’s statements, comparing the continent’s hosting of the World Cup to “a love story” because “Africa has waited for too long”.

President Jacob Zuma reminded everyone about the hospitality that awaits visiting fans and teams next year through a “display of warmth and humility”. Then Benin singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo mesmerised the audience with her popular song Agolo. But this was only a prelude to the resounding welcome that Theron received when she was invited onto the stage.

The Benoni-born Hollywood star expressed her excitement and pride at South Africa’s status as World Cup hosts, which she described as an “an incredible and historic” moment.

“I can’t describe how great it is to be home… So much has changed but the passion for the game and the competition remains the same,” she said. Theron led a star-studded line-up of celebrities – including England star David Beckham, cricket fast bowler Makhaya Ntini, Booth, and Smit, who helped Fifa general secretary Jér244me Valcke conduct the draw proceedings.

(; /; 20091205)

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