Tough World Cup draw for African challengers
A heavy dose of reality crashed down upon African hopes of a maiden Fifa World Cup title after Friday's draw pitched the continent's most-fancied teams in challenging groups.
In the build-up to the Cape Town draw, where locals flooded the city centre for the most colourful of street parties, most of the talk centred upon Ghana and Ivory Coast spearheading Africa's unlikely quest.
But now the tables have turned after the Black Stars landed in among Germany, Australia and Serbia (Group D) while the Ivorians face Brazil, Portugal and North Korea (Group G).
The Soweto Gospel Choir performed with panache and passion during the draw ceremony
Two of the continent's leading countries may now exit at the first hurdle, and it's hard not to feel some sympathy for Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast. Boasting a high-calibre team packed with seasoned Europe-based campaigners like Kolo Toure, his brother Yaya, Didier Zokora and Emmanuel Eboue, the West Africans surely deserved a break after their 2006 experience.
On that occasion, the Ivorians' inaugural finals pitched them against a dangerous Argentina and a star-studded Dutch side - a challenge that proved too much, especially after the Elephants gifted both teams early 2-0 leads.
Four years on, the least they arguably deserved was a sporting chance of progress but now their fate largely rests with their opener against Portugal in Port Elizabeth.
A result there could ease the intriguing clash with Brazil five days later, and the Ivorians will be desperate to enter their final game against North Korea with a second round place still at stake.
Ghana, too, can feel a little aggrieved about the calibre of their opponents - Germany being Germany (six World Cup finals in 11 tournaments), Australia having cruised through the Asian groups while the strong and skilful Serbs blew away the French in qualifying.
Yet the Black Stars can point to their first World Cup in 2006 as grounds for optimism, for no-one gave them a hope of qualifying from a group including Italy, Czech Republic and the United States.
Now, as then, they must rely on the midfield guile of Stephen Appiah, Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari to drive them through - although there are new faces as well. Another midfielder, Norway-based Anthony Annan, has become a key man while youngsters such as Dominic Adiyiah, snapped up by AC Milan after his lead role in October's historic U20 World Cup triumph, and Dede Ayew (Abedi Pele's son) are knocking on the door.
Ivorian and Ghanaian misfortunes mean some may start looking for a different African winner - and Samuel Eto'o's Cameroon may well lead that charge.
It's a well-worn cliché that African football's biggest problems are a lack of discipline and professionalism, yet coach Paul Le Guen (ex-PSG and Rangers) has instilled both in the short period of time he's been in charge.
And a side with a decent goalkeeper (Carlos Kameni), Premier League defenders (Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Sebastian Bassong), Jean Makoun, Stephane Mbia and Alex Song in midfield, and Eto'o up front, should not be underestimated.
The 1990 World Cup quarter-finalists will fancy their chances against Denmark, Japan and Netherlands and should they unexpectedly top Group E, an appealing second round clash with either New Zealand, Paraguay or Slovakia awaits.
Making up the numbers are Algeria, Nigeria and of course hosts South Africa.
English eyes will be focusing on Algeria and January's Nations Cup participation in war-ravaged Angola is going to be the subject of close scrutiny.
In truth, the Fennecs are a limited side, short on quality up front, and with only the lively Karim Ziani, once of Marseille but now of Wolfsburg, buzzing around with any danger. As a colleague points out, it says everything about the North Africans that their right-back was their joint top scorer in qualifying - and Antar Yahia, despite his brilliant finish against Egypt, is no Josimar.
You might expect coach Rabah Saadane, who was (incredibly) in charge during Algeria's last appearance in 1986, to be dismayed but he was beaming after the draw, relishing the chance of taking on England as he bathed in the World Cup's unique aura.
Elsewhere, Nigeria's Super Eagles, who were unconvincing in qualifying despite their unbeaten record, will surely be happy with Group B opponents Argentina, South Korea and Greece. The Nigerians beat Greece 2-0 in both countries' first World Cup finals in 1994, while the Argentines hold little fear given the Super Eagles' famous Olympic triumph over them in 1996.
Last but by no means least, the second round hopes of hosts South Africa dimmed ever more when drawing two former World Cup winners - France and Uruguay - and the experienced Mexicans. Bafana Bafana, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, have scored once in seven games, won once in 11 games, but must now overcome three sides in Fifa's top 20.
Yet it's a fallacy to say the World Cup will be over if Carlos Alberto Parreira's men crash out early because football fans here have long been salivating at the thought of seeing their favourite players in South African stadiums.
With the draw having shown the planet what South Africa can do, overjoyed locals are finally realising that all talk of Plan B is now truly obsolete - "the world is watching us and the world is coming," Capetonians screamed with delight. And if Friday's festival in the Mother City is anything to go by - street performers, oversized puppets and endless vuvuzelas to the fore - the 2010 World Cup is going to be as colourful as it is memorable.