South Africa set for gala draw

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - The countdown to next year's World Cup begins in earnest on Friday when the 32 qualifiers learn where, when and who they will be playing against when the draw takes place before a huge global TV audience.

An estimated 350 million people are expected to tune in for Friday's gala ceremony at Cape Town's International Convention Centre as the qualifiers are drawn into eight first round groups for the tournament starting on June 11 next year.

Already decided, however, is that hosts South Africa will play the opening match at Soccer City in Johannesburg and they cannot meet any of the other seven seeded nations: Brazil, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Argentina or England.

The will also avoid any of the African qualifiers: Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana or Nigeria.

The draw starts at 5pm GMT and will be a 90-minute television spectacular hosted by South African actress Charlize Theron and FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke.

Appropriately for the continent's first World Cup, there will be a strong African theme to the draw which will feature regional music and dancing and a number of African sports personalities.

A majority of the 32 teams' coaches will attend although Argentina's Diego Maradona cannot after he was banned from football for two months by FIFA for a foul-mouthed tirade against journalists following his team's qualification for the finals.