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By ESPN Staff

South Africa takes centre stage for World Cup draw

DURBAN, Nov 23 (Reuters) - South Africa takes centre stage in the world's sporting firmament on Sunday when Durban hosts the preliminary draw for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the first to be held on the continent.

A glitzy 90-minute television show featuring soccer greats launches an event which will transfix viewers around the world.

Millions globally will tune in as 169 countries weigh up the chances of joining the hosts as one of the 32 teams to contest the 2010 finals.

Apart from the distinction of becoming the first African nation to stage one of the two greatest sporting festivals -- the World Cup and the Summer Olympics -- South Africa will also become the first host to be included in the preliminary draw.

However, unlike the other 169 nations taking part, South Africa is guaranteed its place in 2010. It will be included only because the process is doubling as the draw for the Africa Nations Cup earlier the same year.

The draw, which starts at 1500 GMT, will be conducted by new FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke under the watchful eyes of South African president Thabo Mbeki and FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

Valcke will be assisted by African greats of the past - Liberia's George Weah, Abedi Pele of Ghana and South Africa's own Lucas Radebe.

Other former world aces helping out include France's world champion defender Marcel Desailly, who was born in Ghana, Ali Daei of Iran and American Kasey Keller.

That there will be no great Brazilian or Argentina players of the past on stage is only because South America is not taking part in the draw.

The 10 South American nations all play each other in a continental group which has already started.

Preliminary matches are also under way in Asia, Africa and Oceania and 30 of the 200 teams entered have already been eliminated.

The 31 teams who will join South Africa in the finals will comprise 13 from Europe, a further five from Africa, four each from Asia and South America and three from Concacaf, the North and Central American and Caribbean confederation.

The last two teams will come from two playoffs -- the first between the winner of the Oceania group and the fifth-placed team in Asia and the second pitting the fifth-placed South American team against the fourth from Concacaf.

Usually the interest of the draw is mainly centred on Europe where titanic struggles can take place among high-ranked nations.

This time, appropriately, the focus will be at least as much on Africa with the continent's leading teams such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia all desperate to earn a place in the first African finals.

FIFA has said the world rankings, being announced on Friday, will be used as a basis for seedings but the seedings themselves will only be determined by the organising committee of the tournament on Saturday.

Holders Italy are expected to be the top European seed.

Asia will be the first confederation to be drawn on Sunday, followed by Concacaf, Europe and then Africa. The draw for Oceania has already taken place.