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By ESPN Staff

World Cup draw takes center stage

DURBAN, South Africa -- With the World Cup still three years away, the qualifying hopes of many countries will be riding on Sunday's qualifying draw.

In a glitzy evening ceremony featuring balls drawn from glass bowls, organizers will set up the qualifying groups for Europe, Africa, Asia, and North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Smaller nations might get lucky with easy groups, while powerhouses such as defending champion Italy and Germany could wind up with tough opposition in the two-year campaign to complete the 32-team field for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Only South Africa can watch with ease -- as host nation, it automatically qualifies.

More than 3,000 people will fill the International Convention Center close to the Indian Ocean beaches on Sunday, with organizers counting on a flawless show to kick off their World Cup buildup.

"The preliminary draw is of paramount importance to us," said Danny Jordaan, the head of the organizing committee. "We have a unique opportunity to demonstrate our ability to organize a world class event."

Among the guests will be South Africa President Thabo Mbeki, FIFA president Sepp Blatter and soccer greats such as France's Marcel Desailly and Liberia's George Weah. American goalkeeper Kasey Keller also was scheduled to take part.

Qualifying already is under way in Oceania and South America, who are not be included in Sunday's draw.

The United States has a first-round bye in North and Central America and the Caribbean, and will start qualifying in June.

Most eyes will be on Europe, which had all four semifinalists at last year's World Cup in Germany. England, which failed to qualify for the 2008 European Championship after its 3-2 loss to Croatia on Wednesday, is likely to miss out on a top seeding in Sunday's draw. England dropped one spot to 12th in the FIFA world rankings issued Friday, leaving the English 10th among European teams.

The Europeans will be drawn into nine qualifying groups that will determine its 13 places at the 2010 tournament: the nine group winners and the four playoff winners among the second-place teams. Top seeds in Europe should be Italy, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Croatia and Greece.