There was a sharp intake of breath from the audience when the hosts drew France [AFP]
It only happens every four years, and finally in a star-studded ceremony at the Cape Town International Conventional Centre, the group stages of the World Cup were decided, kicking off Africa's first World Cup.

Brazil and Portugal were sent on a World Cup collision course in Group G and were joined by top African side Ivory Coast and unknown quantities North Korea in what will inevitably be dubbed the 'Group of Death'.

Brazil have won the World Cup a record five times and Portugal finished fourth behind Italy, France and Germany three years ago.

The other favourites for the tournament Spain were given an easy ride through to the second round.

It was also bad news for the host nation in Group A as South Africa drew Mexico in the opening game of the World Cup and then two former world champions - France and Uruguay.

Group B has Argentina, South Korea, Nigeria and Greece, with England, United States, Algeria and Slovenia making up Group C.

Germany have it a bit tougher with Australia, Serbia and Ghana standing in their way in Group D.

The Netherlands have Japan, Cameroon and Denmark in Group E.

Defending champions Italy, who are chasing their fifth World Cup triumph, should be confident of reaching the next stage after drawing New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia in Group F.

In the final Group H, European champions Spain, who have never won the World Cup, should easily make it through to the knockout phase, facing lower ranked Switzerland, Honduras and Chile and avoiding the tough teams in the 32-team draw.

Tough group

WORLD CUP POOLS

Group A
 South Africa
 Mexico
 Uruguay
 France

Group B
 Argentina
 Nigeria
 South Korea
 Greece

Group C
 England
 United States
 Algeria
 Slovenia

Group D
 Germany
 Australia
 Serbia
 Ghana

Group E
 Netherlands
 Denmark
 Japan
 Cameroon

Group F
 Italy
 Paraguay
 New Zealand
 Slovakia

Group G
 Brazil
 North Korea
 Ivory Coast
 Portugal

Group H
 Spain
 Switzerland
 Honduras
 Chile

Ivory Coast's hopes of an easier World Cup draw second time round were dashed when they were pulled to face giants Brazil and Portugal in the opening rounds. 

Captain and star striker Didier Drogba had hoped for weaker opponents after the west African 'Elephants' were grouped with Argentina and Netherlands in Germany three years ago and suffered narrow losses before beating Serbia.

The picking of South Africa's opponent for the opening match was one of the most anticipated moments of the World Cup draw ceremony as the hosts gained an automatic seeding for the tournament and were seen as an easy match.

South Africa are ranked 86th in the world and will find a tough opponent in Mexico, the world's 15th-ranked team, on June 11 at Soccer City, despite the strong home support they will no doubt receive.

France have never lost against South Africa and beat them in the opening game of the 1998 World Cup, which they hosted and won.

After qualifying via the back door of the playoffs thanks to Thierry Henry's handball against Ireland, France have an easy ride to the second round.

"We will be proud to face the host nation,'' said France coach Raymond Domenech.

"We wanted this to fully appreciate the atmosphere of African football.''

England coach Fabio Capello had reason to be happy as his men drew a relatively lightweight trio of the United States, Algeria and Slovenia.

"I think it is one of the most balanced groups.

"Algeria have beaten Egypt so they are a dangerous side. I remember there have been groups that looked easy but then became really complicated," he told Sky Italia.

The draw was made in front of a huge global TV audience, estimated at 350 million people worldwide.

Star-studded

Thousands of fans began the World Cup party early on the streets of Cape Town.

At the main party venue, on the city's popular Long Street, many football fans gathered together to watch the draw on a giant television screen.

The ceremony was a glittering affair, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, David Beckham and Charlize Theron adding glamour to around 3,000 people who were waiting in keen anticipation of their route to the finals.

Former South Africa president Nelson Mandela, who was involved with South Africa's World Cup bid, kicked off the ceremony by saying South Africa was "privileged and humbled" to be staging football's greatest event.

The country's first black president played a pivotal role in securing the inaugural World Cup on African soil and he said sport was a powerful weapon in uniting nations.

"Sport has the power to inspire and unite people," said Mandela.

"In Africa, soccer enjoys great popularity and has a particular place in the hearts of people. Which is why it is so important that the Fifa World Cup will, for the first time ever, be hosted on the African continent in 2010," he added.

"We must strive for excellence in our hosting of the World Cup, while at the same time, ensuring that we are going to leave a lasting benefit to all our people."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies