Some rare words were uttered at the Cape Town International Convention Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, on Friday Dec. 4, 2009, which hadn't been heard at many, if any, draws.
"I think England and the USA are favored in this group," Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek said.
"It's a group that gives England and the USA an advantage," Algeria coach Rabah Saadane added.
For perhaps the first time, two opposing coaches believed the U.S. could reach the next round of the World Cup.
Those were the great expectations facing the Americans, who, thanks to a favorable schedule, could not have asked for a better draw.
The Americans were placed in Group C along with seeded England (Rustenburg on June 12), Slovenia (Johannesburg on June 18), which was participating in its second World Cup, and Algeria (Pretoria on June 23), which advanced through a playoff win against Egypt to reach soccer's promised land.
Remarkably, the schedule meant that the U.S. team would not have to fly to a single venue, as all three were in driving distance of its base camp in Pretoria. Further, the United States had already played in all three stadiums during the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup.
But no one on the U.S. team would give itself any advantage. "I don't think there are weak teams," coach Bob Bradley said. But then again, no one was calling Group C the Group of Death.
In fact, Bradley was optimistic his team could reach the second round.
“I think there's a fair chance for us,” he said. “Slovenia and Algeria both came through great situations to get to this World Cup; Algeria with a historic win [against Egypt] and Slovenia beating Russia in the playoff. We feel that this is a group that gives us a really fair chance to move on.”
England would be the USA’s first challenge.
“It’s a great way to start. It’s a big challenge but when you come to the World Cup and you have a chance to kick it off against an opponent like England, it gives it a really special start,” Bradley said.
FIFA decided to add a new wrinkle to this draw, holding its Executive Committee meeting on Robben Island, which famously housed the prison where Nelson Mandela was held during South Africa’s Apartheid era. There was plenty of news to share with the media, including World Cup bonuses, payments to club teams for the use of players, the expansion of the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2015 and keeping the status quo in Olympic men's soccer.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter basked in the glow of having the meeting in the South African equivalent of Alcatraz. "This is more an historic day for the FIFA Executive Committee and for me because Robben Island has written a story of humanity and a very important one," he said.
However, two traditions continued at the draw – FIFA conjuring up a new way to seed teams and banning a World Cup hero at the draw.
In a major break from tradition, FIFA surprisingly threw out the old criteria and announced that the eight seeded teams would be determined by the organization's October rankings. Results of the three previous World Cups, which were weighted, were used to determine the top seeds.
Using that criteria, host South Africa, Brazil, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Argentina and England were declared the eight seeds by the FIFA Executive Committee, secretary general Jerome Valcke said at a press conference.
The Netherlands replaced France, and England - which many didn't think would be seeded - managed to squeak in at the expense of Portugal.
“The one big question in terms of seeds was whether a seed would go to the Netherlands or to France, and I think the choice of the Netherlands being a top seed certainly caught some people a little bit surprised," Bradley said.
In two previous draws, Pele wound up on the outside looking in. At this one, Argentine great Diego Maradona, the current Argentina coach, was persona non grata.
Maradona, who was banned from all soccer activities for two months because of derogatory remarks he recently made about journalists, would not be allowed to participate at the draw Valcke said at a press conference. Maradona, who also was fined $26,500, was banned through Jan. 15, 2010.
"He will be there for the World Cup," Valcke said. "Don't be afraid."
On the day of the draw, the convention center was a beehive of activity, including a special morning breakfast with Danny Jordaan, CEO of the South African World Cup Organizing Committee.
An American journalist asked Jordaan if he feared that South Africans’ interest would wane in the cup if the hosts were eliminated after the first round. "At the moment, the South Africans have that fear . . . if [they] don't go to the second round," he said.
Jordaan said his desires of South Africa hosting a World Cup began during the opening ceremonies in Chicago at USA '94. He remembered Diana Ross singing prior to the match. "I did try to get her in our opening ceremonies," he said, "but there's a committee."
Draw day also included the Bidding Country Media Expo in the northern part of the city. The hosts of both competitions would be selected in Zurich, Switzerland in December 2010.
Ten countries were vying to host either of the two tournaments. Each candidate was given a four-minute video presentation to boast why it should host the greatest show on earth. In order of appearance (from a draw), Spain/Portugal kicked off the proceedings, followed by Australia, Qatar, Belgium/Holland, Korea Republic, Russia, Japan, Indonesia, United States and England.
The U.S. video was a mini-version of ESPN's SportsCenter touting the growth, interest and excitement of soccer in the United States, with reports from games, the new Dallas Cowboys stadium and the grassroots.
Donald Gips, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, came to support the Americans' bid. He spoke at length with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati.
"Right now we're so excited about the upcoming World Cup here," Gips said. "It also gives us a great platform, both to learn and talk with people about why the U.S. would be a great place to host the cup. Already you see the enthusiasm from more people buying tickets from the U.S. than any other nation, including more than Germany and England combined. So, that's an incredibly exciting start. When the U.S. hosted the World Cup, we sold more tickets than anyone ever has. The chance to have the games in the U.S. would be a great example of pulling together. The U.S. [government] is supporting it wherever it can. We'll host receptions and talk about why the U.S. would be such a good venue."
Hours before the draw, Bradley was at the Cullinan Hotel. Bradley, who directed the New York/New Jersey MetroStars from 2003-2005, was one of three former coaches from that team who would guide sides in South Africa. Carlos Queiroz (1996) and Carlos Alberto Parreira (1997) were the others, with Portugal and South Africa, respectively.
"In the early days of the MetroStars there was a focus on having some big name foreign coaches and obviously, Carlos Queiroz and Carlos Parreira fit the mold," Bradley said near the pool at the hotel. "Both have had incredible careers and it’s not a surprise to anybody who knows them or has seen them work that they're coaching teams in this World Cup."
On the other side of the pool area sat Bora Milutinovic, playing chess with one of his friends. After checkmating his friend, he greeted a reporter with a big hug. Then it was back to playing another game.
Milutinovic, who was a member of the Qatar bid committee, supposedly was seeking employment as a World Cup coach. He had experience coaching five World Cup teams.
There is a good bet that Milutinovic will be in Brazil this week for the 2014 draw, probably looking for a coaching or an advisory position with one of the 32 finalists.
It’s one of the quadrennial traditions of the World Cup draw.