The wait is finally over for the 12 teams from North, Central America and the Caribbean still in contention for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. This week will see six fascinating ties played out across the region and millions of passionate fans willing their teams on to victory.
Group A: USA facing Guatemalan examination
The clear favourites to emerge from this pool will be regional giants the USA. The Stars and Stripes have progressed considerably since Bob Bradley took up the coaching reins in 2006, recording, among other notable results, a scoreless draw with Argentina in June 2008.
That said, it would be a mistake for the North Americans to take anything for granted ahead of their trip to Guatemala. Currently skippered by Carlos "Pescadito" Ruiz, the Chapines have been steadily improving since the disappointment of missing out on a playoff spot for Germany 2006 by the smallest of margins. With the experienced Ramon Maradiaga calling the shots from the bench, the Central Americans will be hoping to make the most of home advantage and spring the first big surprise of this group phase.
In the group's other fixture, Trinidad and Tobago will be hoping their quest for back-to-back FIFA World Cup appearances gets off to a perfect start when they travel to Havana to face an up-and-coming Cuba side. Now coached by Reinhold Fanz, the locals will be nothing if not prepared after recently completing a 15-match tour of Fanz's native Germany.
Group B: Heat on in the Azteca
If there is a standout game on matchday 1, then it is probably the meeting of Mexico and Honduras at the legendary Estadio Azteca in the Mexican capital. The game marks the competitive debut of El Tri's new coach Sven Goran Eriksson, who, leaving nothing to chance, has called upon 12 members of his foreign legion. Among their number is veteran midfielder Cuauhtemoc Blanco, currently enjoying a new lease of life with Chicago Fire in the USA.
It is widely felt that the Honduran side they will be facing is the best in the country's history. Leading by example will be their captain and perhaps the most accomplished striker in the region, Inter Milan's David Suazo, who will be joined by Julio Cesar Leon and Wilson Palacios, two other Catracho stars enjoying successful careers on the old continent.
Group B's other encounter should be no less enthralling, pitting as it does a Canadian side boasting star player Julian de Guzman against a Jamaican XI containing a host of English-based players. The Reggae Boyz have been further boosted by the return of their former coach Rene Simoes, who led the country to their one and only FIFA World Cup appearance at France 98.
Group C: A Central American classic
The third section kicks off with the latest instalment of Costa Rica - El Salvador, a classic confrontation between two of the region's traditional big guns. In fact, the pair are the only two Central American sides to have graced the finals of the FIFA World Cup on more than one occasion: the Ticos appearing at Italy 1990, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006, and the Salvadoreans doing the honours at Mexico 1970 and 1986.
Even though Cuscatleco football has been a shadow of its former self in recent years, the Salvadorean national team appear to be heading in the right direction once more under Mexican strategist Carlos de los Cobos. For their part, the Ticos have been struggling to find their best form in recent months, a tendency that saw Hernan Medford make way for Rodrigo Kenton in the Bicolor hotseat.
Despite this, and as De los Cobos himself affirmed recently, Costa Rica will start as clear favourites to win the opening skirmish on home soil, but no one should discount a surprise from the resurgent Cuscatlecos.
Group C's other match has a strong Caribbean flavour to it. Two of the surprise qualifiers for this first group phase, Haiti and Suriname, will both be looking to make headway in their respective bids for glory. Wagneau Eloi's Granaderos can count on their passionate home supporters for the visit of Suriname who, with several of their players competing in the Dutch league, will not be lacking in self-confidence.
Right now the race is wide open, and the only guarantee is the prospect of thrilling action and high drama across the region in the coming months. So all that is left to say is: may the best team win!