As Sepp Herberger, coach of the West German team that won the 1954 FIFA World Cup™, once memorably said: "After the final whistle blows, kick-off's never far away." This saying is very much reflected in the period between FIFA World Cup final phases. When the referee blew the final whistle on 9 July 2006 in Berlin's Olympiastadion, he was also kicking off the build-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. The finals will be held in nine cities throughout South Africa from 11 June to 11 July 2010.
Although the tournament may seem a long way off, the preparations for this greatest of sporting events are already going full speed ahead. While the infrastructure and stadiums are obviously the focus of a great deal of attention at the present time, a tournament of this magnitude also requires a lot of work in other vital areas. None more so than the qualifying process that determines which of the world's footballing nations are strong enough to earn a place in South Africa.
This first phase officially got underway when invitations were sent to all 207 member associations. These forms have to be completed and returned to FIFA by 1 March 2007 in order to allow each national team to take part in the qualifying rounds of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
32 teams, 31 slots up for grabs
South Africa qualify automatically as the host nation, so the rest of the world will be competing for the remaining 31 places in the final phase. As has been the case at past tournaments, the majority of teams will come from Europe, which has 13 slots.
African teams have an interesting three years ahead of them, since this will be their first FIFA World Cup on home soil and in front of their own partisan fans. Each of Africa's participating nations will therefore be doubly keen to secure one of the five berths available.
South America have been allocated four places, with a further slot available via a play-off with a team from the North, Central American and Caribbean Zone, who themselves have three guaranteed places.
Asia will be represented by four teams at the tournament, with a fifth berth also available via a play-off with the winners of the Oceania Zone.
Preliminary draw in Durban
The majority of the teams who have successfully submitted their application by 1 March will go into the various pots for the preliminary draw, which will take place on 23 November 2007 in Durban. South Africa's second largest city, situated on the Indian Ocean, will provide a picturesque backdrop for this widely followed event, where qualifying groups and ties will be drawn for all six confederations.
By the time the draw takes place, however, some teams will have already got their campaigns underway, with the qualifying process in a number of confederations starting much earlier.
Oceania to get the ball rolling
The first qualifying matches will be held as early as August 2007, when the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) hosts the South Pacific Games from 25 August to 8 September, which will serve as a preliminary qualifying tournament for the Oceania Zone. The top three teams will then go on to meet New Zealand in the OFC Nations Cup from 8 September to 21 November 2007, with home and away games between the four teams to determine the winners and runners-up.
South America and Africa up next
Five-time world champions Brazil will be in action from September/October 2007, when the South American Zone begins its qualifying league. Every country will play each other home and away, and most games will be played as part of a double match-day (Wednesday to Saturday) format, to reduce the travel required for those players plying their trade in Europe.
Qualifying in the African Zone will also get underway towards the end of the year. Should more than 48 nations apply to take part in the qualifying phase, then pre-qualifying ties will be held over two legs, on 13/14 and 17/18 October. The winners of these ties will then go into a 48-team pot for the draw on 23 November.
The final areas to join in the fun are the European, Asian and the North, Central American and Caribbean Zones, where the race to qualify will only begin after the draw in Durban.
Safety in the stadiumsSecurity in the various stadiums where the qualifying rounds will take place is of course a priority. After recent events in Italy, safety standards both on and off the pitch for qualifying matches have been highlighted and are being made ever tighter. Over the coming months, FIFA will carry out inspections in 113 stadiums and only allow qualifiers to take place in FIFA-approved venues.
In order to increase safety standards in developing countries, an advanced safety management seminar will be held to help these nations ensure safety standards on the field of play and also in and around the stadiums.
The qualifying phase for Germany 2006 saw 2,464 goals scored in a total of 847 enthralling games played out across the globe. Over the next three years, fans everywhere will be expecting more of the same in terms of excitement, goals and of course a new generation of stars. And once the dust settles, another 31 teams will have booked their tickets for South Africa, FIFA.com would like to wish all the participating countries the very best of luck.