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Highlights from the 2010 World Cup draw

South Africa was more than a little unlucky, but for the US there is hope where there was once despair.

South African actress Charlize Theron cheers as FIFA general secretary JeromeValcke holds up a slip of paper carrying the name South Africa during the 2010 World Cup draw in Cape Town, Dec. 4, 2009. The month-long soccer tournament begins on June 11 next year in South Africa. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

BOSTON — Almost exactly four years ago in Leipzig, Germany, American hopes for success in the 2006 World Cup died — six months before the first ball was kicked.

The occasion was the World Cup draw, the anxiously awaited playing assignments for the tournament’s 32 teams. And while the United States didn’t draw into the toughest of the eight groups — the group that is always dubbed “the group of death” — it landed in a group that promised near-certain death for the Yanks.

And despite one particularly game effort against Italy, a tie that was the only blemish on the record of the eventual World Cup champions, the U.S. team fulfilled expectations, exiting Germany after the first round.

But hope springs eternal among soccer diehards here. So after another long qualifying slog — 12 games over 16 months with a record of 8 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses — that saw the U.S. once again finish ahead of Mexico atop the region’s standings, American fans have been anxiously awaiting today’s World Cup 2010 draw in Cape Town to see if the soccer fates would be kinder this time around.

And they most certainly were. The U.S. had hoped to be drawn into the group with South Africa, an automatic seed as host nation despite being the lowest ranking team (86th in the world) in the entire tournament. Once that coveted spot went to America’s archrival, Mexico, the Americans had as much luck as any fan could have reasonably dreamed of. It avoided the world’s two best teams, Brazil and Spain, as well as two perennial superpowers, Italy and Germany, against which the Americans have always struggled.

Instead, the U.S. landed in England’s group. And while nobody would consider that a soft landing, England at number 9 is — with the exception of South Africa — the lowest-ranked seed, and the U.S. actually has the experience of defeating England a few times along the way. Though those results may seem like ancient history, they could lessen the intimidation factor. (ESPN, the World Cup broadcaster, is also a huge winner here, especially if MLS star David Beckham makes the England squad.)

England was certainly impressive as it steamed through qualification with nine straight wins before a final, meaningless loss in Ukraine. But it is a team that seems perpetually burdened by past disappointments and failures. It has won only one World Cup title, the one it hosted way back in 1966, and hasn’t escaped the quarterfinals in either of the past two World Cups.