April 17, 2010 in Sports

It’s never too early to study up on World Cup

All … well, much of what you really want to know
Barry Wilner Associated Press
 

Everything you need to know about the World Cup. Well, almost.

Q: What is the World Cup?

A: A 32-team global tournament run by FIFA, the international federation for soccer, it is the most popular sporting event in the world. Americans can envision the Super Bowl, Final Four and Olympics combined. That’s what the World Cup is like for just about every other nation on the planet.

Q: When is it?

A: The tournament begins June 11 with host South Africa playing Mexico in Johannesburg. The final is July 11, also in Johannesburg. All games will be televised in the United States by the ABC-ESPN networks and Univision’s channels.

Q: What is the format?

A: There are eight groups of four teams. Those teams play a round-robin in the first round, and matches can end in draws. The top two teams in each group advance to the final 16. Every game after the first round is a knockout match and will go to a 30-minute overtime if tied. If still tied after OT, a penalty kick shootout is held.

Q: So, World Cup is going to be played in South Africa?

A: That’s right. This is the first time an African nation has hosted either the World Cup or the Olympics, the world’s two top sporting events. Games will be played in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria, Polokwane, Rustenburg, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Nelspruit.

Q: Besides the novelty, what makes this event so important to South Africa?

A: The government and private entrepreneurs have spent heavily to renovate airports and build roads, hotels, stadiums and bus and rail systems for the monthlong tournament. In the short-term, the World Cup is a money-losing proposition, but South Africans are hoping for a payoff in the future on the $6 billion investment.

Q: Which teams are favored?

A: Spain, which won the European Championship two years ago, is ranked No. 1 in the world and has one of the planet’s deepest rosters. No other country is as balanced from goalkeeper to defense to midfield to attackers, but Spain rarely fares well in the World Cup and has never won it.

Brazil owns a record five titles and tends to perform well in new sites for the tournament. The Samba Kings won when the event was held in North America for the first time (Mexico 1970) and in Asia for the only time (Japan/South Korea in 2002). Brazil also won in the United States in 1994.

The Netherlands, Portugal, Argentina, Germany and defending champion Italy could be front-runners, and England might be, too, if it can get healthy. Argentina is coached by its greatest player, Diego Maradona, who has yet to prove he’s nearly that efficient on the sideline.

Q: How should the United States do?

A: The Americans reached the quarterfinals in 2002 before losing to Germany. But in 1998 and 2006, a lack of chemistry led to infighting that destroyed their chances. This team has two stars (Landon Donovan, Tim Howard), several proven contributors, and an ability to rally against stronger sides. But there are big holes defensively that must be filled before the U.S. team opens against England.

The other Group C teams are Algeria and Slovenia, so U.S. chances for making the second round seem good.

Q: Who are the players to watch?

A: Donovan had a strong 2002 World Cup and could be a headliner in South Africa. Howard is among the best goalkeepers, but that’s hardly an anomaly considering how strong U.S. keepers historically have been.

But the World Cup’s most intriguing performers figure to be Argentina’s Lionel Messi, FIFA’s Player of the Year for 2009, who has been even more sensational for Barcelona this year; Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo; Brazil’s Kaka; Spain’s Fernando Torres, Iker Casillas, Andres Iniesta and Xavi; England’s Wayne Rooney; Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba; and Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o.

There’s also Thierry Henry’s left hand, which lifted France into the tournament (he got away with a critical hand ball against Ireland in a qualifying match).

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