The world (but not US) is ready for some football

Maybe it has to do with being earth's only superpower.

Americans act unilaterally in matters of international security and global economics. We often seem to abhor international bodies like the United Nations.

We have a culture that steamrolls everything in its path.

Then there's football, which we stubbornly call soccer. It's the world's game – the most beautiful of all sports – and we largely ignore it. Even the World Cup, the greatest of all sporting events, played every four years, is buried somewhere between the glitz of the NBA playoffs and the slow burn of Major League Baseball.

What a shame. Maybe if we learned to understand the game better, we could bond with the rest of the world in a way that has nothing to do with oil or weapons.

Maybe we could even appreciate a little bit more what we have here in the United States: a national team that has played its way into three consecutive World Cups, a group of players that is steadily earning respect around the globe. (Hey, some of these guys, like goal tender Kasey Keller, are household names in Europe!)

It is an exciting time for American soccer. We are developing our own brand of swagger. We are even learning the sublime art of scoring goals, led by a cadre of young players who are fast and fearless.

Make no mistake. In this tournament, which begins today when defending champion France meets Senegal in Seoul, South Korea, the Americans will be dangerous. We have a legitimate chance of advancing out of our group (D) and making the round of 16.

But even if we fail, that is OK. Not everyone is meant to win the World Cup, and even making the field of 32 is an accomplishment – something that was evident last week, when the US lost a tune-up match to an excellent Dutch team that did not qualify.

Rather, the World Cup is about the personalities of the different teams and the stars they bring to the field – from the fabulous playmaking of France's Zinedine Zidane to the elegant, quicksand defense played by the Italians.

Here's what you need to know to follow the World Cup action:

Where is it happening?

The matches are being played at venues in South Korea and Japan. It's the first time that the World Cup has been contested in Asia and the first time it has been cohosted by two countries.

How does the tournament work?

The 32 national teams are divided into eight groups of 4 teams each.

In the first round, each team plays a total of three games against each of its opponent in its group. From each group, the two teams with the best records advance to the next round. The final 16 teams then play a single-elimination tournament, until a champion is crowned June 30 in Yokohama, Japan.

Can I watch on TV?

Yes, all of the games will be televised on ESPN, ESPN2, or ABC. But there's one catch: Because of different time zones, the live games will be broadcast in the US between 1:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. EST. This is the most-watched TV event in the world, with viewers numbering in the billions (especially with China making its first appearance).

Who are the best teams?

About 10 teams have a legitimate chance to win, but a few stand out. France is the defending World Cup champion and ranked No. 1 by FIFA, the international body governing soccer. On paper, it may be even stronger than it was in 1998. Pele, the Brazilian soccer legend, predicts that three other teams can compete for the title: Argentina, Italy, and England. "I think all four of the teams I mentioned will go far, but they will need some luck and a few breaks along the way," the Great One told a British newspaper.

Argentina is a sentimental favorite because of its political and economic hardships at home. Other contenders are Portugal, a young and talented team, and Brazil, whose national soccer organization has been troubled by corruption – but whose team still has the "Three R" attack of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho.

How far can the US go?

The US, ranked 13th by FIFA, landed in one of the weakest groups in the tournament, with Portugal, Poland, and South Korea, and therefore has a good chance of advancing. The US team is not expected to beat Portugal, but it should be able to handle Poland and South Korea – even though the latter will have a home-field advantage.

If the US does make it to the round of 16, it will have to play inspired soccer to advance any farther, especially considering a likely matchup with Italy. For the US, anything would be better than four years ago when the team finished last.

Who is the best player in the world?

Zidane, the Frenchman, is the king of soccer at the moment. He's won almost everything there is to win – including a 1998 World Cup for France (the tournament is played every four years) and a Champions League title for his club team, Real Madrid. He's best as a playmaker, but can also score, as he did with a spectacular volley earlier this month in Real Madrid's championship. A recent leg injury will keep him out of France's opening game, but he should be OK with a little rest.

Another top player is Portugal's Luis Figo, who also plays for Real Madrid. Figo, a midfielder who can do almost anything on the field, was the FIFA player of the year in 2001. The best player of yesteryear, Ronaldo, is coming back from injury and insists that he's back at the top of his game. But that's yet to be seen.

Who is the best American player?

The US team does not have a superstar, but two players stand out. One is captain Claudio Reyna, the playmaking midfielder who stabilizes an otherwise up-and-down team. The other is Clint Mathis, a young forward who possesses the rarest of qualities for an American soccer player: He can score. Another player to watch is Demarcus Beasley, a lightning-fast midfielder who is only 20 years old and has emerged in the past month as a likely starter.

Who is the American coach?

The US is led by Bruce Arena, who coached the University of Virginia to five national championships and who won two titles with D.C. United in US Major League Soccer. Arena publicly acts like a tough guy, which many people say is necessary for a team that has been pushed around too much in the past. In 1998, under coach Steve Sampson, the Americans were weakened by infighting among the players – so Arena has worked hard to build team cohesiveness.

What is the "Group of Death?"

Group F is absolutely loaded with talent: Argentina, Nigeria, England, and Sweden. These teams run the risk of beating up each other so severely that the two survivors could limp into the second round.

Each team would probably be good enough to advance in any other group. The highlight will come June 7, when Argentina plays England in a grudge match. When they met in the 1986 World Cup, Argentina, on its way to the championship, won on a goal that illegally came off the arm of superstar Diego Maradona. He later attributed the goal to "the hand of God." More recently, in a club match, an Argentine player broke a bone in the foot of British favorite David Beckham, who happens to be the husband of Spice Girl Victoria Adams. But Beckham, one of the best midfielders in the world, says his foot is ready to go.

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