Globe's top soccer teams converge on Spain for World Cup tournament

Beginning this weekend, soccer battles replace bullfights as the No. 1 sports attraction in Spain.

Soccer balls will rocket at goal mouths, but goalkeepers won't be side-stepping anything -- not with a world championship on the line.

The quadrennial World Cup soccer tournament kicks off Sunday with a match between defending champion Argentina and Belgium, and ends a month later on July 11 with the championship game.

World Cup soccer, a big deal?

The biggest as far as the 24 countries and more than 500 foot soldiers participating in the final rounds are concerned. And the expected television audience of one billion people supports the claim.

In the past, US spectator involvement with World Cup matches was pretty much limited to fans with ethnic rooting interest who attended closed-circuit telecasts. But now games will be beamed into a lot of American households. Some will be telecast on cable, others on PBS, and still others through affiliates of the Spanish-language network SIN. The final will receive live coverage on a special edition of ABC's Wide World of Sports from Madrid.

To a large extent, Americans have been oblivious to this nationalistic spectacle, which comes and goes every four years with little US fanfare. The reasons are fairly simple. First, despite some increase in popularity lately, the world's No. 1 sport is still far short of that status in this country in terms of crowds and TV ratings. Second, the United States has seldom done well in World Cup competition -- as evidenced by the fact that it hasn't had a team make it to the final rounds since 1950. This time, in the qualifying that takes some two years, the US was eliminated in the first round of regional action. Neither of Uncle Sam's immediate neighbors made it either, with Canada and Mexico joining 82 other nations that tried and failed. Representing the northern half of the Western Hemisphere are Honduras and El Salvador.

Part of the World Cup's appeal to the global community, of course, is that so many teams compete. Unlike some American events that purport to be world championships, this one truly is. The tournament amounts to a soccer Olympics, and actually is a spin-off from the Games, which can't accommodate top professional players.

The first World Cup tournament was held in 1930 and won by Uraguay. Overall, Brazil has won three times; Italy, West Germany, and Uruguay twice each; and England and Argentina once apiece. (The tournament was suspended in 1942 and 1946 because of World War II.)

The cup's list of champions reveals another appealing aspect to this tournament: it is not dominated by the planet's sports superpowers. In the modern era, the Olympic giants have been the Soviet Union, the United States, and East Germany, with Japan and West Germany also in the picture.

This year, however, only two of these countries -- West Germany and the Soviet Union -- even qualified for the expanded field of World Cup finalists. Meanwhile, such Olympic lightweights as New Zealand, Kuwait, Peru, Algeria, and Scotland are in Spain, thanks in part, to the decision to add eight countries to what had been a 16-nation shootout.

Using a system not unlike tennis seeding, six serious contenders are selected by the tournament organizer, FIFA or the Federation Internationale de Football Association, and assigned to separate four-team groups. (They are Argentina, Brazil, Italy, England, West Germany, and Spain.)

During the first phase of competition, the teams within each group play a round-robin. The top two teams in each division advance, with a similar round-robin format followed to pare the field down to a Final Four.

Early games are scattered throughout the host country. Ultimately, however, the focal point will be Madrid's 90,000-seat Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, site of the final.

Though West Germany, Brazil, and Argentina are generally considered the favorites, Spain is given a chance to capture the 18-carat gold winner's trophy. The home soil advantage has traditionally played a major role in cup play, with three out of the last four winners playing at home (England in 1966, West Germany in 1974, and Argentina in 1978).

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