My original intention was to do a "Why You Should Watch" posting as I've done for the tennis Slams but in truth, while tennis has declined, the popularity of international soccer has exploded in the US over the past few years. ESPN now covers not only the World Cup but also the European Cup, the Confederations Cup, the Champions League and - hallelujah! - league games from both England and Spain. I think Americans have historically been slow to catch on to soccer because too many see it as a kids' game. They have visions of their own youth soccer experiences or those of their children before they started playing "real" sports. But now I think Americans have finally seen the light: when the best in the world play, soccer is a beautiful game to watch.
I'll admit that I haven't done the market research to see what if any inroads soccer is making with the conventional NFL/NASCAR crowd but it is my sense that soccer has become the game for Americans who don't really care for other sports: My Wife, for instance. She dislikes nearly all of the sports I watch, even detests a few. But she loves the World Cup - looks forward to it and even likes planning social gatherings around it.
As for me, I believe the FIFA World Cup is the greatest sporting event of all. I love tennis's Slams and the NCAA men's basketball tournament is wonderful, too. But the fact of the matter is this: no other event inspires so many to care so much - not even the Olympics. Soccer, or football as most humans know it, is truly the world's game and this quadrennial tournament is its grandest stage.
For those of you who are new to international soccer, I humbly offer a quick rundown of what you might expect from the various participants. At the end of my post are links to some of the people who know a lot more than I do.
Leading into the tournament, the three main storylines can be summarized thusly: Brazil, Spain and Africa. Each of those will be explored further in sections that follow. The latest storyline is injuries as many big names have pulled out and others are in serious doubt. Other narratives will emerge as the games begin, of course, but those are the main ones at the outset.
The Usual Suspects
Only seven nations have ever won soccer's World Cup: Brazil (5 times), Italy (4x), Germany (3x), Argentina (2x), Uruguay (2x), France and England. All seven are in South Africa and if you refer to Grant Wahl's rankings, you will see that all but Uruguay are in the top ten. The mightiest of the mighty is nearly always Brazil. No nation on Earth can regularly produce the number of ridiculously talented players the Brazillians have to choose from. If they fielded a second-string team at the Cup, they'd be a threat to win, too.
Always the Bridesmaids
The three countries which probably should have won the World Cup by now but haven't yet are Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal. A lot is expected of Spain, in particular, this time around. The reigning European champions are downright scary, arguably boasting both the world's best striker pair AND the world's best midfield. They also have something to prove after losing to the USA in the semis of last summer's Confederations Cup. If you're a Cubs fan and you seek out teams with a similar story in other sports, meet your new favorite team. Oh, did I mention they probably have the best goalkeeper, too?
Africa's Big Moment
For quite a long time now, Africa has been seen as the most likely continent to break the Europe/South America stranglehold on the Cup. Now hosting the event for the first time, can one of the African teams finally pull it off? Ghana, one of the stronger candidates, has lost one of its stars, Michael Essien. Didier Drogba, Ivory Coast's superstar striker, is also questionable with a recently broken elbow. Now, they're saying Cameroon is the most likely standard-bearer. And naturally, there is the matter of the host nation. No host has ever failed to make it out of the group stage of the tournament and there is great concern about a South African squad which has been in decline for the past few years.
The Rest of Europe and South America
A middle-of-the-pack team from either Europe or South America is still pretty darn good and they had to beat tough competition to get here. It is unlikely that any beyond the usual suspects or bridesmaids mentioned above will threaten for the title but the Chiles and Serbias in the field can still do plenty of damage and it's highly likely that one or two could spoil the party for a few of the traditional powers. Paraguay, in particular, is a team that never gets much press going in but always seems to make it out of the group stage.
For decades, North American soccer has been Mexico against everyone else. Even with the steady progress of the US national team over the years, the Mexicans are still the class of the field. Someday, El Tri will catch fire for a month and win this thing, maybe even before an African team can do it. But odds are, not this time. Count on them to make it out of the group stage but probably not much further.
Which brings us at last to the Americans. The current, growing enthusiasm for international soccer in the US was born the night the Yanks took on Germany in the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. ESPN had one of its highest ratings ever for that game and even though the US lost 1-0, the team had proven that it was ready to be a threat on the world stage. The huge upset over Spain in the Confederations Cup last year helped to raise expectations for the current squad. For the first time in a World Cup, the Americans are favored to make it out of their group. How will they respond?
Asia and Oceania
This is technically two separate confederations in world soccer but given that Australia is now competing in Asia's qualifying tournament, the distinction is blurred. Take a look at Wahl's rankings and you'll see all of these teams on the last page: the bottom stratum. Australia, South Korea and Japan have all had some success of late but don't expect them to make much noise here. Japan, as usual in international sports, is the team I follow. I fully expect they'll be going home after three games.
New Zealand is the cellar dweller of the rankings. Don't feel too badly for them. They'll get to turn the tables when the Rugby World Cup comes around. Besides, they live in New Zealand: most beautiful nation on Earth. How bad can life really be?
I'm going with Spain. Part of me knows it won't happen. They will inevitably disappoint once more. But this team is awfully good. If ever it were their year, this is it.
SI.com's World Cup page
Grant Wahl is SI's lead soccer writer. Here is his ranking of the World Cup teams.
FIFA's always excellent World Cup site
ESPN's World Cup page
Not So Serious Links
A Xenophobe's Guide to Hating All 31 U.S. World Cup Opponents from Sports Pickle
Nation's Soccer Fan Becoming Insufferable from The Onion
All Part of My Fantasy
Yahoo! Fantasy Sports World Soccer 2010
SI Fantasy Cup on facebook