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The World’s BIGGEST Sporting Event

After four years and hundreds of games, 32 soccer teams will battle for the championship of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa
Noah Davis
From the Print Edition:
Chris Noth, May/June 2010

On July 11, one billion people worldwide will turn to their television sets and sit at rapt attention as two teams fight to be crowned champion of the globe's biggest sporting event, the FIFA World Cup. Will Brazil's Kaká face off against Argentina's diminutive Lionel Messi? Or maybe England's bulldog Wayne Rooney will find himself trying to outscore Spain's talented Fernando Torres. Perhaps the plucky American side, led by Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, can shock the world, or another upstart such as Portugal-featuring all-world talent Cristiano Ronaldo-will march to the finals.

The two sides facing each other in Johannesburg's beautiful new Soccer City Stadium will take the pitch for the seventh time in five weeks. Over the course of the tournament, the hopes of millions will rise and fall with each touch of the ball, the drama playing out across televisions and computer screens, in living rooms and bars worldwide. On July 11, the global heartbeat won't stop, but it might skip a few beats. For all but two nations, whittled over the course of two years from 204 teams to 32, and ultimately just a pair, there will be a heartbreak, a crushing of national pride that in some nations has led to suicides, murders and riots after a loss-and one team will emerge victorious.

It all takes place in South Africa.

Two decades ago, Nelson Mandela walked through the gates of the country's Victor Verster Prison to freedom. Jailed for 27 years, "Madiba," as he would come to be called, was soon elected president and helped unite white and black South Africa. Sport played a role in easing the wounds inflicted by apartheid. The 1995 Rugby World Cup, chronicled in the movie Invictus, brought together the two populations as they rallied to support the country's national team. The Springboks won the tournament, allowing South Africa to unify around a shared athletic triumph.

Even Mandela, however, could not have predicted that just 20 years after his release, his country would host the FIFA World Cup. Between June 11 and July 11, hundreds of thousands of international spectators will descend upon the African nation and billions more will watch from distant points around the globe as 32 teams compete for the sporting world's biggest prize. It is a massive undertaking and the first time the African continent has hosted the World Cup. South Africans believe this is their moment to demonstrate how far their country and continent have come. A vision Mandela could have only dreamed about is nearly a reality.

South Africa is prepared. The government spent billions to build or refurbish beautiful stadiums with stunning vistas. Green Point Stadium in Cape Town overlooks the ocean while the exterior of Johannesburg's Soccer City Stadium resembles a calabash (a dried gourd often used as a bottle). Safety is a concern, so the government hired and trained an additional 45,000 security officers. Their presence-in cars, atop motorcycles and on horseback-will be obvious.

Country officials believe that success hosting previous large-scale events such as the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and last summer's Confederations Cup, which featured eight of the world's best soccer teams, will translate to a readiness for the World Cup. It's a larger task, but one which South Africa can handle adeptly.

The World Cup also represents a chance for the entire continent to demonstrate the progress it's made. "We think that it's an opportunity to showcase not only South Africa as a country, but the continent of Africa in general," Jeanette Ndhlovu, Consul General for the country's Los Angeles office, says. "There are a lot of people who only associate Africa with underdevelopment, with wars, with diseases, and they see very little of the development that has taken place on the continent in recent years. Because some of the people will be staying in neighboring countries, they will see that it's not only South Africa; other countries have made tremendous strides in terms of development."

And then, of course, there's the soccer. The tournament in South Africa is actually the last phase of a global event involving almost 850 matches. Ultimately, 31 teams battled through the grueling qualification process to reach the final stage. (South Africa automatically qualifies as the host nation.) Squads will represent all corners of the world with six hailing from Africa, four from Asia, 13 from Europe, one from Oceania, three from North and Central America, and five from South America.
The format combines a round-robin with March Madness. The first stage consists of eight, four-team groups. Each squad plays the other three once. A win earns a side three points, while each is awarded one point for a tie. The top two from each group advance to the knockout stage. From there, it's win and move on, lose and go home. Simple math, really: 32 teams, 64 matches, one winner.

Italy travels to South Africa as the reigning world champions. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the Azzurri rode a stout defensive line led by captain Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta that only allowed two goals in seven matches. In the final, manager Marcello Lippi's side defeated France 5-3 on penalty kicks after Les Bleus midfield talisman and Golden Ball winner Zinedine Zidane was sent off for headbutting Marco Materazzi. Italy hoisted the trophy for the fourth time and will look to repeat in '10, a feat the nation accomplished in 1934 and 1938.

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