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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

(continued from page 1)

In South Africa, Lippi's aging team-which only reached the quarterfinals of the 2008 European Championship-won't be the favorite. Spain and Brazil, who battled for FIFA's No. 1 ranking throughout 2009 and into the first half of '10, share that honor. The European squad reversed a long history of underachievement with their '08 Euro victory and didn't lose a game between November '06 and June '09, a record-tying string of 35 matches. (The United States ended the run with a 2-0 victory in the semifinal of the Confed Cup.) La Furia Roja (The Red Fury) feature the attacking duo of Fernando "El Niño" Torres and Valencia's David Villa, combined with the playmaking brilliance of Xavi along with Andrés Iniesta.

Brazil is the only team to feature in every World Cup and the sole nation to win the tournament five times. A Seleção (The Selection) favor a free-flowing, attacking style that epitomizes the beautiful game.

(Soccer historians consider Pele's 1970 World Cup-winning squad to be the best ever.) Midfield engine Kaká and forward Luis Fabiano continue the grand tradition, but the '10 iteration can also rely on its defense. Goalkeeper Júlio César is one of the world's best and the back four allowed only 11 goals in 18 qualification matches. "I love watching guys like [team captain] Lúcio in the back because Brazil gets so much attention attack-wise that some of the defensive work they do goes unnoticed," former U.S. Men's National Team player and current ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas says.

Spain and Brazil play the role of favorites, but half a dozen other teams could win the Cup. The Netherlands, ranked third in the world for most of the last 18 months, breezed through their qualifying process. Liverpool teammates Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel must display their attacking prowess for the squad to best their disappointing Round of 16 finish in '06. Portugal battled to defeat Bosnia-Herzegovina in a play-off to qualify for South Africa, without their star, the electric Cristiano Ronaldo, who can dominate entire matches with his unique combination of pace and physicality. (He's also deadly on free kicks from inside 35 yards.) Argentina, coached by country hero Diego Maradona, also struggled to reach the tournament. However, '09 FIFA World Player of the Year, Lionel Messi, can take over games although he's been better for his Barcelona club side than he has when playing for Argentina. England, France, and Germany can also claim a realistic chance of finishing as the world's top team.

An African nation won't win the tournament although one of the continent's six participants could go further than ever before. Cameroon and Senegal-who reached the quarterfinals in 1990 and 2002, respectively-both hold the distinction, but the Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Nigeria teams are strong enough to match or exceed this feat. The teams include talents who ply their trades for some of Europe's biggest clubs such as the Chelsea trio of Didier Drogba (Côte d'Ivoire), Mikel John Obi (Nigeria), and Michael Essien (Ghana). African teams increasingly complement their athletic ability with organizational and tactical awareness. Furthermore, the entire country will support its continent's representatives. "South Africans will be there in large numbers to cheer the other teams when we are not playing," Ndhlovu says.

South Africans will proclaim their enthusiasm not only in number but also in volume. Anyone who watched the Confederations Cup undoubtedly noticed an infernal buzzing in the background of every broadcast. The noise came courtesy of a musical instrument called the vuvuzela. The traditional horn is a fixture at soccer matches in the country and will be ever-present during the World Cup. FIFA discussed the possibility of banning it, but decided against taking action. In the words of organization president Sepp Blatter, they weren't trying to "Europeanize an African World Cup."

The buzzing may make television viewers reach for their earplugs, but the players don't have that option. "The thing it does the most is make it hard for you to hear on the field, but ultimately it hurts both teams," U.S. defender Jonathan Bornstein says. "It's just one of those things that South Africans have adapted as a way of cheering for those teams and it's not one of those things you can eliminate, so you have to deal with it."

Despite enjoying rabid fan support, South Africa will struggle. The Bafana Bafana, who haven't been ranked higher than 69th in the world since mid-2007, will challenge the 1994 American team for the distinction of being the least-talented host nation in the tournament's 80-year history. Chances are good that the side paired with France, Mexico and Uruguay in Group A will become the first home country that fails to reach the knockout stage.

The host nation isn't the only participant in an unusual position. The U.S. team should advance from Group C. The key to the American's success will be their ability to evolve from their usual position as the underdog. "That's not an easy transition for any soccer team, or any team in general to make," Lalas, a veteran of the '94 and '98 Stars and Stripes squads, says. "The U.S. seems to do very well when they are in the underdog role, which we've used to our advantage for many, many years, but for the first time in this World Cup, they are expected to advance. They are expected to beat certain teams. I don't think they are unrealistic expectations but it's certainly higher than anything else that's happened in the past."

The Americans face England in their first game, a rematch of the Stars and Stripes shocking 1-0 victory at the 1950 World Cup held in Uruguay. (English papers were so sure the result was mistake when the score came over the wire that they printed that the Three Lions had won by a score of 10-0.) Tickets for the June 12th match are already selling at more than five times their face value.

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