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world cup

Your Big, Huge World Cup Preview

Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. He kicks off his series with a big, massive World Cup preview, just an hour before the first match between Mexico and South Africa.

Even people who hate soccer understand why everyone else is making such a big deal about the World Cup. It happens only once every four years. Every country on earth is invited to attempt to qualify, and yet only 32 will. If your country misses out, or makes it but loses too soon, four long years await the next chance, an eon in sports time during which the best players could get injured or lose a step to age. On the other hand, four years is plenty of time to forget how crappy things went last Cup. Hence, the optimism of people like me, a die-hard fan of Team USA, winners of a total of six games in World Cup history, and a team that gave us only the most stale, unsatisfying of morsels in 2006 — a tie! — to chew on during the long silence that came after.

Every Cup these days seems to be positioned as the One That Will Sell America Once and for All on the Wonders of Soccer, and every four years the excitement builds ... and then quickly dissipates as regular sports fans grow weary of early morning matches, confounding ties, and an American team that inevitably flames out early in the tournament. Whether or not the Americans win a single game, ESPN certainly believes the 2010 World Cup is finally ready for its American moment. For the first time, ESPN will air all 64 games live on ESPN, ESPN2, or ABC and has imported a cast of actual experts — nearly all of them from England! Where they know how to talk soccer! — to do the commentary, without British-to-English subtitles, after the botched 2006 experiment of using baseball announcer Dave O'Brien to do match play-by-play. (More or less the equivalent of asking Dick Vitale to broadcast cricket.)

If you're a fan of soccer, or sports hype, or just good-natured jingoism (trust me when I say this is the only time it's appropriate to wear an American flag cape in public, even in New York and San Francisco), the next five weeks are the greatest in the sporting universe. If you're not, well, at least you can pretend to care and slip out for a beer at lunch.

Here, some of your World Cup story lines.

Oh, man, my aching knee/ankle/foot/ulna! Someone is always injured in international soccer, and I don't just mean the guys flailing around on the ground miraculously cured by trainers wielding magic spray cans. This year's cast of players who will miss the tournament could easily make an all-star team. A partial list of the injured: England's Rio Ferdinand, Germany's Michael Ballack, Ghana's Michael Essien, the Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba, Italy's Andrea Pirlo, Nigeria's John Obi Mikel, and Nani, who is Portugal's leading scorer as well as the only player who shares a name with your grandmother.

Don't blame me, coach — it was the Jabulani! You would think that over a century-plus of play, soccer's organizers would have standardized something as critical as the ball. But not in the world's most popular game. Each World Cup, a new ball appears, and this time it's the Jabulani, from Adidas. Jabulani means "rejoice" in Zulu, one of South Africa's eleven official languages, and the name could not be less apt. The Jabulani is almost universally hated by goalies for its erratic performance. It is covered in tiny grooves purported to provide "truer flight," but in practice, it appears to do precisely the opposite. The ball seems to carry farther and wobbles in the air. Three of the best keepers on earth — Tim Howard of the U.S., Spain's Iker Casillas, and Julio Cesar of Brazil — have all publicly criticized the ball. U.S. backup Marcus Hahnemann predicted such insanity as "goals from 45 yards out." Which, come to think of it, could actually be something of a boon for fans who think soccer could use a little more excitement. Or, as I like to call them, Americans.

When one traitor falls, another steps up to take his place. Even if Team USA lost, its fans had a second team to support: Whoever played Italy, the adopted home of Giuseppi Rossi, an American kid born and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey. Rossi is a young and talented striker, exactly the kind of player in short order for the U.S., but he spurned invitations to play for the team in order to attempt to make the national team of Italy, home to both parents. He seemed a lock to make the team, but was among the last players cut by coach Marcello Lippi, who chose exclusively players who play in Italy's Serie A (Rossi plays for Villareal, in Spain). Fear not, haters, a new Benedict Arnold has stepped into the fold. Meet Neven Subotic, a 22-year-old raised in Utah who played for the U.S. under-20 national team before pledging allegiance to Serbia, for whom he now stars in central defense. So, let's go ... whoever's playing Serbia!

Also, loyal American, you should remember to hate these guys. America's mortal enemy on the pitch is not England, or Brazil, or any of the traditional world powers. It's actually Mexico, our neighbor and regional rival. So deep is the hatred between these sides that fans south of the border have been known to throw bags of urine at American players, while supporters of our side still wear shirts that read "dos a cero," the score of the 2002 World Cup second-round match in which the U.S. beat Mexico 2–0, considered one of Mexico's most humiliating defeats.

And of course there's North Korea, the great unknown. Little is known about the team from North Korea, playing in its first World Cup since 1966, when an equally mysterious outfit showed up at the World Cup and upset Italy to advance to the quarterfinals. Here's what we know: The team is boring and prone to packing the entire team into the back, borrowing a defensive strategy popularized by the world's toddler soccer leagues. Fittingly, it sealed qualification with a 0–0 tie. Only one North Korean player plies his trade abroad (Hong Yong-Jo, who plays for CSK Moscow), and the team recently lost a man from its roster when it attempted to disguise an extra striker as a backup goalkeeper. FIFA caught wind, and now the guy has to play goalie if he wants to stay on the team. Also, of course, they play only for Dear Leader. Said the team's goalie, after sealing a berth in the Cup: "When I was keeping goal, I felt like I was defending the gateway to my motherland."

Face it, [insert country here], your team has no chance. All of the world's nations are eligible to enter qualifying for the World Cup, but in the eighteen Cups held to date, only seven countries have won. Brazil has won five times, Italy three four, Germany three and Uruguay twice. The last nation to break through was France, playing at home in 1998.

When in doubt, blame the fat cokehead in the coaching blazer. Argentina is arguably the most talented team in the world; it has four strikers who would easily (easily!) be the stars of most other teams in the tournament. Yet the country barely qualified for the World Cup, requiring a late goal in the final game of qualification to make the cut. Its problem: a certain chubby former coke-fiend who "coaches" the team. There's never a dull moment with Diego Maradona, who told reporters to "suck it, and keep on sucking it" (among many other things) and clearly is not a proponent of cohesion. He auditioned no fewer than 70 players for his roster, in the end cutting such established stars as Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, and Juan Roman Riquelme.

Speaking of coaches, they're mostly all mercenaries anyway. The World Cup is far and away the most patriotic event in sports ... unless you're a coach. A few top coaches have seemingly helmed every team on Earth, including Sven-Goran Erikkson, who is Swedish but coached England (a ferociously nationalistic soccer nation) in 2006. During qualifying, he coached Mexico, but as of March, he took over the Ivory Coast. But only because Guus Hiddink, who is Dutch, but currently coaches Russia, felt that that would do a disservice to Turkey, which he will coach next, if he coached the Ivorians in the interim. Confused? Be glad that Bora Multinovic isn't participating this go-round. Multinovic, who is a Serb, has earned the nickname "the Miracle Worker" for his ability to have success with any national team that wanders into his garage. He is the only person ever to coach five countries to the World Cup. In order, they were: Mexico (1986), Costa Rica (1990), USA (1994 — when the competition was held in the USA, by the way), Nigeria (1998), and China (2002). He's not missing this time for lack of trying. Multinovic has recently coached Honduras and Jamaica, before taking on a particularly difficult challenge at the helm of Iraq, a country that has a few issues, such as the inability to safely play home games. (By the way, jolly old England is now coached by an Italian, Fabio Capello, and Australia's coach is one of three Dutch coaches at the Cup — coaches are Holland's second leading export, after tulips.) At least our current coach, Bob Bradley, is American. USA!

I do say, sir, but might you perchance silence your vuvuzela? No sound will be more ubiquitous during the 2010 World Cup than the incessant honk of the vuvuzela, the plastic trumpet that sounds like a newly discovered genital region and is wielded by every resident of South Africa. Trust me when I say you will know it when you hear it.

AND NOW, SOME PREDICTIONS:

Dark Horses

Serbia: Serbia is a defensive juggernaut that gave up a total of four goals in ten games of qualifying. Any team that can shut down its opponents has a shot at winning every game. Ask Italy.

Ivory Coast: Africa's most exciting team has as much offensive talent as anyone in the tournament (even without Drogba, though his loss would be a blow), the best nickname (Les Elephants) and the coolest uniforms. They could beat any team on a given day, but their unfortunate draw — for the second-straight Cup they drew the Group of Death, this time with Brazil and Portugal — means they might not survive the first round.

USA: Forgive me. I'm a homer, but I think it's possible that the U.S. could — could! — win a second-round game against either Germany or Serbia (or Ghana) and then not unrealistically win a quarterfinal game, where it would probably face either Argentina or Brazil. And at that point ... Okay, I'm not ready to go that far. USA!

The Final Four

England: They have a great mid-field, a good enough defense, and an all-world scorer in Wayne Rooney who can turn around any game. Plus, I can't bear the thought of that country suffering further disappointment — and anything less than the semifinals would be just that. Possibly a sympathy pick.

Holland: To reach the semis, they'd have to oust Brazil, but the Dutch team is deep and dangerous. Even without Arjen Robben, expected to miss at least a match with an injury suffered while attempting a trick pass during a 6–0 demolition of Hungary in a recent friendly, the Dutch are loaded. Robert Van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, and Rafael van der Vaart were the three most prolific of the eleven players who scored during Holland's undefeated, untied qualifying campaign. Also, they have great uniforms.

Spain: If you were to ask soccer writers to name the world all-star team heading into the Cup, it's possible that Spanish players would occupy three of the four mid-field spots (Xavi, Iniesta, and Xavi Alonso), plus the goalie (Iker Casillas), and at least one alternate striker (take your pick — David Villa or Fernando Torres). That's how good the world's top team is.

Argentina: Even Maradona would have trouble bungling this offensive juggernaut. The only question is which of his three star strikers (Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, or Diego Milito) will he match up top with Lionel Messi, the world's best player and the best Argentine to dribble a ball since the fat man himself.

Final

Holland over Spain: Call me crazy, but I think the men in Oranje are due.

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Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images