The 19th edition of the FIFA World Cup Finals will kick off in Johannesburg, South Africa, on June 11. One month later, one national soccer team will hoist the Jules Rimet trophy in front of several billion television viewers, while their agents prepare lucrative endorsement deals. Here are five intriguing storylines in the run-up to the tournament.
Spain and Brazil have the best squads. England's team looks better than it has in a long time, while Chile is an intriguing dark horse. If an African team like Ghana or Cameroon makes a run, support from the South African crowds could propel it all the way to the finals.
This is the first tournament to be held in Africa. Cost overruns, missed deadlines, workers' strikes, and mass protests have marred preparations, and dropping millions of soccer tourists into some of the world's most crime-troubled cities is a recipe for disaster, say some observers. South Africa may yet rise to the occasion, but expect plenty of hand-wringing analysis before, after, and during the tournament.
Summer tournaments normally favor technical, passing sides that conserve their energy while maintaining possession. It will be winter in South Africa, so more energetic, all-action sides like England may have an advantage.
Group of Death
To ensure that each group is of equal strength, FIFA seeds the World Cup draw: Think of the NCAA basketball tournament. Despite this, every World Cup seems to create one group so stacked that fans faint at the thought. It's called the Group of Death, and this year it's Group G, containing tournament favorite Brazil, European powerhouse Portugal, African giant Ivory Coast . . . plus North Korea. Kim Jong-il's propaganda office will be pushed to the limits of its creativity trying to cover up the crushing defeats.
Whiter the United States?
In 2002 the U.S. players were surprise quarter finalists. In 2006, they failed to get out of the group stages. They are talented, but they must learn to hold the ball better in midfield if they are to make a run in the knockout stages. They've drawn a good bracket, with winnable games against Algeria and Slovenia and a marquee matchup against England.
Diego Maradonna may be the greatest player of all time, but his addictions and the "Hand of God" goal scored against England in 1986-he should have been penalized for using his hand-have left him infamous in some eyes. He now manages an Argentina team that barely squeaked through qualifying-and win or lose, he is likely to shoot off some fireworks sometime during the tournament.