On Friday,Germany and Costa Rica will meet in a futuristic, translucent-skinned stadiumin Munich to kick off the monthlong mosh pit known as the World Cup. For soccerfans the excitement level will be roughly equivalent to that of a few billionfive-year-olds on Christmas morning--if there were a few billion five-year-oldswho celebrated Christmas ... while consuming vast quantities of alcohol.
Think of the World Cup as a global version of March Madness--one that lasts aweek longer, takes almost no off days and lets you watch all 64 games live (andthis year, for the first time, on HD, which is to soccer what talkies were toHollywood). Think of Brazil as UCLA, the freewheeling naturals with thechampionship trophies; of Germany as Kentucky, serious and stiff; and of theU.S. as Gonzaga, the midmajor seeking its Final Four breakthrough. In the WorldCup, as in the NCAAs, the opening rounds are the best part, a chance to park infront of the tube on a weekday morning and, eight hours and three games later,still not worry about that PowerPoint presentation you were supposed to finish.Knowing that you're blowing off work with guys on bar stools in London andKyoto and Rio de Janeiro only makes it better.
The World Cupisn't exactly like the NCAA tournament, of course, which is a good thing.Consider Brazil, the favorite to win its sixth Cup on July 9 in Berlin. Whydoes the world's most gifted soccer nation bag title after title while its mosttalented basketball country falls on its butt from Indianapolis to Athens?Adriano, Brazil's Sherman tank of a striker--and an NBA fan--has a theory."There are great players in both the U.S. and Brazil," he says,"but the Brazilians are more used to playing as a team."
Unlike, say,Shaq, Adriano would never contemplate turning down a call from his nationalside. It wouldn't just be unpatriotic but also a violation of globalbrotherhood, an idea that's lost on World Baseball Classic grump GeorgeSteinbrenner. Is it any wonder that the Boss's New York Yankees are known asthe Evil Empire, while the Brazilians--the Yankees of soccer, success-wise--areso charismatic that they're every non-Brazilian's second-favorite team?
As the World Cupshows, a healthy nationalism does have a place in an increasingly globalizedworld. The Cup isn't just saves and tackles and goals. It's the scene atGecko's tavern in Seoul, where hundreds of South Koreans danced on tables toBon Jovi and spilled into the streets after their country's '02 victory overItaly. It's two French grandmothers gleefully kicking crushed Coke cans on theChamps-Elysées in Paris, where three million revelers honked horns and sang LaMarseillaise after the host's World Cup '98 triumph. It's a thousand Nigerianscreating an impromptu dance floor at a train station in Nantes, France, so theycould boogie with their Super Eagles after they'd upset Spain in '98.
Nigeria and itsdrum-beating partisans won't be in Germany this summer, nor will the Irish, theworld's most gregarious fans, who always make the Cup a more fun (and lesssober) experience. Looking for a cuddly underdog to support instead? Tryfirst-timer Togo. The Sparrowhawks have the seemingly random nickname of anNCAA tourney giant-killer, and the nation's chief voodoo priest is predicting"miracle" upsets of France and South Korea. But then, this is atournament that features a Portuguese star named for Ronald Reagan (forwardCristiano Ronaldo), a German who credits Americans for his growth as a coach(California-based J√ºrgen Klinsmann) and a lone Caucasian on Trinidad andTobago's roster (England-born Chris Birchall), whose 27-yard blast againstBahrain sent his adopted nation into the ecstasy of its first Cup.
Indeed, the WorldCup is immigration turned upside down, with players moving from richcountries--at least in a soccer sense--to poor. Over the next month nativeBrazilians will play for Mexico (midfielder Zinha), Portugal (midfielder Deco),Spain (midfielder Marcos Senna) and even Japan (defender Alessandro Santos).These days it isn't the U.S. that's naturalizing foreign-born ringers; it'sarchrival Mexico, which has sparked a national firestorm by rushing Zinha andArgentina-born forward Guillermo Franco into service. That's right: Millions ofMexicans are fretting about domestic jobs going to "foreigners," adevelopment that might make even Lou Dobbs smile.
The World Cupreflects the planet we live on, for better and for worse. French strikerThierry Henry is spearheading a campaign, Stand Up Speak Up, to fight theracism prevalent in European stadiums, where fans have thrown bananas and mademonkey noises at black players. FIFA, soccer's governing body, promises stiffpenalties for players and fans caught making racist taunts. Skinheadedhooliganism is in decline, but organizers have prepared for violent Englishfans as well as the prospect of aggro between Polish and German hardcoresbefore the two countries meet on June 14. The police are promising to arrestanyone who mimics Third Reich--style goose-stepping and to stymie scalpers bymatching names on tickets with government-issued IDs at the stadiums. (How doyou say gridlock in German?)
And it wouldn'tbe soccer if there weren't a conspiracy to investigate or a potential calamityto prepare for. Italy, the U.S.'s second-game foe, has been rocked by acorruption and betting scandal in its professional league, distracting theAzzurri and resulting in the resignation of the entire board of Italianchampion Juventus. Two Ecuador team officials were arrested recently for beingpart of a smuggling ring that tried to pass off illegal immigrants asvisa-seeking soccer players. And, as always, there is a fear of terrorism, inparticular regarding the American team, the only delegation of the 32 inGermany not to have its flag on the side of its bus.
For all of theissues off the field, the games take precedence once the tournament kicks off,the tension building from group play to the knockout rounds. On most fans' wishlists for in Germany:
The last thinganyone wants to see is the constipated soccer that turned World Cup '90 into ahackfest or produced the scoreless '94 final between Brazil and Italy in theRose Bowl. Signs are positive for more action in Deutschland. Last year'sConfederations Cup, Germany's dress rehearsal for the World Cup, averaged aheart-racing 3.5 goals a game, and this year's Champions League final featuredtwo of the world's most entertaining teams, Barcelona and Arsenal. Midfieldwizards like Ronaldinho of Brazil, Juan Romàn Riquelme of Argentina andZinedine Zidane of France can't help but play creatively, and now even thecoaches of Germany and (gasp!) Italy say they'll push forward.
Like the U.S. in2002, there are plenty of potential Cinderellas out there. Can Angola smite itsformer colonial ruler, Portugal, just as Senegal knocked off France four yearsago? (Don't count on it.) Can the Ivory Coast unite its war-ravaged nation bysurviving against Argentina and the Netherlands in the so-called Group ofDeath? (Look for the Ivorians to go one better and reach the quarterfinals.)And can Australia make a splash in its first Cup appearance since 1974? (ExpectDutch supercoach Guus Hiddink to earn more props for guiding the Aussies to thequarters than he did for leading the Koreans to the '02 semis.)
The two finestplayers of their generation--Zidane and Brazil striker Ronaldo--are almostsurely competing in their final World Cup, yet there's no reason to believethat each won't go out in top form. Zidane, the hero of France's '98 triumph,was an injured shadow of himself during Les Bleus' goalless first-round exitfour years ago. He came out of international retirement to steer France througha rocky qualifying campaign, but his team certainly has enough talent to make adeep Cup run.
As for his RealMadrid teammate Ronaldo, the bucktoothed sniper has been labeled el Gordo(Fatty) by the merciless Spanish fans for his ever-expanding waistline. Butcoach Carlos Alberto Parreira has already named him to Brazil's Murderers' Rowstarting lineup, and he's only three goals away from breaking the alltime WorldCup mark (14) held by Germany's Gerd Muller. He may be packing a few extrakilos, but he wants that record, and a motivated Ronaldo is a dangerousRonaldo.
EVERYBODY INTOTHE POOL
No one wants tomiss a party, especially one that happens only once every four years. If youwant to see the best against the best at their best, hold out hope forrecovering stars Francesco Totti of Italy, Roque Santa Cruz of Paraguay, LionelMessi of Argentina and Ra√∫l of Spain. In England fans are praying for thereturn of 20-year-old forward Wayne Rooney, the potty-mouthed wunderkind whosebroken right metatarsal may prevent him from taking the field in Germany. Theyhave paid more than 50,000 visits to healrooney.com and (encouraged by a NewAgey soundtrack) massaged an image of Rooney's foot "to focus [their]positive healing energies and add to the Healometer grand total." Thesubtext: Without Rooney, England is doomed to four more years of nostalgia forits lone title, in 1966.
No sport givesmore power to its refs than soccer. The result: A referee often becomes theprotagonist in a match, either awarding a game-changing penalty kick or ared-card ejection. FIFA refs enjoy a bizarre cult of personality--they havetheir own shoe endorsements and lengthy bios in game programs--and every fouryears they can be counted on to take the latest "points of emphasis"(e.g., no tackles from behind, no diving to draw fouls) to extremes onlyInspector Javert could admire. It's time FIFA followed the NBA's lead andprotected its stars more. Remember: It's about the players.
Four years ago,when the World Cup was held in Japan and South Korea, most of the games tookplace in the wee hours Stateside. This year you have no excuse. So check out agame (or three) at an area pub. Debate the relative merits of the Elephants(Ivory Coast), the Carthage Lions (Tunisia) and the Clockwork Oranje (theNetherlands). Make like the English lads at Ladbrokes and drop a few bucks onthe first player to bag a hat trick or bet an over-under on yellow cards. Youmight be surprised how a $20 wager can make you care deeply about thatUkraine--Saudi Arabia showdown.
And you mightfind that the World Cup can be as American as the communal phrase on every U.S.coin: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
For more World Cup coverage from Germany, including Grant Wahl's insider andanalysis after every U.S. game, Mark Bechtel's commentary and a tournamentblog, go to SI.com/soccer.