Many Americans don’t realize it, but the Olympics aren’t the biggest sporting event that captures the world’s attention. Every four years, sports fans the world over gather to cheer on their favorite countries in the FIFA World Cup, the “super” Super Bowl of Soccer. This year, the games take place in Brazil, giving the Land of Samba its first chance to shine in the global spotlight. The country will host the World Cup this year and then in 2016 it will play host to the Summer Olympics.
Despite soccer’s lack of popularity here in the U.S., you probably already know that it’s the most popular sport in the rest of the world. Hundreds of teams fight for a spot, but in the end there are only 32 coveted spots in the tournament.
The 32 countries that make it to the tournament are divided into eight groups of four teams each. In each World Cup, the host nation, as well as the defending champs, have automatic entry into the group of 32, so Spain who won in 2010 and Brazil are both expected to do very well. The action lasts a month and features several rounds of play. In the first round, each team plays the other three teams in its group. In the second round, the top two teams from each group play each other in a single elimination game, which cuts the field down to 16 teams. The remaining teams then play each other in bracketed rounds of single elimination games, hoping to win their way into the championship game. The final game will take place at Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, July 13.
Other notable countries who made it this year are Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile and Colombia, who have not made it to the tournament since 1998. In 1994, during a game against the United States, a player for Colombia, Andrés Escobar scored an “own goal” for the U.S., causing the Colombians to lose the game. Upon his return to Colombia, he was assassinated and many linked his murder to his World Cup performance. Needless to say, the South Americans take their soccer (football) very seriously.
The United States has a chance since they did make it to the tournament after all, but many “in the know” don’t give them much of one. The biggest news for the “Yanks,” as they are known, has been the fact that one of the biggest stars of American soccer, Landon Donovan, was left off the final roster and will not be playing with the team in Brazil. In a warm up match last week, the Yanks defeated Turkey 2-1, so they travel to South America with their heads held high. Unfortunately, they have a tough road ahead of them once they get there. In their group of four they have to face both Germany and Portugal, and both are fielding very strong teams. American stars to keep your eye on include goalkeeper Tim Howard, who plays professional soccer in the UK, and Jozy Altador, who also plays pro there.
In the last World Cup, in 2010, Spain won and they go into this year’s tournament as favorites. With their superstars Gerard Pique, Iker Casillas, David Villa, and Sergio Ramos, “La Furia Roja” looks to win again once more and take the trophy home with them to Madrid. But, if their Iberian neighbors, the Portuguese, have anything to do with it, they will take the cup back to Lisbon to celebrate along with their team captain, the sexiest man on the planet (not just my opinion) Cristiano Ronaldo.
Besides the countries already mentioned, France and Italy have won the championship in recent years and should prove to be strong contenders. Along with their neighbors Germany and Holland who always field very strong teams, the Europeans are expected to go very far in the tournament.
World Cup play kicks off on June 12 when the host country takes on Croatia in São Paulo. For information about the groups, schedules, and more about the rules of the game, visit fifa.com. For the US TV schedule, visit espnfc.us.