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World Cup Kick-off: Writers Spotlight Matches, Teams to Watch

June 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As soccer's biggest tournament gets underway in South Africa, Ray Suarez gets the rundown of day one at the World Cup -- and a look at the coming month of matches -- from sports writers Christine Brennan and David Hirshey.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: The World Cup kicked off today in South Africa, a big moment for the country and for billions of fans around the world.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: It all started today with a joyous celebration. For the next month, teams from 32 countries will battle over what is often described as the most coveted sports prize on the planet.

Along with the players, fans from around the globe are descending on South Africa to support their teams and countries. It’s the first time any African country has hosted the games, and South Africa’s worked hard to get ready for its closeup.

JOHNNY MOLOTO, South African embassy: It is a point of pride and an honor as well to be afforded this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and show the world what we can do, not only as South Africa, but as an African country.

RAY SUAREZ: At the South African Embassy in Washington, spectators were jubilant at the start of the first match. The host country’s team took on Mexico. More than 80,000 packed the stadium in Johannesburg, including Bishop Desmond Tutu.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU, Nobel laureate: Unfortunately, there was a tragedy in the Mandela family.

RAY SUAREZ: The country’s best-known personality, Nelson Mandela, had planned to attend the opening game, but the former president’s great-granddaughter was killed in a car accident last night.

South Africa scored the first goal of the Cup, to the delight of millions.

ANNOUNCER: It’s on here now. The goalkeeper’s been — and South Africa has their first goal!

RAY SUAREZ: But the match ended in a tie when Mexico scored late. Played once every four years, the tournament began in 1930. Teams are divided into eight initial groups. Two advance from each group to face a 16-team knockout contest.

Hundreds of millions will watch these matches on TV. The frenzy over soccer around the world, however, has never been matched in the U.S., but, this time around, Americans have bought more tickets than residents of any other country, except South Africa.

CLARENCE WARDELL, Washington, D.C.: They call it the beautiful game. And I think that, if you just actually sit down and pay attention to it, you really understand the skill level and appreciate that, and it really is a beautiful game.

RAY SUAREZ: Clarence Wardell came to this bar in Washington early today to watch the games. He has his own theories about why soccer has never rivaled more popular sports in the U.S.

CLARENCE WARDELL: I think the reason that Americans don’t like soccer as much on the whole is we — we don’t really grow up with kind of hometown teams to root for. So, I think the World Cup gives us a chance to really get behind somebody and get excited.

RAY SUAREZ: And in this restaurant outside of D.C., others gathered to watch the game they love and to make the case for it.

LESLIE DEAK, Washington, D.C.: I wish they would like — like it more. I do understand it can be a little bit boring, but, if you watch the beauty of the play, it is just — it’s gorgeous.

RAY SUAREZ: American viewers hope the U.S. team shows off some great play of its own tomorrow. That’s when the American 11, said to be one of the best U.S. teams ever, meets England, a perennial soccer power. In contrast to poor performances in other years, the U.S. has higher hopes this time.

Other favorites include Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Portugal. Throughout the tournament, fans won’t just follow the teams. A number of global superstars, like Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, will carry their country’s hopes for a shot at the Cup final July 11.

More now about the beautiful game and what people will be watching for here and around the world.

David Hirshey is the co-author of “The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the World’s Biggest Sporting Event.” He’s a former soccer reporter for The New York Daily News. And Christine Brennan is a sportswriter and columnist for ABC and USA Today and has covered previous Cups.

David Hirshey, let me start with you.

These guys play constantly, in continental championships, national championships. They play for professional clubs. They play for their international team. They’re always playing. Why does the World Cup stand head and shoulders above that constant round of championship play?

DAVID HIRSHEY, co-author, “The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the World’s Biggest Sporting Event”: Because, for four years, these players are — are trying to qualify for the tournament that is the pinnacle of their sport.

And it’s a grueling campaign that can be will-sapping at times. But it’s the shared sense of national identity that I think galvanizes the team and makes them run through walls for their countries.

RAY SUAREZ: Christine Brennan, more than the UEFA Cup or the CONCACAF or all these various kinds of championships…

RAY SUAREZ: … that are being played for the rest of the time?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: I think — well, David is right. And David knows the sport very well, but this is once every four years.

So, in many ways, for viewers who don’t watch a lot of soccer, it is like the Olympics, the Winter Games, the Summer Games. Now, they’re every two years, but the Summer is four years and then another four. So, you have a long wait. And this is the — it is an all-star game, in a sense.

All these other athletes, all these soccer players are playing for other — their — their local teams, whatever, their — their professional team, and then they come together to play for their nation. So, in many ways, it does have that Olympic feeling, say, that hockey has or that men’s or women’s basketball has at the Olympic Games. And I think that is one of the great allures. It is just once every four years.

RAY SUAREZ: OK. You have explained the attraction. Have Americans shown us something by buying the largest number of tickets, outside the host country, this year, Christine?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Yes, certainly they have. And the buying power of the U.S. public and sports fans, we know it exists.

I think this — this launches that quadrennial conversation that we have about, will soccer become as important to the United States as it is to the rest of the world? And I think it won’t, just because we have so many other sports on the calendar. So, to shoehorn soccer in, when people have grown up with college football and pro football and baseball and so many other sports, I just — I think it is unrealistic to think that soccer will be that big of a deal in our country.

But, for these four weeks, Ray, I — I do think Americans care more about it probably than ever before, and understand it better, because their kids and their grandkids are playing it now. And maybe they have a little bit of a more — more of a sense of it.

RAY SUAREZ: David, what does that appetite for international soccer among Americans show you this time?

DAVID HIRSHEY: Well, America is a country that loves winners. Christine and I both covered the women’s World Cup in 1999. And you saw how that ignited a tsunami of enthusiasm for the women’s game.

And — and we have — the World Cup has morphed from cult status to — to a big event, watercooler conversation piece. So, I think American fans are — are becoming much more knowledgeable and much more passionate. And I think you will see that tomorrow, when we take on — take on those smug inventors of the game.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David, if you are a dabbler, if you are someone who was watching the Stanley Cup finals, but they’re over, or you are waiting for the next game in the NBA final, and that’s not happening yet, what are some of the, what do they call them, fixtures that you should be on the lookout for?

What are some of the games coming in the next several days that you would recommend people watch?

DAVID HIRSHEY: Well, I think the teams that Americans will probably get the biggest kick out of are Brazil, Argentina, and Spain, in that order.

Even if you don’t know a corner kick from a corner store, you know that Brazil is the gold standard of soccer, having won the tournament five times. But this is not the Brazil of legend, with Pele, whose dazzling ball skills brought the wow factor to soccer. The current Brazil team has sacrificed flare in favor of steel and defensive commitment. And so, while they may not be as pretty to watch as the — as the legendary teams of yore, they will probably be more difficult to beat.

Argentina has, you know, a huge layer of melodrama cursing through the team. They have the M&M boys, Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, and Diego Maradona, considered by many to be the greatest player of all time and now the coach of Argentina.

The question is, will Maradona’s monstrous ego allow Messi the freedom to shine on the biggest stage of all, and possibly usurp him at the summit of the Argentinian soccer pantheon?

DAVID HIRSHEY: But, for pure entertainment, my money is on Spain. They play a dazzling, intricate short passing game, and they have some of the best players in Europe in — in attack.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Christine, you heard David handicap the tournament.

In the 80 years since the World Cup started, only a handful of teams have won it. And they have all been in Latin America and Europe. Are there some teams from other parts of the world that we could keep an eye on? Africa, Asia?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, of course, South Africa because they’re hosting. No nation has ever not made it out of the initial — their group to go to the next round. So, will South Africa be able to do that?

And with the tie today, maybe that’s a good boost for them. Asia has never — there’s three countries from Asia in this tournament, Ray. And, again, I just don’t see that they have the — right now, the juice, you know, to go further.

But this is a global game, and the hope would be that, especially fueled by nationalism, which David alluded to, this is what that is about. And that is why the United States will, I think, care very much, because it’s — you know, tiddlywinks or whatever is, if it’s the U.S. playing against somebody, especially tomorrow with England, my goodness, what a storyline that is.

But I think that, yes, you know, it’s — some day, the U.S. will make it to the finals of the World Cup. I don’t know if we will be alive to — alive to see it.

RAY SUAREZ: But a loss to England tomorrow wouldn’t mean that they can’t advance, the way this system works, right?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Exactly. There’s a — they play each team in the group, four-team groups. So, the U.S. actually is expected, even if they lose, to move on. And that would be a good result for them, to move on and maybe get one more game.

The round of 16 was where the U.S. was eight years ago, in 2002. And that would be the hope again for this time for the U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: Christine Brennan, David Hirshey, thank you both.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Thank you.

DAVID HIRSHEY: Thank you.