RAY SUAREZ: A stunning upset set the stage for the 17th World Cup competition. Senegal, a one-time French colony, defeated France's national team, the defending World Cup champs. Back home, citizens were delirious.The month-long soccer tournament, held every four years, draws billions of fans from around the world. Games are televised at all hours of the day and night.
For the first time, the championship games are being held in Asia, jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan. Tickets are next to impossible to get. Worries about terrorism have tightened security. The U.S. team, which arrived under heavy guard last week, hopes to improve its 1998 showing when it scored just one goal.
After generations out of the finals, the Americans qualified for the World Cup again in 1990. Now they are ranked 13th in the world. The first match for the U.S. is on Wednesday, against Portugal.
RAY SUAREZ: And joining us now is Stefan Fatsis, sports reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Well, Stefan, we introduced this as the world's largest sporting event. What makes it so? How do we come up with that formulation?
STEFAN FATSIS: How about an audience of about two billion people worldwide? Just because we in America don't really get it yet, we don't understand the passion, we don't understand the intense focus, the sort of time stands still to watch the World Cup, doesn't mean that the rest of the world isn't glued to its television sets and reacting to every goal and every missed goal.
RAY SUAREZ: So the rhythm of life in places like Argentina and England just slows down in June of a World Cup year?
STEFAN FATSIS: In many places, it comes to a halt. I think I read a survey today that said 40 percent of Britons plan to miss some work so that they could watch the World Cup at various stages. We're really about the only country, at least the only big country, that the World Cup doesn't excite these sorts of passions.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's get a better idea how this works. These are 32 finalists heading to South Korea and Japan. What happens now that ends with a champion in a month?
STEFAN FATSIS: Well, you start with the 32 teams and they're broken into eight groups of four teams. They'll each play each other once, three games. And the top two teams from each of the eight groups will advance to a round of 16. Then it becomes a single elimination tournament: 16 down to eight, down to four, down to two, and a champion.
RAY SUAREZ: How does the United States expect to do?
STEFAN FATSIS: A good showing would be for the United States to advance out of the group play, to be one of the two teams in its group of four to move on to the round of sixteen. They have to play Portugal, one of the best teams in the world. Nobody really expects them to win that. Then they have South Korea and Poland. Realistically, in order to advance, which honestly would be a terrific showing and would advance the sport and the opinion of the sport in the United States, they've got to win one of those two games and tie one of those two games. Everyone thinks that's possible.
This is clearly the best team the U.S. has ever fielded at the World Cup. We've got about half of the players playing professionally in Europe, some for top, top teams, and the other half playing in a professional league in the United States now in its seventh year.
RAY SUAREZ: So you talk about the American players playing in Europe, playing in the United States. These teams, then, are just teams that are formed for the purpose of playing the World Cup? They're not regularly constituted standing teams?
STEFAN FATSIS: That's right. They're national teams. World Cup qualifying occurs over three years. So these teams are put together periodically over the course of qualifying and in the course of preparation, they'll play what in soccer is known as "friendlies," friendly matches with other nations. These players spend their time, they're paid by their club teams their professional teams, and the national coach for the U.S., a guy named Bruce Arena, will call back players either from Europe or their American teams so that they can play in their national team games. There are certainly tournaments that go on outside the World Cup, but everything is focused on doing well at the World Cup, and all of the 203 nations that are members of the international football federation.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, I think the people in East Asia are quite used to watching in the middle of the night, but now they're returning the favor and some very unsocial hours are being spent watching soccer in the west this time around, right?
STEFAN FATSIS: They are. The games in the United States on the East Coast start at 2:30, 5:30, 7:30 in the morning. I was up this morning watching the France-Senegal game, which started at 7:30. But for networks that are broadcasting them, ABC and ESPN, and the Spanish language network Univision, it is not how many eyeballs they'll get. They've sold lots of advertising time. They're confident people are going to tune in. But this is really all an investment.The networks didn't even pay for it, ABC and ESPN. The U.S. Soccer league, major soccer bought the rights and is showing it on ABC and ESPN virtually for nothing. It's all targeted toward building the sport domestically, and looking forward to the next World Cup in 2006 in Germany with friendlier times for the U.S. audience.
RAY SUAREZ: And really quick, before we go, do you feel you have a good enough grasp on this to pick a winner?
STEFAN FATSIS: In a piece I did on The Wall Street Journal's Web site, today I picked Argentina to beat Italy in the final. The Argentines have a terrific team, and they have extra motivation to win. This reflects the politicization of the World Cup, because the country is in such dire economic trouble right now, everyone is counting on the Argentinean team to win.
RAY SUAREZ: Stefan Fatsis, thanks a lot.
STEFAN FATSIS: Thanks, Ray.