Soccer fans worldwide are gearing up for the most popular sporting event on the planet, the 2010 World Cup, set to kickoff June 11 for the first time on African soil in South Africa.
Here’s a basic overview and intro to the World Cup and what to expect.
The tournament, organized by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), will feature 32 of the world’s best national teams, whose rosters include professional soccer players from clubs around the world.
This year’s month-long World Cup carries special historic significance because it’s being held on the African continent for the very first time.
South Africa versus Mexico will be the game opener in Johannesburg on Friday.
The games will be held in 10 stadiums in nine South African cities where 64 matches will be played in all. Besides Johannesburg, games will be played in Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, Nelspruit, Polokwane, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and Rustenburg.
The top two teams in each group will advance to the elimination round of 16 games. The eight winners of the second round will then reach the quarterfinals, four the semifinals and eventually two in the finals.
Only seven countries have won the18 World Cups, which takes place every four years.
The first World Cup took place in Uruguay in 1930.
All previous World Cup champions have qualified this year: reigning champion Italy, plus Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany and Uruguay.
Sports experts say Spain is this year’s favorite to watch. However other serious contenders include the usual suspects: Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
Soccer analysts say certain countries have a distinct way of playing the “beautiful game.”
For example the English play a hard-nosed, direct style with little fancy passing. The Germans are highly organized and almost mechanical in their skill level. The Italians like to control the back line and like to slow the pace while being careful about committing too many players forward for an attack. The Italians also have excellent skill and awareness allowing them to seize upon any opening.
Brazil best describes one of the many Latin styles in soccer with fast-paced, forward-moving attacks. Brazilian players are known for being some of the world’s most prolific dribblers that can maintain ball control for long stretches.
Africans are described as fast and individually talented but lack team resources to overcome the more deliberate games of the Europeans or of the equally fast and more experienced South Americans.
Historians, politicians and players say the World Cup will be a defining moment in the history of South Africa and the sport. The excitement has swept across the country in the six-year buildup to the games.
South African President Jacob Zuma, former captain of his soccer team on notorious Robben Island – where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for more than 18 years along side other political freedom fighters – says Africa will shine when it steps into the world stage.
“This is the single greatest opportunity we have ever had to showcase our diversity and potential to the world,” he said at the 50-day countdown celebration in April.
“We must rise and tell the story of a continent, which is alive with possibilities.”
During South Africa’s apartheid era (1948-94) in which laws and policies there sanctioned racial discrimination, the nation was banned from most international sporting events. In 1998, during the country’s first World Cup appearance after apartheid, South Africa failed to advance out of the first round.
However, many in South Africa see the 2010 World Cup as a unifying force in a nation often described as black and white, rich and poor. The World Cup has to be about the lasting legacy that is left behind and the hopes of a promising and developing future, they say.
All World Cup games are expected to be televised live in the U.S. through ABC/ESPN.
Photo: A penalty shootout is held at the end of a soccer match near Lichtenburg, in the rural part of northern South Africa. The government’s youth development agency brought a portable party to Lichtenburg this week as part of a campaign to ensure South Africans in remote parts of the country get a long-awaited taste of the World Cup. Villager Maria Bogatsu says maybe now the eyes of government officials will be opened to poverty in rural South Africa. (Denis Farrell/AP)