World Cup 2006 set to kick off in Germany this month

Matt Crosson

Goooooooooooooaaaaal!!!!!!!!!!

That’s an exclamation you’ll be hearing a lot during the next month, as the 18th FIFA World Cup begins in Germany on June 9, where 32 of the best soccer teams in the world vie for the sport’s ultimate prize.

The teams come from six different continents, including six past champions and six first-time competitors. The Cup is the most-watched sports event in the world, consisting of 64 games seen by more than 1 billion viewers – that’s more than the Superbowl, World Series and NCAA tournament combined. The games will be exciting and competitive, but the underlying stories are just as enthralling.

The United States enters its eighth Cup as the fifth ranked team in the world according to FIFA. This is the highest the United States has ever been ranked and perhaps its best team. They hope to improve on their trip to the quarterfinals in South Korea in 2002. Seasoned World Cup veterans Landon Donovan, Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna lead the American effort. Their effort must be substantial because the Americans are in one of the most brutal groups of the first round. Ghana, Czech Republic and three-time-champ Italy have all been impressive in qualifying matches and pose serious problems for the United States. They must rely on their veterans as well as their young speedsters like Josh Wolff and Eddie Johnson to make it out of the opening round.

Many soccer aficionados aren’t debating who the Cup champions will be, but rather who will be runner-up to powerhouse Brazil. The five-time and defending Cup champions boast a roster of the world’s best players. Three-time player of the year and 2002 World Cup Golden Shoe winner Ronaldo is back from injury and hopes to lead the Brazilians to victory as well as breaking the all-time World Cup goals record of 13 held by Frenchman Just Fontaine. Ronaldo currently has 11.

Unfortunately for their opponents, Ronaldo isn’t Brazil’s best player. 26-year-old soccer phenomenon Ronaldinho is a two-time FIFA World Player of the Year who led his club team, Barcelona, to a European Champion’s League title this year. His on-field wizardry and charisma have made him an international superstar. These two, along with a gaggle of other mono-named Samba Stars like Adriano, Cafu and Robinho will make it very difficult for any other team to grab the Cup.

Most of the teams lacing up their cleats in Germany don’t stand much of a chance, but qualifying for the Cup is a victory in itself. Trinidad and Tobago, a tiny nation of 1.1 million people made the Cup for the first time ever by grabbing the last spot in the field with a narrow victory over Bahrain. Even if the Soca Warriors don’t win a game, they’ll be dancing on the streets of Port-of-Spain.

Ivory Coast is another first-time qualifier. The African nation, currently embroiled in civil war since 2002, came to a temporary truce between the dueling factions for the duration of the Cup (as seen on the Bono commercial). The Cup berth has given Ivorians hope.

Australia is in its first Cup since 1974, which has caused a soccer craze to sweep across the land down under. The Socceroos probably won’t make much noise on the field, but the passionate Australian sports fans will make plenty in the stands.

The Cup figures to be a positive and peaceful event, but there is still a lot of negativity surrounding soccer that is a threat to its prosperity. Soccer hooliganism is still very prevalent, especially in European matches. Hooligans have been responsible for hundreds of acts of violence in the last year alone.

However, what has been happening in soccer stadiums all over Europe in the last few years is much more disturbing. Fans have been engaging in a number of overtly racist behaviors such as spitting on black players, grunting like apes and throwing bananas from the stands. Some have taken it even further by waving large Nazi flags and giving the fascist salute. Both German and FIFA officials have stated that this behavior will not be tolerated.

The World Cup is an event that comes along every four years. Some would like to see it played every year, but I think the infrequency adds to its appeal and importance. The teams have been working for four years to get to this point and the fans have been eagerly anticipating the event while obsessing over their team’s progress or lack thereof.

National pride is at stake on the soccer pitch of Germany this month. There will be dazzling goals, acrobatic blocks and enough concentrated energy to power Las Vegas for a year. Some teams are there to become champions and others are just happy to have made it. The opening game on June 9 pits Costa Rica against host-nation Germany; 1 billion strong will be watching and it should be one hell of a show.