If there is only one thing people will remember from this column it is that the World Cup is the largest sporting event on the globe.
Bigger than the Olympics, even if you combined the winter and summer games. Slightly bigger than the ostrich races in Virginia City and, amazingly, bigger than the world's largest lizard races in Doyle, Calif.
Most Americans, though, could care less. They would rather install track lighting in Osama bin Laden's cave than watch soccer. What, watch 22 guys who are too small to dunk, never could hit a home run, don't tackle without shin guards and score as much as a fat kid wins in dodge ball? No thanks.
Don't worry. For the next month, starting with Friday's opener between France and Senegal, boring soccer won't conflict with boring baseball. Since the World Cup is being played in Japan and South Korea, and every game is being televised live, the games will be over before the Nevada Appeal is at your doorstep. Of course, ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Classic will either replay games or televise others on tape delay, the scoundrels.
Still, unless you drink 18 Red Bulls during 'The Osbornes', you'll never have to watch a 0-0 tie, leaving plenty of time the next day to watch a tremendously exciting 1-0 baseball game. But in case you do watch, here are some things you should know.
France is the defending champion, winning as the host country in 1998. Only two other teams in the 72-year history of the tournament have won back-to-back championships. France won't be the third, not without star forward Thierry Henry, who may miss the tournament because of a reoccuring knee injury.
Argentina, the favorites, haven't won the World Cup since 1986 when Maradona, the most skilled soccer player to ever touch a soccer ball, scored the greatest goal in World Cup history in the semifinals against England. Even the great Pele' agreed.
The oddsmakers rank France and Italy, both 4-1 favorites, behind Argentina (5-2), followed by the usual world powers--Brazil, Spain, England and Germany. The most over hyped team is Portugal, the top seeded team in Group D, which includes the United States, Poland and South Korea.
In 1994, Colombia, like Portugal, was the trendy pick to win it all and, also like Portugal, were in the same group as the United States. The U.S. beat Colombia 2-1, the winning goal coming off Colombian defender Carlos Escobar's deflected cross which ended up in his own goal. Colombia didn't advance to the second round and Escobar was gunned down outside of Medellin a few weeks later for his mistake. Crazy game, crazy fans.
In the 1950 World Cup final, Uruguay beat Brazil 2-1 in front of 199,854 people in Rio de Janiero. Brazil was heavily favored that year. When it didn't, one loyal fan killed himself by jumping off the top of Maracana Stadium. Another fun fact: more than half the world will watch the World Cup Final on June 30 at the International Stadium in Yokohoma, Japan.
Now, for my predictions. But before you don't look at my picks, here are some things to think about before visiting the sports book (note: some casinos don't offer individual group odds, only tournament).
Remember that the best team doesn't always win their group. Teams that have already qualified for the second round sometimes rest their starters in the final game of the first round, depending on which team they might play in the second round.
Group F is the group of death with Argentina, England, Nigeria and Sweden playing for only two second round spots. It's possible that either England or Argentina won't advance. Nigeria is extremely dangerous and Sweden, which advanced to the semifinals in '94, has enough talent to surprise one of the two powers. Nigeria is 7-1 odds to win the group and that might not be a bad value.
Another good bet might be Croatia, a 6-1 favorite to win Group G. Italy is favored in that group but the Italians are notoriously slow starters in the World Cup. In 1994, Italy was almost eliminated by Nigeria in the second round before two second-half goals got it into the quarterfinals before eventually losing to Brazil in the final on penalty kicks. Italy has been knocked out of the last three World Cups on penalty kicks, including a quarterfinal loss in '98 to France.
Don't bet on Brazil or Spain, both 6-1 tournament favorites. Brazil lost six games in South American qualifying, the most ever for the Brazilians, the only country to play in every World Cup. Brazil's talent can't be ignored but this team isn't nearly as disciplined as the one that won in 1994, or even the '98 team that lost to France in the final.
And just like in 1998, Spain will disappoint. It didn't make it out of the first round in '98 and lost in the second round in '94. Spain always underacheives, having never finishing higher than fourth place in 11 World Cup appearences. But while teams like Denmark, Croatia, Sweden, Russia, Cameroon or even co-host Japan could go deep in the tournament, the superpowers will only be there in the end.
The United States finished last out of 32 teams four years ago, behind countries like Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Morocco. That won't happen again. This team actually has players who can score, always a welcoming element in soccer. The U.S. will advance to the second round like it did in '94, then we will lose because we aren't very good.
Italy's Christian Vieri will win the Golden Boot award, given to the player who scores the most goals. Other players worth watching over a cold beverage are Zinedine Zidane (France, two-time FIFA player of the year), Jay Jay Okocha (Nigeria), Luis Figo (Portugal, 2001 FIFA player of the year), Rivaldo (Brazil), Juan Sebastian Veron (Argentina), David Beckham (England) and Hakan Sukur (Turkey).
First Round (the top two teams from each of the eight groups advance)
Group A--France, Uruguay
Group B--Paraguay, Spain
Group C--Brazil, Turkey
Group D--Portugal, United States
Group E--Germany, Cameroon
Group F--Argentina, Nigeria
Group G--Croatia, Italy
Group H--Japan, Russia
Game 1--Germany vs. Spain; Germany advances
Game 2--Paraguay vs. Cameroon; Cameroon advances
Game 3--Croatia vs. United States; Croatia advances
Game 4--Portugal vs. Italy; Italy advances
Game 5--France vs. Nigeria; France advances
Game 6--Argentina vs. Uruguay; Argentina advances
Game 7--Brazil vs. Russia; Brazil advances
Game 8--Japan vs. Turkey; Japan advances
Game A--Germany vs. Croatia; Germany advances
Game B--Cameroon vs. Italy; Italy advances
Game C--France vs. Brazil; France advances
Game D--Argentina vs. Japan; Argentina advances
Germany vs. Italy; Italy advances
France vs. Argentina; Argentina advances
World Cup Final
Argentina vs. Italy; Italy wins fourth World Cup, probably on penalty kicks
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