You don't have to be a soccer fan to know that Brazil tends to win these things or that Italy won it last time, thanks in part to Zinedine Zidane's instantly infamous head butt, which became the first great soccer hit on YouTube. Whether you're as passionate about soccer as you are about swimming (once every four yearshow many swim meets have you watched since 2008 when Michael Phelps had Chinese people referring to him as a "monster"?), or if you're a bit keener on the game, you'll want a few tips to get you through your casual encounters for the next four weeks. Here are five teams from five continents that could make this already historic first World Cup on African soil one to be truly remembered.
What's the story? Despite being a proud footballing country home to world-renowned club sides Barcelona and Real Madrid and some of the game's most elite players, La Furia Roja has never claimed soccer's most sought-after trophy. This year's squad is poised to change that, though, and after winning the 2008 Euro Cup with a team of 20-somethings, they are installed as favorites (4-1) in this tournament.
Who are the key players? Barcelona midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta direct a complex attack, playing short, one-touch passes and picking out open players across the field with equal ease. Up top you'll find Fernando Torres, dubbed El Niño for his dangerous scoring touch, and David Villa, who Barcelona just spent 35 million Euros to sign. The team also boasts three goalies who would start for almost any other team in the tournament.
What's the story? The orange-clad Elephants, as they're dubbed, are the hipster's underdog and give Africa its best shot at World Cup glory. A subpar performance in the Africa Cup of Nations in January saw the coach axed and Sven Goran Eriksson, former England and Mexico boss, installed as the leader. Despite the new coach having only just met many of his players a few weeks ago, Eriksson's side has the skill and the support to spring an upset in the tournament's most challenging group, which includes heavyweights Brazil and Portugal along with the always unpredictable North Korea.
Who are the key players? The Touré brothers, Kolo and Yaya, are as technically gifted as their names are fun to say, but the true star, and the one who can separate Ivory Coast from the pack, is Didier Drogba. Despite being injured in an exhibition game a week ago, the charismatic, powerful striker still could feature in the tournament. He's as important on the field (29 goals from 32 league matches for his English club, Chelsea) as he is off it: In 2006, he called on his country to end its civil war after the team qualified for the World Cup. Miraculously, the war ended.
What's the story? What hasn't Diego Maradona done in the buildup to this event? The 1986 World Cup winner-turned-Argentina manager almost missed out on the event as his team took until the final game to qualify. "This is for all Argentines, minus the journalists," he said after, along with telling the reporters to do a few things too vulgar even for this paper. Weeks ago he ran over a cameraman's leg and them blamed him for sticking it in his path. He also promises to run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if the team captures the cup. All told, this train wreck is too good to look away.
Who are the key players? They call him the Messiah. Lionel Messi, who stands an unintimidating 5 feet 7, is considered the world's best player, and by some distance. His close control and deft finishing skills are mesmerizing and could carry the tournament, if he plays to his potential. He's accompanied by Inter Milan's Diego Milito and English stars Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. This team has the talent to make it to the final. The question is if the eccentric Maradona can get all the stars to play as one—and stay out of the way.
What's the story? The Yanks are, indeed, coming. Bob Bradley's American team is perhaps the most talented the country has ever fielded for this competition. The side now boasts a bevy of players with experience in top-flight foreign leagues and wants to reassert itself on the world stage after failing to advance from the group stage in 2006. Despite an opening match against England, the U.S. is in a favorable group, needing only to best Algeria and Slovakia to advance. Sam's Army could grow in numbers during these next few weeks.
Who are the key players? Landon Donovan, for starters. He's the country's all-time top goal scorer, and his speed provides a threat going forward. As we saw both in 2002 and 2006, as he goes, the USA goes. Donovan is flanked by Clint Dempsey, who last month with Fulham, his London-based team, became the first American to play in a major European cup final. Goalkeeper Tim Howard is as good as they come between the pipes, but the team will need to get its defense sorted out if it plans to make a deep run.
What's the story? South Korea made history in 2002, advancing to the semifinals while hosting the event along with Japan. The Korean team, which went on to lose to Turkey in the third place match, made it farther than any other Asian team in history that year. But in 2006, despite an opening-round win against Togo and a draw with France in the following match, the team failed to advance from the group stage. It should be interesting to see which South Korea team shows up this time.
Who are the key players? Ji-sung Park is the first Asian to play for world power Manchester United and the first to play in a European Champions League final. He's the captain and a steady, strong player who can be deployed in several positions. A handful of other players have distinguished themselves in Europe, including Chung-yong Lee (for Bolton in England) and Chu-young Park (for AS Monaco in the French league).