The World Cup was begun in 1930 and is held every four years. There have been 16 tournaments and only seven winners: France and England (once each); Uruguay and Argentina (twice each); West Germany and Italy (three times); and Brazil (four times). This year is the first time the Cup has been held outside Europe or the Americas. Since no Asian team is expected to go far, the 2002 tournament is effectively being held on neutral ground. If a team from outside Europe and South America is going to win it, this is the time.
In comparison with American sports, soccer is virtually a coach-free game. Yes, there's a guy in a suit standing on the sidelines yelling at the players, but chances are they can't hear him, and he's not allowed to call a time-out. The teams play 45 minutes, then take a 15-minute break, after which they play another 45 minutes. Coaches can make a limited number of substitutions, but once a player has been substituted, he cannot be brought back in. If a player is "sent off" by a referee for dissent or a dangerous foul, he cannot be replaced and his team will be forced to continue with 10 rather than the usual 11 men. As a sport, soccer takes "tough luck" to a whole new level.
Soccer is about improvisation and flow. There are few set plays, and goals tend to come out of nowhere, often against the run of play. The beauty of the game lies in the way the ball is moved up and down the field, often through an incredibly intricate array of passes, as each team tries to break down the other's defense. The game has its mega-stars, but don't expect them to take over a game like Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter. In soccer, the team counts for much more than the individual, and because the majority of possession takes place in midfield, famous strikers like Ronaldo and Michael Owen often see little of the ball.
Soccer is traditionally played in the winter, but the heat in Japan and South Korea will be tropical. This should benefit African and South American teams and will result (unfortunately) in slower play. European countries that like to play fast, direct soccer -- England, Denmark, Germany -- will suffer the most. Americans who play in the MLS -- one of the game's few summer leagues -- should weather the conditions well.
The top teams are also likely to be the most injury-prone and exhausted, since their players will have just completed an extremely grueling club season. If you're France's Zinedine Zidane or Brazil's Roberto Carlos, for instance, then on May 15 you weren't already in Japan or South Korea preparing for the World Cup. Instead, you were playing for your club team, Real Madrid, in the final of the European Champions' League -- World Cup aside, the biggest event in soccer. That doesn't give you much time to prepare, or recover from an injury. Teams made up of players from less successful clubs will have had ample time to train together and should be considerably fresher as well. Thus will the playing field be made a little more level.
The World Cup is a marathon, and doesn't always provide the most entertaining soccer. Too much is at stake. To win it takes enormous skill, durability and luck. Only very rarely is there a team -- Pelé's Brazil in 1970, perhaps -- so much better than the rest it doesn't need good fortune to prevail. Even with the incomparable Maradona at World Cup '86, Argentina got past England 2-1 on the way to the finals thanks only to a flagrantly illegal goal seen by everyone in the world except one man: the referee. This time around, no team is regarded as being clearly superior to the rest. (At least not now; we may think differently later.) France and Argentina are the favorites. Italy, England, Germany and Brazil are the traditional powers. Portugal, Nigeria and Cameroon are the dark horses. Expect at least one of the last group to make a major impact.