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Patriot Games 

Wednesday, May 29 2002

"NATIONS," SAID ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN, "are the wealth of mankind. They are its generalized personalities: The smallest of them has its own particular colors and embodies a particular facet of God's design."

Solzhenitsyn might seem an odd way to introduce the World Cup, but no sporting event puts national character on display like soccer's ultimate summit meeting, in which 64 games are played by teams from 32 countries in pursuit of a single trophy. Italians do not play soccer in the same way the English do; Cameroonians have a very different style than Koreans. What they all have in common, however, is a belief that this business of kicking a ball around a field matters tremendously. When France beat Brazil 3-0 in the final of World Cup '98, victory precipitated the biggest street party in Paris since the end of World War II.

This year's tournament, which runs from May 31 to June 30, is being held in Japan and South Korea. While that may be good news to soccer fans in Asia, it's an undeniable blow to those in Africa, Europe and the Americas, where, due to time differences, most of the games will be transmitted live at various ungodly hours. In this respect, California comes off worst. Although a few of the games will start before midnight local time, most, including the semifinals and final, will kick off at around 3 a.m.

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Fortunately, this is the age of the VCR and the TiVo box, so soccer fans and the merely curious will be able to watch as much of the World Cup as they like without losing any sleep. What follows is a brief guide to the opening stage of the competition, which runs from May 31 to June 14. The knockout phase begins June 15, concluding with the final on June 30.

How It Works

THE 32 TEAMS THAT MADE IT THROUGH THE qualifying rounds are divided into eight groups, A through H, with four teams in each group. During the first two weeks of the tournament, each team will play the other three teams in its group. The top two teams from each group will then proceed to the second round of the tournament (beginning June 15), when the knockout stage begins. At that point, a game that is tied after 90 minutes will go into overtime. If it's still tied after overtime, the match will be decided on penalty kicks.

Some groups are more difficult than others. Group F (dubbed "the Group of Death") is made up of Argentina (co-favorites, along with France), Nigeria, England and Sweden -- all strong teams, with the competition among them certain to be fierce. Group D, which the U.S. shares with Portugal, South Korea and Poland, is about average in terms of difficulty. The Portuguese are expected to qualify easily, but the U.S. has a good chance of making second place.

Preliminary Matches (June 1 to June 14)

WORLD CUPS VARY IN QUALITY AND EXCITEMENT, but certain teams should be worth watching in any circumstances, and others may surprise us. Here's a selection of what are likely to be the best matches in the group stage. All times are for live transmissions. Some games will be replayed on ABC during the afternoons. Check your local listings for details. Matches starting before midnight are marked with an asterisk (*).

France vs. Senegal (May 31, ESPN2, 4:25 a.m.). The World Cup opener, which pits a former colonial power against one of its former colonies, abounds in the ironies of globalization. Almost every player on the ethnically mixed French team plays his club soccer abroad. Almost every player on the Senegalese team plays his club soccer in France. Thus a team of French expats who normally wear the colors of Arsenal and Real Madrid will take on Africans who live in France and suit up for Saint-Etienne, Montpellier and Lens. Expect the colonized to go all out for an upset over les bleus. Players to watch: France's midfield genius Zinedine Zidane will miss this match due to injury, but look for him after that. By his bald spot ye shall know him. Senegalese striker El Hadji Diouf is tipped to be the next African superstar. I am confused/globalized: Patrick Vieira was born in Senegal, plays his club soccer in England, has dual French-Senegalese citizenship and will be wearing the colors of . . . France.

*Ireland vs. Cameroon (June 1, ABC-TV, 12:30 p.m.). Holland, one of the best teams in the world, isn't in the World Cup. Why? Because the Irish beat them in the qualifiers, that's why, so they must have something going for them beyond the traditional grit and blarney. The "Indomitable Lions of Cameroon" (as they are known) have dazzling skill as well as grit, won gold at the Sydney Olympics and came out on top in the recent African Nations Cup. Expect Cameroon to prevail, possibly in a rout, now that Manchester United supremo and Irish captain Roy Keane has been sent back home after an argument with his manager. It seems the team's training facilities were amateurish. Who did he think he was playing for? Germany?

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