By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
United States vs. Portugal (June 5, ESPN2, 1:55 a.m.).The Portuguese have a celebrated but now aging side that may have passed its peak. On paper, they should still be too strong for a solid but predictable American team. If the U.S. beats them -- or even ties -- don't expect the world to cheer. Nothing would annoy soccer fans more than to see a country that doesn't give a damn about the beautiful game doing well at it. Players to watch: Portugal's Luis Figo and Rui Costawill helm a mesmerizingly fluid midfield. Claudio Reyna, America's own midfield maestro, will need to be at his best to keep up.
England vs. Argentina (June 7, ESPN2, 4:25 a.m.).The most anticipated match in the group stage. Ever since the Falklands war of 1982, the two countries have had soccer's most fierce (if one-sided) international rivalry. At the World Cup in 1986, Diego Maradona sank English hopes by scoring one goal with his hand (cheat!), and followed it up five minutes later with the greatest individual goal ever scored in a World Cup. In 1998, the two sides met again, with the Argentineans winning on penalties after an exhausting 2-2 draw in which Michael Owen sprinted through a stunned Argentine defense for the greatest Englishgoal ever scored in a World Cup. With England decimated by injuries, expect Argentina to win yet again. Players to watch: In World Cup '98, Argentinean Diego Simeonesaid that England's David Beckham was so beautiful he didn't know whether to kiss him or kick him. He kicked him, Beckham retaliated and got sent off. They won't be kissing this time either.
Brazil vs. China (June 8, ESPN2, 4:25 a.m.).The only country to have won the World Cup four times against the only country to have a population of 1.2 billion people. But with just 11 players allowed on each team, the Brazilians should get by. Expect the Chinese to spring some surprises, however. Their Serbian coach, Bora Milutinovic, is the wiliest in the business. Players to watch: Along with Beckham, Brazil's enigmatic Rivaldo is the world's pre-eminent free-kick specialist. Unlike Beckham, he also does a mean bicycle-kick. Since suffering a seizure on the eve of the '98 World Cup final, Brazilian striker Ronaldo has gone from being the best player in the world to the unluckiest. Only just recovered from a string of excruciating knee injuries, he'll be looking to reclaim his crown.
*Nigeria vs. England (June 12, ESPN2, 11:25 p.m.).More blood and guts from the Group of Death. Paging Mr. Michael Owen, you are needed for a goal. Will Mr. David Beckhamplease provide one of his patented crosses to Mr. Owen so he can score the goal? Thank you. (Okay, so I grew up in England.)
Spain vs. South Africa (June 12, ESPN2, 4:25 a.m.).Perennial also-rans Spain have some of the best club sides in Europe but have never threatened at the World Cup. In '98 they lost 3-2 to Nigeria in a thriller, but won't make same mistake against South Africa. Players to watch:Real Madrid striker Raúl has to prove he can shine for his country as well as his club.
Mexico vs. Italy (June 13, ESPN2, 4:25 a.m.).Ah, those wily Italians -- here they are again, with names like Zambrottaand Di Biagioand Del Piero, and profiles that would look just right on the back of a Roman coin. The Italians usually start the competition slowly, but by this point they should be up to speed. Mexico will have to be at its best to survive. Players to watch: Mexico's Claudio Suarezhas appeared in more internationals than any other player in the world. Cuauhtemoc Blancois the danger man up front. Italy's Francesco Tottilooks like an angel, plays like a demon and, along with his teammates, will be appearing in an Armani-designed outfit!
Poland vs. United States (June 14, ESPN2, 4:25 a.m.).Crunch time. Players to watch:Landon Donovan is America's answer to England's Michael Owen; speedy striker DaMarcus Beasley is the supersub. I am confused/globalized: Emmanuel Olisadebe was born in Nigeria, plays for Panathainaikos in Greece and is a citizen of . . . Poland! Citizenship was rushed through in July 2000 when the Poles discovered they needed a good forward. Olisadebe returned the favor by scoring in his international debut.LA
Over the next month, Brendan Bernhard will provide week-by-week coverage of the World Cup.