“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.

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?


*Argentina vs. Nigeria (June 2, ESPN2, 10:25 p.m.). A must-see match. Since it's showing at half past 10 in the evening, a conveniently scheduled one as well. The Argentinians have superb players at every position, but the “Super Eagles” could overwhelm them with a combination of strong physical play and sensational attacking skill. Whatever happens, it won't be dull. Players to watch: All of them, but keep an eye out for Nigerian Austin (“Jay-Jay”) Okocha's extraterrestrial dribbling — sort of like Allen Iverson, but done with the feet. Chrome-dome Juan-
Sebastian Verón
is the indispensable figure in midfield for Argentina.

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 Costa will 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 English goal 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 Simeone said 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.

Tunisia vs. Belgium (June 10, ESPN2, 1:55 a.m.). Now this is what the World Cup is really about: a match between two teams without a hope of winning the tournament — not this year, not any other.

*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 Beckham please 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 Zambrotta and Di Biagio and 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 Suarez has appeared in more internationals than any other player in the world. Cuauhtemoc Blanco is the danger man up front. Italy's Francesco Totti looks 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.

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