The 64 games beginning June 11 will be watched by a composite audience numbering in the billions.
South Africa will host the World Cup this year, and the 19th World Cup is the first to take place in Africa. Europe, the birthplace of modern soccer, has hosted the tournament 10 times, while South American countries have hosted the tournament four times and North America three times.
Consider this a primer for cup fever.
How do teams make it to the World Cup?
Teams have to qualify for the World Cup, and for some teams, such as tiny Honduras, simply participating is a victory. About 200 teams started the qualifying process two years ago, but the final tournament involves just 32. Only the host team, South Africa, received an automatic berth, and regional tournaments decided the other 31 teams.
What’s the TV coverage like?
Every single game will be on television. ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC will cover the games play-by-play and with commentary in English. If you want to have the flair of another culture, you can flip over to the Spanish-speaking stations for their coverage. (It’s always fun to hear “Gooooooooooooooooooal!”)
When are the games on TV?
I found the schedule in the World Cup issue of ESPN: 2010 World Cup Guide (highly recommended), and it’s also posted on the FIFA.com website. Thankfully, game times are not as horrible as they were eight years ago when South Korea and Japan co-hosted the tournament. This year’s games start at 4:30 a.m., 7 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., Pacific daylight saving time.
What’s the format of the tournament?
There eight groups of four teams each. The teams play within their group in a round-robin format, guaranteeing a minimum of three games each. The two teams from each group with the best records move to the “knockout rounds,” where the tournament becomes single elimination. After group play and the knockouts, the final will be the seventh game for each of the finalists.
Why are some games ties while others go to overtime and penalty kicks?
In the opening round you don’t “need” a winner for each game — ties are worth one point, while victories earn a team three points. But in the knockout rounds, there must be a winner, because one team has to move one to the next round. Games that are tied at the end of regulation go to a 30-minute overtime. If still tied after that, the game goes to penalty kicks. Very few people like PKs — they are a bit like deciding a basketball game with free throws — but a winner must be determined somehow.
What are the prospects for the United States?
The United States is not expected to win the tournament. Soccer is not our national sport, and, unlike baseball, basketball and football, we did not invent it. The betting odds vary, but 80-to-1 for the U.S. as a winner is common. We are, however, expected to advance out of Group C, which we share with England, Algeria and Slovenia. The U.S. opens June 12 at 11:30 a.m. Pacific daylight saving time against England; June 18 we clash with Slovenia (7 a.m.); and on June 23 (7 a.m.) we finish the opening round with Algeria.
If we make it out of the first round, we would probably face Germany in the round of 16.
• Greg Olson is a soccer enthusiast and the athletic director at Baymonte Christian School in Scotts Valley. This is the first of a series of columns leading up to the mid-June World Cup in South Africa.