2006 World Cup: Football fever, soccer basics

2006 World Cup: Football fever

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As an American who has lived for years in both Italy and England, I feel I have a unique perspective on the world’s greatest sporting event, the World Cup of Football. If you love American football like I do, you probably have been amazed in the past by a superstar like John Elway heaving a ball 50 yards into the fingertips of a receiver blazing at full speed toward the endzone.

Soccer made its way into my genes when I first watched English national David Beckham and witnessed this incredible superstar kick a football more than 50 yards onto the toes of his fellow teammate who was also lighting a fire towards the goal. Moments later, Beckham took a long penalty kick and he bent the ball inches inside the goal post, into the net past the outstretched hands of the goalie. In that moment, it occurred to me that the precision and speed of the world’s top soccer players is simply amazing. Americans like action and it is true that in the best soccer matches, goals are not often scored in abundance; however, in a well played game, you will see astounding precision every minute of every game. Once you see this, soccer, or “football,” will become a truly exhilarating passion for you too.

If you examine the raw number of global fans who follow football, there is absolutely no sporting event in the world of more importance than the World Cup. Imagine all nations on earth playing American football at high skill levels. Can you visualize the intensity with which an American might follow a global tournament of American football? Well, 80% of the globe lives and dies for soccer and, as such, the World Cup is second to none in passion and intensity.

Just as much of the world watches the Super Bowl, most American fans who don't normally enjoy soccer can still feel and even taste the electricity transmitted by a World Cup game. I suggest you have some fun, crack open a beer and live the passion of the greatest sporting event on the planet.

This year the World Cup will be played in Germany. The German fans will give an important lift to the German team. As seems to be the trend in the last major tournaments, injuries will certainly play a role in this tourney. The French were favorites in the 2002 tournament but an injury to Zidane rendered them ineffective and caused an early exit. Among the headline players fighting injuries right now are Spanish forward Raul, English star Wayne Rooney and the USA’s captain, Claudio Reyna.

It is not a well known fact but Brazil is the only team to win a World Cup outside their own continent, winning the World Cup held in Sweden in 1958 and the last one held in South Korea and Japan in 2002. It is a surprise in any case that many pundits believe that Brazil is a massive favorite to win the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The major European teams are all weakened in some way and Brazil has a simply awesome roster loaded with the most talented players in the world, all of whom play in the major European leagues. But let’s remember that history still puts overwhelming odds against Brazil winning this tournament so anything can happen. The 2006 World Cup surely will provide us with endless excitement and countless classic matches.

A starter course in soccer

If you are a novice fan, a quick starter course in soccer will add greatly to your enjoyment. If you focus on three basic aspects of the match, you should be able to grasp a bit more quickly what is happening on the field of play.

Time of possession. The team that controls the ball most likely has a better formation and tactics in place.

Don't focus exclusively on the forwards. Forwards in football are like closers in baseball. The forward position is the most visible role in any game and you can't win without a good "closer," but the nuts and bolts of the game are positioning the ball into the scoring area more times than your opponent (the more at-bats you take, the better your chances to hit a homer). Controlling the ball and moving it into the scoring area depend entirely on strong play in the midfield and on defense.

Focusing on midfield and defense play will allow you to understand why a team is controlling the ball (or not controlling the ball).

The "closers." Study who the star forwards are and note their movements when the ball moves into the scoring area. With today's incredible talent levels and sophisticated defensive tactics, it takes a special player to be able to score with consistency.

Football is a team game of 11 players and the great beauty of football is that if you find a team of players willing to sacrifice their individual egos and execute the strategy of a well prepared coach, a lesser talented group can rise up to defeat a team of superstars. However, modern soccer history shows us those teams might be able to make a surprise rise into the final eight or four, although overwhelming talent is still king in terms of winning the World cup. Even so, every World Cup seems to produce a surprise team that manages to rise to the quarterfinals or semifinals, and there is always hope that one year the Cinderella team will take it all. [For a look at the most likely Cinderella suspects, click here.]

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