Soccer fans around the world are gearing up for the quadrennial celebration of the "beautiful game," as the World Cup begins in South Africa on Friday. Some 700 million spectators are expected to tune in for at least one of the 63 games leading up to the July 11 Final. For those less familiar with the tournament, here's a brief guide to the 10 teams to follow in the 2010 FIFA World Cup:
World ranking: 14th
What do I need to know? Despite their low FIFA ranking, Team USA's star is on the rise after their surprise run to the finals of the Confederations Cup last year, including a victory over powerhouse Spain (before suffering a crushing defeat by Brazil). Although 50-to-1 outsiders to win the Cup itself, getting past the opening round to the round of 16 "should be the minimum goal" for the U.S. this year. The first hurdle? Beating England in their opening match, on Saturday.
Key player: Tim Howard, ranked one of the best goalkeepers in the world. The 31-year-old plays for Everton in the U.K.'s Premier League, where English soccer fans regularly chant "USA" when he makes a particularly good save.
Key game: USA vs. England, June 12
World ranking: 1st
What do I need to know? Legendary for their dazzling ball skills and colorful, dancing fans, the Brazilians are always the team to beat at any World Cup. Although their "pragmatic coach" has left "glamour players" like Ronaldinho at home, says Michael J. Agovino in The Atlantic, the five-time champions are still a "scary" prospect for all opponents.
Key player: Kaka, the Real Madrid midfielder who is not only the "orchestrator" of most of Brazil's goals but also "a pretty good finisher, too."
Key game: Brazil vs. Portugal, June 26
World ranking: 2nd
What do I need to know? Despite their second-place ranking by governing body FIFA, Spain is most bookmakers' favorite to claim the World Cup in 2010. The Boston Red Sox of world soccer, Spain has traditionally been a "prodigiously gifted team that wasted those gifts," says Brian Lewis in the American Chronicle. Their 6-0 warmup victory against Poland this week is ominous news for their opponents.
Key player: Xavi, "the technician and the visionary" midfielder for Barcelona, where he scored 16 goals and made 34 assists in the last season.
Key game: If they win their opening round group — as is expected — Spain will likely face either Brazil or Portugal on June 29
World ranking: 3rd
What do I need to know? Portugal was a semi-finalist in 2006, but this year they have the misfortune of landing in the tourney's "group of death" with Brazil and the "athletic, robust" Cote d'Ivoire. Advancing to the round of 16 will depend heavily on the performance of their key player...
Key player: ...Cristiano Ronaldo, the Real Madrid midfielder regularly touted as one of the best in the game. The cocky, mercurial 25-year-old has not scored a goal for his national team in 16 months — but if he finds his form, he "has the ability to set alight the game," says Barry Hatton in the AP.
Key game: Portugal vs. Brazil, June 26
World ranking: 4th
What do I need to know? "Generally thought of as the greatest footballing nation never to have won a World Cup," Holland comes to the World Cup with an experienced, confident set of attackers. Alas, they have "a defense that could be considered somewhat dodgy," says Alex Baker in Bleacher Report.
Key player: Wesley Sneijder, midfielder at Italian club Inter Milan, whose playmaking skills helped his club win the Champions League, the biggest tournament in Europe.
Key game: Holland vs. Cameroon, June 24
World ranking: 5th
What do I need to know? The squad features nine returning players from 2006, when the Azzurri lifted the World Cup. But the reigning champions have been underwhelming since then, and history is against them, says David Legge in AFP. "No country has won back-to-back World Cups since Brazil in 1962."
Key player: Team captain Gianluigi Buffon, "one of the world's top goalkeepers," whose stellar performance in the final penalty shoot-out in 2006 helped Italy win.
Key game: Italy vs. Paraguay, June 14
World ranking: 6th
What do I need to know? The Germans traditionally perform well in the World Cup, but key injuries make this year's "young team... totally unpredictable," says Nesha Starcevic at AP. If they win their group, and the U.S. comes second in theirs, they will meet in the second round.
Key player: Miroslav Klose, the top scorer at the 2006 World Cup, who will need to raise his recent level of play or risk losing on-field minutes to Brazilian-born teammate Cacau, says Starcevic.
Key game: Germany vs. Australia, June 13
World ranking: 7th
What do I need to know? Argentina may surpass even Brazil in "dynamic creative talent," says Michael J. Agovino in The Atlantic. But coach Diego Maradona — a "disaster" and a "maniac" — "has no idea" how to manage his team's best strengths.
Key player: Lionel Messi, the 5'7" striker whose mesmerizing runs at Barcelona have made him a YouTube star. Often cited as the best footballer in the world.
Key game: Argentina vs. South Korea, June 17
World ranking: 8th
What do I need to know? The English, with some of the most passionate fans in the world, have an underwhelming World Cup history (they last won it in 1966). Check out Saturday's Daily Mirror and The Sun for the British tabloids' unique, jingoistic take on the Cup — and on their American competitors.
Key player: Wayne Rooney, Manchester United's pug-faced striker, who will be crucial to England's hopes if his notorious temper can be kept in check, says Bruce Jenkins in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Key game: USA vs. England, June 12
World ranking: 19th
What do I need to know? No African team has ever progressed beyond the quarter-finals of the tournament, and some predict that Cameroon — which reached that stage in 1990 — could be the one to finally win it all. Pele himself is predicting an African champion in 2010.
Key player: Samuel E'to, "one of the world's great strikers," helped Inter Milan win the Champions League last month and is key to Cameroon's hopes.
Key game: Cameroon vs. Holland, June 24
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