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The World Game Begins

It’s here. At last. the greatest sporting event in the world begins on Friday, June 11, when South Africa meets Mexico.

And while the rest of the world salivates over the start of the FIFA World Cup, interest in the USA hits an all-time low. My radiologist asked me what was going on this weekend—a question that is being asked literally by no one anywhere else in the world.

I really don’t understand why, in a country whose suburban thoroughfares are overrun by soccer moms taking their kids to games and practices, the game is not more popular.

That it is not is especially shameful as the US team figures in the most interesting match of the World Cup’s opening weekend. so to Saturday’s big game: USA vs. England (Saturday, June 12. 2pm Eastern Standard Time, ABC and Univision), played on the HighVeldt of Rustenberg.

I have to admit a certain bias here—I’m from England and should naturally favor England, but for three things:

• The moronic hooligan element that pervades English supporters. Look out for the St. Georges flag (red cross on a white background—I think Dan Brown should write a book of short chapters about that phenomena) around the stadium, which signifies monoculture England, rather than the Union Jack signifying Great Britain including Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland too;

• Over-expectation. England are considered one of the world’s soccer powerhouses—chiefly by the English. But really, they last won the World Cup in 1966 and that was on home turf. It was also the year of the last ever Dick Van Dyke Show, the debut of Star Trek, the ramping up of the Vietnam War, and the last ever public performance by the Beatles, in San Francisco’s Candlewick Park. England last made the semifinals in 1990. If we’re going back that to 1966, we might as well mention the 1-0 defeat of England by the USA at the 1950 World Cup, a cobwebbed memory that US sports commenters, knowing little else about the sport, love to discuss.

• The Beautiful Game. I love great soccer. The last time I saw an England team play well was in a 1996 destruction of a good Holland team. Otherwise they just tend to lump the ball up to a big striker trying to find a midfielder looking to pick up the scraps.

So yeah, somewhere deep inside I might enjoy an England win played with style and panache, but a 1-1 draw would do me too—essentially ensuring both teams went forward to the bracket/knockout stage, as long as they both get at least a draw against dark horses Slovenia.

As for contributing factors to the outcome of the game:

Altitude: The USA are fitter but less acclimatized. Mind you, that didn’t stop them winning through to the the ConCaCaf final last year. The England team have been training at altitude in Austria…

On paper, England should win this, but let’s look at some head-to-heads:

US defense vs. England attack: The US have a young and untried defense, but why should that matter? England’s Wayne Rooney has the talent to outwit any defense in the world on his day, so that would be always a problem. If it’s his day there really isn’t any team to contain him.

USA’s Landon Donovan has already said that his team’s plan is to incite Rooney’s well-known temper in an effort to get him sent off. (Hey, Landon—did you get another headline out of that?) I will say in Landon’s support that he’s always talked a good game but never played one until this last season at Everton. I just love his sportsmanship.

In depth, England really have no other striker outside Rooney to do the job The rest couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo. Jermain Defoe is out of form, Peter Crouch is a stick of celery, and Emile Heskey creates chances for other players out of pure physical comedy. Mind you, I think Fabio Capello, England’s manager, is betting that they get through the group rounds using Steven Gerrard as a holding midfielder. In the bracket/knockout rounds, Gerrard will be a free-roaming secondary striker because Michael Carrick or Gareth Barry will be fit to do the midfield holding job. This is Gerrard’s last chance to prove he is the best midfielder, behind Lional Messi, on the world.

England defense vs. US attack: The UK lost their captain and central defender, Rio Ferdinand, to injury last week, but he should be replaced by Ledley King—possibly the best defender since Italy’s Franco Baresi, except for his persistent knee injury, which means he’ll play two out of three games. Ex-captain John Terry has the turning-circle and speed of the Titanic, which means the USA could play Edson Brundle to exploit his pace. Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, touted as USA’s star players, have to prove their worth as frankly they haven’t yet on the world stage…I wish them the best of luck.

Result: USA vs. Egland 1:1

Again, a draw in this game suits everyone…as long as neither loses to Slovenia.

Watching the games: The time difference is less punitive to US soccer fans than it was four years ago in Japan, when games often began in the wee hours of the morning—often just before the bars closed. The World Cup is a unifying event, and so the best places to watch matches are public places: Convince your corner bar to tune in. Stop by Caffe Aroma on Elmwood and Bidwell or Sweetness 7 at Grant and Lafayette: Both places will be televising games. If you must watch at home, invite people over—preferably a few from other countries.

For a complete schedule and exhaustive coverage, visit what will certainly be the most poular website in the world (part, perhaps, from Google) this summer:

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