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The 'Other' Football: A Primer on the World Cup

HOWARD BERKES, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Howard Berkes.

This week the World Cup opens in Germany. Thirty-two teams will compete for soccer's biggest prize. The U.S. hopes to do better than previous World Cup contests, but it faces some of the strongest teams in the very first round.

Will Brazil win a record sixth title? Could there be an upset? Joining us to answer these questions and more about the other football is Mike Woitalla, executive editor of Soccer America magazine. Hello.

Mr. MIKE WOITALLA (Executive Editor, Soccer America): Hello.

BERKES: Mr. Woitalla, the U.S. is rated number five going into this competition, higher than England. Where does that rating come from, and how do the Brits feel about it?

Mr. WOITALLA: You know, it's a FIFA rating. The organizing body for soccer in the world comes up with these rankings, and really they don't make a whole lot of sense. If you go to their website you'll find a 2,500-word explanation on how they come up with these rankings. The U.S. players and the U.S. coach, they will say right away that they don't think they should be ranked that high. I would say that the U.S. is probably a top-20 team, but certainly not number five.

BERKES: Well, tell us more about the American team. Sportswriters are saying that this may be the best U.S. team in years. Is the U.S. team ready?

Mr. WOITALLA: I'm not sure if they're that much better as far as talent goes than four years ago when they got to the quarter finals. I think they're probably about more or less the same, but they do have a bit more experience. They've got a number of players who have played in two World Cups, and they've got two players, including Claudio Reyna, the captain, who'll be at his fourth World Cup, and that kind of experience is very important.

Also, half of the U.S. players play in Europe in fairly good leagues, and that's also very important for the team when they play against some of the best players in the world.

BERKES: Well, they've got this tough first round, going up against Italy, the Czech Republic. This won't be easy.

Mr. WOITALLA: No, but, you know, soccer's a low-scoring sport, and upsets are more common in soccer than they are in most other sports, so anything can happen. Last time around, the U.S. started against Portugal. Portugal had gone into the World Cup in 2002 as a favorite, and the U.S. won 3-2. So I think the U.S. chances are pretty good.

BERKES: So out of that first round involving the United States, who are the best teams vying for the Cup this year?

Mr. WOITALLA: Brazil is the favorite, not only because they have the best talent in the world, but I think people want them to win because they play such entertaining soccer. I think, especially from the American point of view, we like to see Brazil do well because this is a time when people who maybe aren't soccer fans are gonna watch the game, and if they see Brazil play, they might come away from it thinking, hey, this is a pretty interesting sport, this is entertaining. So I think that's definitely the team to watch.

Italy's a favorite. Germany does not have the kind of talent it used to when it was a power, but it's the host, and it tends to improve during tournaments, so you have to mention Germany. And then you've got England as a strong team. You've got teams like Portugal and Spain, who constantly disappoint at the World Cup, even though they've got some of the best talent in the world. So there are lot of teams that have a chance, although Brazil's the number one favorite.

BERKES: And from what you see of these other teams, do any of them rise to the surface for you in terms of being able to beat Brazil?

Mr. WOITALLA: Oh, sure. You know, when Argentina and Brazil play, they usually pretty much go back and forth. Last year, one time Brazil won, and the other time Argentina won. I would say that there's no way that, you know, you wouldn't want to bet a lot of money on Brazil, but they're a favorite. That's for sure.

BERKES: A number of these games are gonna be televised here in the United States. What's your recommendation for the matches that we should plan to watch?

Mr. WOITALLA: Anything involving Brazil. Obviously, if Americans want to see how the United States does. I think the Mediterraneans and the Latin Americans play the most entertaining soccer. Argentina is a team high on skill, fast, athletic. They can be very spectacular, but you never know. Soccer's unpredictable. You might tune into a game that turns out to be 0-0, and it's just not that great.

BERKES: Who's your favorite?

Mr. WOITALLA: Again, Brazil is the team to watch. They're entertaining. They're the kind of team that you don't have to be a soccer fan to watch and appreciate.

BERKES: Mike Woitalla is the editor of Soccer America. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. WOITALLA: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.