Plenty of storylines to keep soccer fans engaged

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WORLD CUP

It's bigger than Dancing with the Stars; bigger than Justin Bieber and the Blackhawks in Chicago. Yes, it's the FIFA World Cup, and like a good romantic comedy, it only comes around every four years. Unlike anything, however, half the planet will watch the final. We take a look at 10 storylines to follow when the spectacle kicks off Friday in South Africa.

1. "All the word is focused on South Africa," FIFA president Sepp Blatter said recently, "and all the world will look at what happened in the African continent when, finally, there was an organization called FIFA that said 'we trust South Africa with such a big competition.' "

South Africa's Macbeth Sibaya, front, with teammate Siboniso Gaxa, back, stretch during practice in Johannesburg, South Africa. The World Cup gets underway today with the host nation meeting Mexico in their opening match. - Photo by The Associated Press

It's bigger than Dancing with the Stars; bigger than Justin Bieber and the Blackhawks in Chicago. Yes, it's the FIFA World Cup, and like a good romantic comedy, it only comes around every four years. Unlike anything, however, half the planet will watch the final. We take a look at 10 storylines to follow when the spectacle kicks off Friday in South Africa.

1. "All the word is focused on South Africa," FIFA president Sepp Blatter said recently, "and all the world will look at what happened in the African continent when, finally, there was an organization called FIFA that said 'we trust South Africa with such a big competition.' "

The sheer arrogance of that statement aside, everyone is waiting to see if South Africa can deliver a successful World Cup. FIFA deserves its share of blame for the early ticketing shambles (most Nigerian villagers, wouldn't you know, don't have major credit cards or Flash 10 on their laptops), but there are still concerns, primarily over the transport system and security, as an estimated 350,000 overseas visitors arrive.

And stop us if this sounds familiar, but the debate will rage over whether this first African-staged World Cup is simply a party for the rich or if it can serve as a "nation-builder" for a country of stark inequality.

FIFA has banked a record $3.2 billion in media and marketing revenues. South Africans have gained stadiums and temporary jobs and FIFA will build 20 Football For Hope centres around the continent at a cost of $9 million. The rest, as Olympic cities know, is rather subjective.

"As we sit in 2010 and we see the arrival of the teams, we can say truly this is the kind of South Africa we hoped for, that we dreamed of," Danny Jordaan, chief executive officer of the organizing committee, said last week.

2. It's at the top of anyone's list of "Things never to see before you die": Diego Maradona running naked through the streets of Buenos Aires.

Thankfully for all, Argentina's shocking qualification campaign has tempered fears that the unpredictable coach will have to deliver on his promise should Argentina win its first World Cup since 1986.

Still, there remains an unease that Maradona's naughty bits may yet end up as YouTube fodder, and that's thanks to the incomparable Lionel Messi.

FIFA's reigning world player of the year is coming off a remarkable season with La Liga winners Barcelona - 34 goals in 35 appearances. But the 22-year-old underwhelmed during Argentina's qualifying run, which has stirred up a debate over Maradona's use of his star. The coach remains supremely confident.

"I have 23 wild cats prepared to leave their skins on the pitch," he was quoted as saying Wednesday. "Argentines should relax because to beat this team our rivals will have to put all their beef on the grill."

OK, perhaps something was lost in translation. Then again, perhaps not.

If he's not telling reporters how to perform lewd acts on themselves or running over cameramen, he's demanding $450 heated toilet seats in his hotel. So when it comes to Argentina this World Cup, will Maradona's madness or Messi's magic dominate the headlines?

3. Aging Italy is not favoured to repeat as champion, but nor can they be counted out in a World Cup as wide open as ever.

The consensus teams to beat - Brazil and Spain - have their concerns. Brazil's Kaka struggled this season for Real Madrid and Spain's Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas are both coming off significant injuries.

Bookies have European champions Spain pegged at 4-to-1, slightly ahead of five-time champion Brazil at 9-to-2.

There's reason again for the notoriously unfulfilled Dutch to be confident with the likes of Arsenal's Robin Van Persie, Inter's Wesley Sneijder and Bayern's Arjen Robben.

The usual suspects - Argentina, Germany, England and France - must be mentioned and some are even fantasizing about a magical run for the Ivory Coast, riding the considerable skill of Didier Drogba and a pro-African environment. Chile has also featured prominently in dark horse chatter.

4. Two own goals and a missed Frank Lampard penalty against Japan. Exactly the way England wanted to go into a World Cup.

Just when fans were starting to channel 1966 again, the sheen of a impeccable qualifying campaign has faded a little, replaced by the usual amount of hand-wringing as Fabio Capello tinkered with his squad.

Yet, led by a possessed Wayne Rooney, this experienced group remains one of England's best ever chances for a second World Cup title.

Of course, being England, a multitude of questions remain: Who will start in goal? Can Lampard and Steven Gerrard REALLY play together in central midfield? Was is right to take Gareth Barry and his wonky ankle? Do they have enough in defence? Why is John Terry such a jerk? And how does Peter Crouch fit into his car?

5. Never in World Cup history has a host nation failed to make it out of the first round. A few months ago, after failing to qualify for the African Cup of Nations and losing eight of nine games, many claimed South Africa would suffer that inglorious fate. Not so fast.

With Brazilian World Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira back at the helm, the Bafana Bafana have rattled off an 11-game unbeaten streak (5-0-6), though only three have been against other World Cup qualified teams.

Soccer City in Johannesburg can hold 87,000 fans, and Parreira is counting on the crowd and the controversial vuvuzela horns perhaps as much as he's counting on Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar.

"This is an incredible stadium - a very intimidating stadium with vocal Bafana fans," the Guardian quoted Parreira saying. "I am looking to Mexico with a lot of confidence."

Just 83rd in the FIFA Ranking, South Africa is in tough against France (9th), Mexico (17th) and Uruguay (16th) to advance.

6. At this World Cup, there will be those cheering for France (the French) and those cheering against them (the Irish, plus pretty much everyone else). Then there will be those cheering against head coach Raymond Domenech (again, the French).

Thierry Henry's immortal double-handball-assist led to the winning goal against the Republic of Ireland that sent Les Bleus through to South Africa. Will karma catch up to the 2006 runners-up? Or will this aging group of stars find their form when it counts?

7. Just one day into the World Cup, viewers will be treated to arguably the biggest game of the group stage: England vs. the USA. Sure, Brazil-Portugal has sex appeal, but it's hard to beat the history here - an unheralded American side shocking England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup.

With games against Algeria and Slovenia to follow, a loss isn't a disaster for either side, but it is a public-relations nightmare for the Britons.

This game will also bring together the two largest travelling fan groups of the World Cup. You have to feel sorry for Rustenburg.

8. Everyone loves a good mystery, and it doesn't get any more mysterious than North Korea. Will they have a secret cyborg scoring machine? Will they play with six at the back? If they lose, will the game air in North Korea? And will Matt Damon be in the crowd?

OK, we do know a little about them. Jong Tae-Se, a.k.a. The Bulldozer, a.k.a. Asia's Wayne Rooney, is their most prominent player and one of three playing outside North Korea. Born in Japan to a Korean family, Jong plays in Japan and is North Korea's best hope to score - something they did just seven times in eight qualifying games.

Unfortunately for North Korea, they've been drawn into Group G with Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast. Don't expect a repeat of 1966, their only other World Cup appearance when they made a remarkable run to the quarter-finals with a win over Italy.

9. If 2010 it to be the coming out party for African soccer then someone will have to overachieve.

It's been 20 years since Cameroon, led by Roger Milla, reached the quarter-finals and lost 3-2 to England. This edition of the Indomitable Lions appear in disarray, winless in six and with star Samuel Eto'o threatening to quit after Milla insulted him. Eto'o was then sent off in a warm-up loss to Portugal.

Nigeria? They switched coaches in late February and now have former Swedish boss Lars Lagerback at the helm. On the plus side, beating out South Korea and Greece for the second spot behind Argentina is realistic.

Ghana? They're in a tough group with Germany, Australia and Serbia and have been dealt a massive blow with a knee injury to Chelsea star Michael Essien.

South Africa will have the crowd and history on its side, but not the talent, while Ivory Coast might have the most intimidating team but is stuck with Brazil and Portugal.

Algeria, back at the World Cup for the first time since 1986, can't be ignored. It had to get past Africa's top-ranked team, No. 12 Egypt, in order to qualify.

10. Pele. Maradona. Ronaldo. Zidane. Great players build their reputations on how they perform on the biggest stage. As much as the World Cup is about nations, it's about stars. Who will shine this time?

All eyes will be on Argentina's Lionel Messi and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, the last two FIFA world players of the year. England's Wayne Rooney is only 24 but has the experience of two World Cups behind him, while Spain's Fernando Torres has scored at a remarkable clip for Liverpool but is coming off knee surgery.

Dutch winger Arjen Robben and Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba have been in top form, but can Kaka regain his for a Ronaldinho-less Brazil?

Organizations: FIFA, Blackhawks, Real Madrid

Geographic location: South Africa, Argentina, England Brazil Chicago Spain Ivory Coast France Japan Italy Fernando Torres North Korea Buenos Aires Germany Barcelona Portugal Mexico Chile Algeria Johannesburg Uruguay Republic of Ireland USA Slovenia Asia Cameroon Nigeria South Korea Greece Ghana Australia Serbia Africa Egypt Liverpool

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