Beginning this morning, and throughout the following month, the eyes of Lawrence soccer fanatics will join the billions around the world who will watch the World Cup that opens in Germany.
American soccer fans will be able to watch all 64 matches live on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC. Spanish-speakers, or those who want to hear announcers scream "goooool" for two minutes without a breath, can tune into Univision.
Germany 2006 marks my 20th anniversary of watching World Cup action. Born in 1972, I was too young to remember much about the 1974, 1978 or 1982 editions, but the 1986 World Cup held in Mexico was one of the most memorable moments of my life. As the son of immigrants from Argentina, watching Diego Maradona's incomparable skills leading Argentina to its second World Cup title was life-changing.
By the early 1990s, I started covering professional soccer as a reporter and photographer for a Spanish-language newspaper in southern California. The timing of my entry to the world of soccer journalism coincided with the rise in professional soccer in the United States, the first World Cup held on U.S. soil, and the emergence of Major League Soccer.
My experience covering the World Cup finals held in the U.S. (1994) and South Korea (2002) as a journalist have produced some of my best - and worst - soccer memories. At both of those events I had the pleasure of witnessing the U.S. soccer team pull off monumental upset victories. At USA '94 it was a 2-1 victory against heavy favorite Colombia, while in South Korea '02 the U.S. defeated Portugal, 3-2. The American part of me cheered. But at the same World Cups, I also had to endure Maradona's doping suspension in 1994 and Argentina's first-round elimination in 2002. The Argentinean part of me cried.
So what can we expect to see over the next month? In every World Cup, four events always occur: a star emerges (or is confirmed), upsets happen, controversies abound, and one team is crowned champion.
Among the candidates for emerging stars to watch, several come to mind. Soccer fans already know that Brazilian Ronaldino is the best player in the world today. Young prodigies such as Argentina's Lionel Messi and England's Wayne Rooney may become superstars, or super flops. Prolific strikers including Ukraine's Andriy Shevchenko, Holland's Ruud Van Nistelrooy and France's David Trezeguet should score some spectacular goals. And talented midfielders Pavel Nedved (Czech Republic) and Mauro Camoranesi (Italy) are certain to make entertaining plays.
Several first round match-ups are particularly ripe for upsets. Italy vs. USA, Argentina vs. Ivory Coast, England vs. Paraguay, France vs. South Korea, and Brazil vs. Croatia could produce unexpected victors.
Only seven countries have won the championship, which has been held since 1930: Brazil (5 titles), Germany (3), Italy (3), Argentina (2), Uruguay (2), England (1) and France (1). Host countries have won the championship on six occasions.
Predicting the World Cup winner is tough. My crystal soccer ball indicates that when all is said and done, the four semi-finalists will be: Holland, Czech Republic, Argentina and Spain. Considering that only one non-European team has won the World Cup when held in Europe, the prediction here is that Holland will lift the trophy.