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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Soccer is increasingly popular here in the States, but for many Americans, the World Cup can be summed up in two words: learning curve.

So we asked some rabid soccer fans playing a game here on the National Mall for their advice on what to know before the games begin.

Mr. RYAN MILLER(ph): You got to like Ghana. I mean, they're super strong all the time, got a really solid midfield. And then, you know, you got your Ivory Coast and all of these teams have something to prove, I think, this year, especially being in Africa.

Mr. PATRICK RICE(ph): Spain - Spain is always the team to watch. They play a beautiful game in a beautiful way. Quick passes, cooperation, emphasis on team over stars. There's also Cristiano Ronaldo. He's very flashy, almost universally despised, but indisputably talented.

Mr. JOSH BOBCO(ph): From my vantage point, you need to know that Cristiano Ronaldo is the one player you cannot root for. I think Italians have been (unintelligible) the ones that do the theatric (unintelligible), Ronaldo, who's Portuguese, is very much have the number one at taking a fall when somebody touches it.

BLOCK: Those are D.C. soccer fans Ryan Miller, Patrick Rice and Josh Bobco.

Well, joining me now with his idiot's guide to the 2010 FIFA World Cup is soccer fan, my husband and sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. He's leaving me for the World Cup in South Africa in a couple of weeks.

And, Stefan, let's start first with the U.S. team announced today. What's your impression?

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Sportswriter): We've got a world-class goalkeeper in Tim Howard; a strong midfield with Landon Donovan, the coach's son, Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey from Texas, who just finished a terrific season with Fulham of the English Premier League.

The big question mark for the United States is defense. Three of the likely starting defenders - Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra - remember those names; I'll be quizzing you with them...

BLOCK: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FATSIS: ...they are all recovering from injuries and there's not a lot of depth behind them. So I'm optimistic about three-quarters of the field and a little bit worried about the very important final quarter.

BLOCK: Okay. I think I recognize one of those names that you mentioned, Landon Donovan. But let's move on. If we're not cheering for the U.S. team, we heard somebody just now tell us we got to like Ghana. Who do you like?

Mr. FATSIS: You know, it's Spain and Brazil if you are going to be a front-runner. If you're going to go with national background, which is always a good way to root in the World Cup, that's going to be Greece for me.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FATSIS: If you want to show some style chops - or you like the color orange the way that you do, Melissa - I would say go with the Netherlands.

BLOCK: That sounds good.

Mr. FATSIS: And the trendy team is going to be the Ivory Coast because no African team has ever made a World Cup final, and they are the best of the African teams in the tournament.

BLOCK: And individual players - who are you going to be looking for? Who's really splashy out there?

Mr. FATSIS: Let's go with the diminutive goal-scoring machine, Lionel Messi of Argentina. He is arguably the best player in the world right now. His nickname is The Flea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FATSIS: But you need to pay attention for conflict with his bizarre head coach, the Argentine legend Diego Maradona. Maradona, by the way, has pledged to run naked through Buenos Aires if Argentina should win the World Cup.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Can't wait for that.

Mr. FATSIS: That's one guy. Number two, I'd go with Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast. He is a U.N. goodwill ambassador; he's been credited with helping to end his nation's civil war.

And finally, how about Jong Tae Se of North Korea. Japanese-born and raised, plays in Japan - could have played for Japan or South Korea, but he chose the North because he attended a school that was aligned with Northern interests. Last week, this guy vowed to score a goal in each of the three games in the opening round. And those first three round opponents: Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast. That is a tall order.

BLOCK: Okay. So off you go to South Africa. I'm going to be at home watching on the couch. What's TV coverage shaping up to be like?

Mr. FATSIS: ESPN is really rolling out unprecedented coverage. They've genuinely embraced the sport. Their approach has grown smarter and more sophisticated with every passing year. They're going to show all 64 games live on ESPN, ESPN 2 or ABC. Fifty-two of those games are going to be shown simultaneously online.

The big change is that ESPN ditched what I thought was a very parochial approach in 2006, when they made an American baseball announcer the lead play-by-play guy, and they spent a lot of time explaining the sport. This time, the top four announcers will have British accents; more important, vast, vast experience calling soccer.

BLOCK: You know very well, Stef, that my knowledge of soccer is...

Mr. FATSIS: Limited.

BLOCK: ...whisker-thin - yes, we can say limited. So if I were to say to be at a dinner party and trying to impress the people around me, give me a few fun facts that I might toss their way.

Mr. FATSIS: All right. Here you go. Try this one: the host country has never failed to get out of the first round. But South Africa? Come on, they're ranked 83rd in the world.

BLOCK: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I'll keep that in my quiver. What else?

Mr. FATSIS: How about those U.S. jerseys? They're throwbacks to 1950 when the U.S. beat England one-nothing in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. And you know the guy who scored that winning goal, Joe Gaetjens? He wasn't even a U.S. citizen, and he died in a Haitian prison during the Duvalier regime. That was tragic.

BLOCK: Okay. Keep going.

Mr. FATSIS: That Cristiano Ronaldo, the great Portuguese midfielder? I heard he's dating Kim Kardashian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Okay. You get one more.

Mr. FATSIS: Man, those vuvuzelas are driving me nuts.

(Soundbite of horns)

Mr. FATSIS: You're going to hear a lot of the vuvuzela. It's a long horn and the South Africans are sort of a traditional instrument. There are going to be these plastic ones in all of the stadiums and it's going to drive you nuts.

BLOCK: Sportswriter, my husband and the coach of our daughter's soccer team, Stefan Fatsis.

Stefan, thanks.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: And you can put faces to some of the names you just heard about by visiting our website, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song, "World Cup Fever")

AIR MIAMI: (Singing) ...fever. He's got the World Cup fever. He's got the World Cup fever. Hey, hey, hey. I've got the World Cup fever.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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