World Cup Final Draw
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Around the world today, soccer fans anxiously watched a broadcast of what, to the uninitiated, appeared to be televised bingo.
(Soundbite of broadcast)
Unidentified Man #1: Now the first ball out for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Unidentified Man #2: It's England!
Unidentified Man #1: And it is England. So England will be B1.
SIEGEL: It's estimated that 350 million people tuned in to watch the draw for the World Cup soccer finals next summer in Germany. Soccer's international governing body, FIFA, announced who will play whom in the first round of the 32-team tournament. Wall Street Journal sportswriter and soccer fan Stefan Fatsis was watching and joins us.
Stefan, this is a pretty big deal in the world of soccer.
Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): It is the start of six months of anticipation over what, no matter how you feel about soccer, is one of the few unifying world events in sports or anything else, I think. The last World Cup in 2002 ended with Brazil as the champion. Qualifying for this World Cup began a year later; 194 nations played 847 games to get to this field of 31 countries plus the host, Germany. And when the draw began today, everything short of time stopped in Europe and South America and other places.
SIEGEL: But time did not stop here in the US, so it falls to you, Stefan Fatsis, to inform soccer fans across America right now who the US will play in the first round.
Mr. FATSIS: They will play the Czech Republic and then Italy and then Ghana. And in World Cup lingo, this is what is known as a group of death, and that's because there are three teams in this group, three very good teams, and under the World Cup's format, the top two in each group advance to single-elimination play, and this group is worthy of the name because the Czechs, Italy and the United States currently are ranked among the top 12 teams in the world.
SIEGEL: But the US is among the top 12?
Mr. FATSIS: It is. They are actually ranked eight. Italy is number 12.
SIEGEL: So it can't be that bad for the US?
Mr. FATSIS: Well, objectively it's not great. The Italians are historically terrific, and the US is going to be perceived as the number-three team in this group no matter what because the US is always considered underdog still in world soccer.
The other view, though, is that this is a group of death only because the US is in it. Four years ago, the Americans advanced out of a tough but not impossible draw and they reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, and in the quarterfinals they outplayed but eventually lost to Germany by a 1-to-nothing score. Now the US is a better team; they're much deeper; they're more mature; they've got one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Kasey Keller. And I guarantee that in Italy and in the Czech Republic they are not happy that they drew the Americans instead of Japan or Saudi Arabia or another smaller soccer country.
SIEGEL: The tournament begins on June 9th in Berlin. Germany will play host to Costa Rica, and it goes on for a month. How do soccer fans fill the complete void in their lives between now and then?
Mr. FATSIS: Oh, they've got plenty to fill it with. The first thing that the fans do--and tens of millions of people are doing this right now--is deconstructing the draw. In the United States, that means devising scenarios under which the Americans can win this group. And what they'll need to do is beat either Italy and/or the Czech Republic, which is not improbable; the US is an underappreciated team on the world stage.
More practically, the US national team coach, Bruce Arena, will select which players he's going to take to Germany, and no doubt he's going to play down this grouping. He'll say that the US has to beat the big boys someday if it wants to be a soccer power.
SIEGEL: So for the fans, this is a time that summons all their powers of creativity.
Mr. FATSIS: It really does, and there's plenty of time to fill it, because you do have eight of these groups and lots of scenarios to get through to the semifinals or the finals of the World Cup.
SIEGEL: OK. Well, thank you, Stefan.
Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's Stefan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal, who talks with us on Fridays about sports and the business of sports.
MICHELE NORRIS (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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