Soccer Watch

Ale, ale, ale, ale! The World Cup starts in two weeks! Plus a look at the basketball and hockey playoffs so far.

Coach is on vacation this week -- hitting golf balls into water hazards somewhere or other -- so I've hijacked the space for a quick preview of the upcoming World Cup, soccer's quadrennial celebration of the beautiful game.

First up is the good news/bad news joke: For the first time ever, every game will be shown live on U.S. television, on some combination of ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2. The bad news: with the WC being played in Japan and Korea, every kickoff falls between midnight and 6:30am local time. (God only knows how many infomercials they had to bump in order to pull this off.) So, unless you're coming over to my house for the international-themed breakfasts, you might want to stock up on blank videotapes for some heavy time-shifting.

As for the competition itself, here's a primer on what'll be going on:

Thirty-two national teams will compete throughout the month of June. In the first round, eight four-team groups play a round-robin, with the top two in each group advancing to a 16-team knockout round, culminating in the Final on June 30. Here's a look at each of the first-round groups:

Group A: France is the defending champ and current favorite, and should go through easily. Uruguay is a mix of thugs and goal-scorers; they'll compete with Denmark's elegant midfield for the other qualifying spot. Senegal is the longest of long shots.

Group B: Spain, the perennial underacheiver, always looks like they can do whatever they want with the ball ... except win. No one has more talent. Paraguay's star goalie, Jose Luis Chilavert, is suspended for the first two games; otherwise, they'd be an easy pick, since Slovenia and South Africa strike fear in no one.

Group C: Brazil's Samba Kings lost six games in qualifying; they'd only lost once before in 70 years. But they're still Brazil, and the rest aren't. Mercurial Turkey can rain goals from all angles, or fall apart alarmingly. Costa Rica and China get no respect, despite great qualifying campaigns.

Group D: Portugal's ranked fifth in the world; Figo and Rui Costa are as dangerous a pair up front as any. Poland will be favored for second, but the U.S., believe it or not, is really good, despite losing midfield engine Chris Armas to an ACL tear in last weekend's win over Uruguay. South Korea is the top seed, but only because they're the host.

Group E: Germany is, for once, not totally solid. They'll be pressed by technically sound Ireland, who upset Holland in qualifying, and Cameroon, who have as much physical talent as anyone but are mistake-prone. Saudi Arabia are the biggest betting underdog in the field, but they've surprised before.

Group F: The Group of Death -- perennial powers Argentina and England are matched with hard-working Sweden and Nigeria's immensely talented Super Eagles. They all deserve better.

Group G: Italy's biggest problem may be too much talent. With six strikers who'd be the Star on any other team, where's the playing time? Flamboyant Mexico ranks seventh in the world, and tiny Croatia won the bronze in 1998. First-timers Ecuador were great in qualifying, but look like the odd men out.

Group H: Japan, a top seed as host, drew a mediocre crop of challengers. Belgium upset the Czech Republic to get here, but neither they, nor overripe Russia, nor Tunisia, the weakest of the Africans, will go far.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, it's playoff time in the other great international sports, hockey and basketball. It was a grim week for Texas hoops teams, who went 0-4 at home and made way for the Californians in surprisingly meek fashion. The multinational Mavs got undressed by a Kings squad missing the better of its two Yugoslavs. And then the proud Spurs wilted under pressure as 19-year-old French superstar Tony Parker could get no fourth-quarter help from any of his teammates -- including supposed MVP Tim Duncan -- for three games in a row. Pundits were already tsking that the Spurs need to get a second offensive threat to help out their star. True enough, but down the stretch, the one star they had was Parker, not Duncan.

So the Lakers and Kings, as expected, face off for the championship. Strangely, some minor-league teams on the east coast are still playing, too. What's up with that?

As is often the case, the playoffs' B-side, the NHL, is vastly more interesting than the overhyped A-side -- but since there aren't any Texans involved (or any flaming car wrecks), you won't be seeing anything about it in the local daily. Only halfway through, it's already had it all: drama (the 'Canes come back from a 3-0 third-period deficit and the brink of elimination), controversy and justice (Toronto's Darcy Tucker is knocked out for the season on a clean hit, after earlier ending Michael Peca's season with a dirty hit), great rivalries (Leafs win "The Battle of Ontario" in seven games), underdogs (8-seed Montreal knocks off 1-seed Boston), and most of all, competition (four seven-game series so far, with more to come). Compared to this, the NBA is a yawn.

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