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Do Billions of Fans Know Something You Don't?

World Cup soccer has limited following in the US, but globally it's sports' high scorer.

Somewhere way back in the darkest reaches of your memory, you already know a lot about the World Cup.

It's about soccer.

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It's a big tournament that happens every four years, and a lot of people outside the United States get very worked up about it.

You may even recall that in 1994, it was played in the US for the very first time.

If you know all that, you're off to a good start. But with more kids than ever trampling across the soccer fields of America, and considering that many of the other 5.5 billion humans on the planet will be immersed in the month-long tournament next summer, knowing more could be helpful.

Although the event is six months away (June 10 through July 8), the countdown has already begun. Last Thursday, the tournament schedule was finally set. Now each of the 32 teams that qualified knows who and where it will play in the first round.

Most Americans can't imagine how important the World Cup - the most popular sporting event on Earth - is to the rest of humanity. The prime minister of Jamaica, for example, made Nov. 16 a national holiday because on that day the "Reggae Boyz," Jamaica's national soccer team, qualified for its first World Cup.

"We are bigger than politics," said midfielder Robbie Earle. Perhaps he's right, but that's nothing out of the ordinary. From Italy to Brazil, soccer is the national obsession, and the World Cup is the game's Holy Grail.

This Q&A may help explain what the World Cup is all about:

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How does the World Cup work?

Every nation can qualify. This year, 172 tried. Through two years of qualifying matches, the field was pared down to 32 teams. These teams were divided into eight groups of four this past Thursday. Each team will play the three other teams in its group once, then the top two teams from each group will advance to the second round. The second round is a series of single-elimination games leading to the final. The games will be played in 10 cities around France, with the final in St. Denis, near Paris.

What's the difference between the World Cup and soccer in the Olympics?

Unlike most sports, soccer puts little emphasis on the Games. In the Olympics only three players on a team can be older than 23, so most nations just use it as a youth tournament to test rising talent.

What happened in the last World Cup?

The two favorites, Brazil and Italy, made it to the final, but there were a few upsets along the way. Most notably, Bulgaria, a virtual unknown, finished fourth. By and large, it was considered entertaining and was the most financially successful World Cup in history.

Who are the players to look out for in France?

Brazil's Ronaldo is the unquestioned king of soccer. The Italian soccer team Internazionale of Milan payed $27 million this summer to buy him from a Spanish club. The forward is easy to spot with his clean-shaven head and toothy grin.

The other top forward in the tournament is Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta, who didn't play up to expectations in World Cup 1994, but has improved greatly since. Alan Shearer of England is also a first-rate forward, and Frenchman Zinedine Zidane is perhaps the most creative midfielder in the world. On defense, Paolo Maldini of Italy and Matthias Sammer of Germany are worth watching.

As for past stars, Italy's Roberto Baggio, one of the two best players in World Cup 1994, has been dropped from the national team, while Brazil's Romario, the other big star, has come back to be a major part of the Brazilian team.

Who are the up-and-coming soccer nations?

Right now the fashionable dark horse is Nigeria. The Nigerians have incredible talent, but the team continues to be disorganized, and as long as it remains so, it will continue to underachieve. Yugoslavia and Croatia are also teams to watch. Norway could surprise some people, and England has rebounded impressively after missing World Cup 1994.

Who is the favorite?

If Brazil doesn't win the World Cup, it will be a surprise. It is, without question, the best soccer nation in the world. Other countries that have the best chance of dethroning Brazil - which is also the defending champion - are Germany, Italy, and Argentina.

What chance does the US have?

To win the tournament, zip. Everyone, including the team, knows that. The US coach, Steve Sampson, says he wants to make it to the third round, which is ambitious. The US is in a group with Germany, Yugoslavia, and Iran. Both Germany and Yugoslavia are significantly better than the US, and the game with Iran promises to be highly emotional, which could hurt the Americans. The US qualified for the second round out of a difficult group in 1994, but a repeat performance, while not impossible, seems unlikely.

Can I get tickets?

The only way you can get tickets to watch the US is through Gulliver Sports Travel in California. The company is putting together a travel package that will allow fans to follow the US through the Cup. Applications are due by late December. The phone number is (760) 941-7323.

* Mark Sappenfield writes a weekly soccer column for the Mixed Media/Commentary page of the e-Monitor.

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