In a dazzling new stadium outside Paris today, soccer professionals from a record 32 nations open play to determine by mid-July a new world champion in the sport for the 16th time since two Frenchmen thought up the idea.
Without doubt, the quadrennial World Cup -- first contested among 13 nations in 1930 -- has evolved into Earth's greatest tournament for a team sport, dwarfing in fans, countries and players other world events for, among others, basketball and ice hockey.
Only the much older, multi-event Olympics compete in terms of scope, hype, and nowadays, television viewers and advertising revenue.
Competition combined with nationalism are the main spectator draws, of course, and the level of play in this low-scoring sport can be breathtaking because players, who can compete only for their own countries, are professionals selected from club teams, either domestically or elsewhere.
Some of the numbers related to this World Cup are simply astounding, even in blase, sports-glutted America, where what is often called "the simplest game" struggles for standing professionally despite being omnipresent among young athletes, particularly in suburbs.
Between today's first two games and July 12, when the surviving two teams compete for the championship in the same, new, $400 million-plus stadium the French have erected in blue-collar Saint-Denis, northeast of Paris, soccer's world-governing body estimates that a cumulative 37 billion viewers will have tuned in on TV.
On average, each of the tournament's 64 matches will be watched by 578 million people worldwide, in surroundings that range from mansions to make-shift huts, and sometimes gathered around one set in a town plaza. In some countries, daily life literally stops while the national team plays on TV.
For players, that means make a mistake and you may be reminded of it for the rest of your life; at an extreme, a Colombian defender who inadvertently scored a goal for the U.S. team in 1994, was shot and killed a couple weeks later. But, do something heroic and you could become a wealthy national hero.
That final game -- with a 14-inch tall, 18-carat solid-gold trophy as the visible prize of world supremacy -- is expected to have 1.7 billion viewers. That's 29 percent of the world's estimated 5.9 billion people.
Only five nations have ever won -- Argentina (twice), Brazil (four times), England (once), Italy (three times), Uruguay (twice) and the former West Germany (three times).
As in the United States, which hosted the last World Cup in 1994, this year's final round will play out in multiple venues, Saint-Denis, as well as in nine other stadiums in Bordeaux, Lens, Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Nantes, Paris, Saint-Etienne and Toulouse. Tickets have been gone for weeks.
This is, really, the final round of a tournament that began two years ago with teams from 172 countries competing regionally to qualify. The U.S., whose team sailed to that first World Cup in Uruguay, qualified for the finals for the sixth time as one of three representatives from North and Central America and the Caribbean. The U.S. has made all three World Cups this decade.
How it works
Here's how the next 32 days of competition work: By lot, the 32 teams were assigned to eight groups, each with four teams. Each team plays the other three in its group by June 26. The U.S. team is in Group F with Germany, Yugoslavia and Iran; its first game is on Monday against the Germans, a Cup favorite, at Saint-Denis.
During group play, winners get three points in group standings, losers get nothing. Tie games stand, with each team getting one point. Each team's difference between goals scored and allowed cumulatively is the first tie-breaker if the standings are knotted after group play ends June 26.
Only each group's top two teams advance; the other 16 go home. From that point, knock-out competition is the rule -- win and advance, lose and you're gone. Ties produce 30 minutes of sudden-death play until a "golden goal" decides a winner and ends play. If the score remains tied, teams will alternate penalty kicks to determine a winner, after each takes five kicks or builds an insurmountable lead.
All 64 matches are being televised in the United States by ABC and its cable affiliates, ESPN and ESPN2. By July 12, the total, counting 30-minute pre-game shows, will be 230 hours. Games will not be interrupted by advertising.
World Cup TV
Game 1: Brazil vs. Scotland, 11: 30 a.m., ESPN
Game 2: Morocco vs. Norway, 3 p.m., ESPN
Pub Date: 6/10/98