Five things to watch at the World Cup
Editors' note: If there's anyone who knows the best and worst of the World Cup, it's Martin Tyler. The king of soccer commentary has been covering the sport since 1974, so he's seen his fair share of Cup finals -- nine, to be exact. He'll be upping that number to 10 when he commentates on the games this summer for ESPN, but first he shared five things to keep in mind before tuning in to next week's opener.
1. The characters
Throw yourself into the tournament. It is a monthlong soap opera, but with no script. You will find the characters to whom you can relate, the players who catch your eye, the team that inspires you. The World Cup only happens every four years, so I would recommend you steeping yourself in the action and catching up on your sleep in August.
2. The World Cup ball
I don't know all the American sports terminologies, but would "juiced up" be appropriate? Every major tournament uses a different -- supposedly more advanced -- type of football. The one used for the European Championship two years ago was excellent.
But already the 2010 World Cup version is being heavily criticized by goalkeepers and outfield players alike. They feel it is too light, and long-range shots dip and swerve as if with a mind of their own. With some of the games at altitude -- which adds more aerodynamic issues -- expect some spectacular but controversial goals.
3. Wonderful crowd scenes
It is a thrill to be going to South Africa, where the love of football has been very deep but rarely on display to the watching world. The first African World Cup will bring great pride to the whole continent, but obviously South Africa in particular. The atmosphere at the games will be unique, with extraordinary sounds and music from such a vibrant part of the world.
4. Who will emerge as the best player?
The team that wins will get the glory, but there is an interesting subplot with some of the game's great talents about to strut the South African stage.
Argentina's Lionel Messi had a brilliant season with Barcelona, as did England's Wayne Rooney at Manchester United.
Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal is a phenomenal performer. Kaka is still a key for Brazil. If fit, Didier Drogba could mount an African challenge as he leads the Ivory Coast. Fernando Torres is finally healthy and ready to try to fire Spain toward more glory. Netherlands will try to combine the talents of two great individuals in Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben.
5. Keep an eye out for North Korea.
The squad has been in the finals only once before -- in 1966, when it helped eliminate Italy to reach the quarterfinals. Then it led Portugal 3-0 before its adventure ended in a gallant 5-3 defeat. I don't expect the same heroics this time, though this team is quick and courageous like that of 44 years ago. The interest is that North Korea is in the tournament at all. One of the world's most inaccessible countries has come out to play.