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Center stage

Ten to watch as the World Cup takes the spotlight

Posted: Monday June 5, 2006 1:16PM; Updated: Monday June 5, 2006 3:49PM
The brilliant Ronaldinho leads favorite Brazil into the World Cup.
The brilliant Ronaldinho leads favorite Brazil into the World Cup.
David Cannon/Getty Images

With the NBA Finals and the World Cup starting this week, I will be a man apart. I have my playoff beard going, coming in scraggly yet determined, and I also have a World Cup TV schedule printed out and in my wallet, ready to roll. Since my day job is writing about the NBA for SLAM magazine, at some point this week I'll head down to Dallas, where the Mavs and the Heat will tip off and Mark Cuban will lead us media members in daily wild blog chases. But since I also write quite frequently about soccer, I had to pass up the chance to go to Germany and even turned down a couple of World Cup tickets, which nearly broke my heart. Late last night I sprung out of bed and sprinted to my laptop to confirm my worst fears: The U.S. opener against the Czech Republic kicks off at noon next Monday, when I'll probably be in midair somewhere between Dallas and Miami. Note to self: Call travel agent first thing in the morning.

This is the time of year when media outlets all over the U.S. that basically ignore soccer for 46 contiguous months suddenly fall all over themselves to act like the sport matters to them. For instance, SportsCenter on Sunday had a well-produced piece about the scourge of racism in European soccer. Which was good and interesting and all, but why didn't they cover this months (and, in the case of Thierry Henry and Luis Aragones, more than a year) ago when it was actually news?

Not to beat a dead horse, but while some of us follow soccer year-round, I understand why the casual fans don't. Spending the fall and winter regularly waking up before sunrise on Saturdays to watch live matches isn't exactly fun for the masses. Soccer scores and news aren't readily available in our local sports sections. And let's not even talk about trying to find soccer highlights on ESPN.

So if you haven't been keeping up, here's a cheat sheet: 10 players you should absolutely know and watch over the next month. Some are great soccer players, some are just hilarious. Either way, if you know these guys, you'll be able to keep up around the watercooler for the next month.

1. Ronaldinho: He's pretty much unanimously recognized as the best player in the world, a creative and fundamentally perfect player who can do a little of everything -- like a cross between Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Writing about his skills is like dancing about architecture. Just watch this.

2. Peter Crouch: Crouch won't wow you with his skills, but he might shock you with his size. Listed at 6-foot-7, Crouch plays striker for England, which is kind of like Manute Bol starting at point guard for an NBA team. He's had me tuned in to watch Liverpool all season (when he was healthy). Despite his incredible height and awkward style, Crouch manages to score pretty regularly, as his three goals on Saturday against Jamaica demonstrated.