Top 10 must-see World Cup games
South Africa kicks off the World Cup with its opener on June 11 against Mexico
Brazil against Portugal on June 25 is the marquee matchup of the Group of Death
The U.S. team's game against England on June 12 has received the most attention
Even the most intrepid World Cup fan will struggle to watch all 48 first-round matches. If you're really pressed, you could trim the list of must-see contests substantially. In fact, we'll help you. Here are 10 in the first round that you absolutely shouldn't miss (all times Eastern):
1. South Africa vs. Mexico, June 11, 10 a.m. -- World Cup openers once tended to be rather cautious and stodgy affairs. But Germany immediately lit up the 2006 tournament by pushing four past Costa Rica. Before that, Senegal popped the top on World Cup 2002 with a stunning upset over title-holding France, which nailed the post twice but could never find a way through. Can South Africa draw upon the energy of a frenzied nation to upend Mexico? Brazilian manager Carlos Alberto Parreira has supplied some needed discipline and direction for Bafana Bafana. And given Mexico's constant craving for attack and its wobbly goalkeeping, this year's big opener has potential to be a real cooker.
2. United States vs. England, June 12, 2:30 p.m. -- Excitement in America began building over this one the very second these teams were drawn into Group C back in December. Domestic soccer will always have England in its blood, not just for the countries' rich political ties but for the UK's role in shaping the American game. In many areas of the United States, the pioneers and early teachers of soccer were English exports. On the field, we'll see which version of England shows: a tough and talented side of restored discipline that romped and stomped in qualifying? Or the shrunken, oddly lifeless and disjointed side we've seen in recent friendlies?
3. Argentina vs. Nigeria, June 12, 10 a.m. -- Manager Diego Maradona, once the greatest soccer player on Earth, has been reduced to something of a cartoonish figure. And his team, talk about unpredictable! Argentina does have a lovely roster balance of workers and artists, including the world's top player. But even Leo Messi may not have enough magic in those inimitable fleet feet to overcome a certain Maradona-created instability. Then again, African teams have a bit of that unsteadiness in them, too. So this one could go anywhere.
4. Brazil vs. North Korea, June 15, 2:30 p.m. -- Under coach Dunga, Brazilian soccer is more bump and brawn, less Joga Bonito. But that doesn't mean the five-time champion isn't blessed with fine players. It starts with the phenomenal center-back pairing, Luicio and Juan. Yes, the bid to reclaim World Cup glory starts in defense for the Selecao. North Korea? Who knows? But the tournament's mystery guests don't appear to have enough protective armor -- not for facing global soccer's aristocrats, anyway. If Brazil is going to toy with a side, it will be this one. So catch this one from Johannesburg for the potential train wreck factor, if nothing else.
2010 World Cup
5. Spain vs. Switzerland, June 16, 10 a.m. -- Once again, Spain dreams of World Cup greatness. Only this time, the dreamy hopes have some realistic foundation -- so you'll want to see the co-favorites at some point in the opening round. Thanks to the dazzling midfield axis of Andres Iniesta and Xavi, Spain may emerge from group play with all nine possible points. None of the Group H encounters looks like more than a speed bump for this wealth of talent. On the other hand, Switzerland is fairly well organized and, like every other Group H side, will look to make things hard on Spain and aim for a draw. Spain's first-round finale with Chile may appear on the surface to be the better match. But if Vincent del Bosque's side has six points in its pocket, the coach will probably rest some starters in that one.
6. France vs. Mexico, June 17, 2:30 p.m. -- History may see France as a dubious World Cup participant, given Thierry Henry's naughty handball and an unconvincing overall qualifying campaign. Still, there's something to like about this squad, thanks to talented attackers like Franck Ribery, Florent Malouda, potential super-sub Henry and others. Mexico has never advanced past the second round in a World Cup played outside its own borders. Still, there's something to like about this squad thanks to sassy young attackers like Giovani Dos Santos, Carlos Vela and new Manchester United signee Javier Hernandez. Given the tournament history of host nations advancing out of the first round, South Africa could find a way through, which means the second spot from Group A could well come down to this one.
7. United States vs. Algeria, June 23, 10 a.m. -- This will be the first-round closer for Bob Bradley's team. Only the red-white-and-bluest of American fans would dare think their boys will have second-round passage secured by this point. Chances are, they'll need a result against the North Africans in Pretoria. Algeria can be a bit erratic, but there is surely talent there. Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, assuming they come through the first two U.S. matches unscathed, will need to carry the day. Get your foam fingers up!
8. Ghana vs. Germany, June 23, 2:30 p.m. -- Among the most evocative aspects of any World Cup is the contrast in styles -- although it can sometimes be overstated in the modern game, where soccer cultures frequently intermingle. But this one does offer some contrast. Michael Ballack's absence could see the German's drift back to the old ways: grinding out results through efficiency and sheer will. The Ghanaians are fairly well organized by freewheeling African standards, but they'll still challenge Germany with an energetic side, a mix of young talent and returning players who impressed four years ago. Ghana's loss of indomitable midfielder Michael Essien, however, will dent the Africans' chances.
9. Netherlands vs. Cameroon, June 24, 2:30 p.m. -- The Dutch have a tendency to hit a sweet spot about this time in major tournaments. It's usually around the second or third match -- after the initial draw borne of overconfidence and before the inevitable collapse borne of internal bickering (or hot-headed lunacy as we saw four years ago in the Portuguese-Dutch back-alley brawl). But in between, they can be simply amazing. And if you've seen some of Robin van Persie's recent strikes, you know why hopes are rising among the side's substantial worldwide support.
10. Brazil vs. Portugal, June 25, 10 a.m. -- It looked like Brazil-Ivory Coast would be the marquee match of this bunch, but a devastating injury to irrepressible striker Didier Drogba may strip some sheen off that one. Rather, the group may be decided by the Portuguese-speaking nations. Both teams will be keen to finish first in the group, for a likely second-round matchup with Spain awaits the Group G runner-up. And even mighty Brazil might want to sidestep that one.
Shorthanded goals help Islanders defeat Rangers
SI Now: Will a good season ruin the future for the Celtics and Suns?