World Cup -- The International Pastime Arrives

Does the United States have any chance of making it past early-round competition when the 18th World Cup kicks off Friday? That's a question many fans and sports writers are asking as host country Germany gears up to play Costa Rica in the first round.

The overwhelming favorite this year is the current champion team from Brazil, with 11-to-5 odds given by Las Vegas casinos. England, Italy, Argentina and Germany are right on Brazil's heels.

But how will the United States factor in with these heavily favored teams?

Team USA coach Bruce Arena -- whose team is the joint 12th favorite with Mexico at 40-to-1 -- is certainly optimistic. "I'm pretty successful at what I do," Arena told The New York Times. "We are one of the most competitive, with the best spirit, the fittest, and with some of the best athletes."

Truth be told, even though the United States is clearly not a favorite, the team has been steadily improving each year and it is expected that it won't go down without a solid fight. Burly forward Brian McBride says the team is ready to play. "We have to be prepared mentally and physically. We've been together a while now -- we put a lot of hard work in."

Team USA now has the respect of its European counterparts, after reaching the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup, which was co-hosted by Japan and Korea, beating Portugal and Mexico along the way. Anything less in Germany would be regarded as a disappointment.

The Americans have to be tough coming out of the gate -- their campaign opens against the Czech Republic on Monday, and they face Italy five days later.

If they make it through these early matches, it wouldn't be the first time the U.S. team has shocked soccer's royalty. One of the most famous results in the history of the sport saw a part-time American team defeat England's superstars at the 1950 World Cup.

In the same way the Olympics reflect a sense of national pride among competing countries, the World Cup is about more than sport.

Angola, playing in its first tournament, is recovering from 27 years of civil war. Struggling families will huddle around their generator-powered TVs and radios, praying for their team's victory.

Saudi Arabia will look to avoid a repeat of its 8-0 thrashing at the hands of Germany four years ago. Serbia and Montenegro will compete for the final time as a unified state.

Unlike baseball's World Series, the World Cup brings together varied cultures of the whole world. The stands will be awash with color from Brazilian samba girls dressed in yellow bikinis, non-stop singing from face-painted Dutchmen, and the drum-thumping fans of tiny Trinidad and Tobago.

On the field, Ronaldinho of Brazil will mesmerize both fans and opposition players alike. His long hair and buck teeth make him hard to miss. His lightning speed and fancy footwork make him hard to catch. Deeply motivated and considered by many as the best soccer player in the world, Ronaldinho hits the field running with the youthful joy of a kid playing with friends in his backyard.

The 32 qualifying World Cup national teams are placed in groups of four that play each other, and the top two teams in each group then advance to the knockout round. The tournament, which like the Olympics takes place once every four years, culminates in the final in Berlin on July 9.

A total of 64 games, all shown live on either ABC or ESPN, will be played over the four weeks of the tournament. The average worldwide television audience for each game is expected to be around 500 million, with over 1 billion tuning in to the final. That's significantly more than the Superbowl.

Americans have been slow to take soccer -- which the rest of the world knows as football -- to heart. And yet, according to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association -- the sport's global governing body -- the United States has more official soccer players than any other nation in the world: almost 18 million, with 78 percent under the age of 18.

If America has a big World Cup showing, soccer might just start to challenge baseball, football, and basketball as the talk of sports bars across the nation.

Team USA is due.