June 7, 2010 — -- Soccer usually takes a back seat to football for most U.S. sports fans, but for one month every four years, the international version of football endeavors to capture U.S. hearts, and feet.
The FIFA World Cup kicks off this week in Johannesburg, South Africa. Less than 20 years since the end of apartheid, the new South Africa takes center stage as the first African nation to host the world's premier team competition.
"What makes the World Cup so special is it's the largest sporting event in the world," said Mia Hamm, the most successful women's soccer player in U.S. history. "The energy, the passion, the enthusiasm, is like nothing you'll ever see."
Thirty-two teams will compete in 64 games -- starting with host nation South Africa against Mexico June 11 -- to crown a world champion.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela, 91, who rarely makes public appearances, is expected to attend the opening match, providing a spiritual lift for the underdog home side. The South Africa team, known as Bafana Bafana (the Boys), is ranked 83rd in the world and hopes to avoid being the first host nation to fail to advance to the second round.
The United States, competing its sixth consecutive World Cup, will take on England in Rustenburg June 12. The U.S. team will try to repeat its last World Cup performance against England in 1950 when it scored a stunning 1-0 upset.
"It's a special game," said John Harkes, former captain of the U.S. National Team and World Cup participant in 1990 and 1994. "The U.S., they love the underdog factor. And they can be very aggressive. I really believe that if they work hard together, as a team, they're capable of winning against England.
Team USA, ranked 14th in the world, will also play Slovenia, June 18, and Algeria, June 23, in the first round of group play.
Buoyed by a strong performance in last year's Confederations Cup, a warm-up tournament in South Africa for the World Cup, where they defeated top-ranked Spain and nearly upset five-time world champion Brazil, team USA is looking to repeat its 2002 run to the quarterfinals.
Will Americans Catch Soccer Fever?
With every World Cup, there is the promise that the United States will finally catch soccer fever. But despite much anticipation, a U.S. soccer frenzy has yet to fully materialize.
"It's been a question, that's always been asked of me," Harkes said. "Why is it that the Americans can't really grasp soccer?"
Brazilian soccer legend Pele joined the New York Cosmos of the nascent North American Soccer league in the 1970s. Pele and the Cosmos filled U.S. football stadiums for a short time but the excitement soon faded and so did the league, leaving the United States without a major professional soccer league.
Soccer excitement returned and swept the country in 1994 when the United States hosted the World Cup for the first time. The tournament was a rousing success, breaking the World Cup attendance record and spawning a major professional league, Major League Soccer.
Now in its 15th season, Major League Soccer continues to grow: The league will expand to 18 teams next year.
Soccer has yet to overtake the other major U.S. sports but there are clear signs of growth in TV viewership, game attendance and interest in international teams and competition.
Americans have purchased more tickets to the World Cup in South Africa than any other nation outside of the host nation.
"Each time that the World Cup comes along, there's more education and there's more exposure of the game," Harkes said.
And as excitement is building for this year's World Cup, the United States is bidding to bring the World Cup back in 2018 or 2022. FIFA will announce the hosts for 2018 and 2022 Dec. 2.
"I think this World Cup is so important in building that excitement and that support to catapult us to hopefully winning the World Cup Bid in 2018 or 2022," said Hamm, a board member of the USA World Cup 2018/2022 Bid Committee.
Hamm is just one member of the star-studded USA World Cup 2018/2022 Bid Committee, including Brad Pitt, Bill Clinton, Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Spike Lee, Drew Carey, Henry Kissinger, and Oscar De la Hoya.
FIFA: 26 Billion Watched 2006 World Cup Tournament
"I want to continue to show FIFA that the sport is growing," Hamm said. "That the fans here are passionate and as dedicated as any fans in the world."
A cumulative audience of 26 billion people watched the 2006 World Cup in Germany, with nearly 17 million Americans watching Italy defeat France in the final match, according to FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association).
"The World Cup final, the energy is enormous," said Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State and board member for the USA 2018/2022 World Cup Bid Committee."I've been to Super Bowls and World Series games and they have their own tension but the World Cup has something very special."