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World Cup Preview: The Beautiful Games Begin

The World Cup kicks off Friday in South Africa, homeland of Nelson Mandela, and on Saturday, the U.S. meets England in a much anticipated matchup. Here's what to look for during the world's most popular sporting event.

NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- The

World Cup

kicks off in South Africa today when the host nation takes on Mexico, heralding a monthlong feast of soccer.

Here's what you can expect from the world's most popular sporting event:

U.S. vs. England

This game has been massively hyped on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether the special relationship is intact after 90 minutes, though, remains to be seen. The British tabloids, understated as ever, have already engaged in some

pretty impressive trash-talking

.

On paper, England should defeat Bob Bradley's team, although the Americans are a hard-working side capable of grinding out results. Last year, for example, the U.S. stormed to the final of the Confederations Cup, where the Red, White and Blue almost defeated Brazil.

Although lacking a megastar such as Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi, the Americans could have England's number. The core of the team has English Premier League experience, and players such as Fulham's Clint Dempsey and Everton keeper Tim Howard are household names in Britain.

Dempsey, in particular, is in impressive form, and the midfielder helped take Fulham to the final of this season's Europa League. Up front, jet-heeled L.A. Galaxy star Landon Donovan also garnered rave reviews during a loan spell at Everton. The attacking midfielder will be hoping to repeat his heroics from the 2002, when his goals helped take America all the way to the World Cup quarterfinals.

America's problem, however, is consistency. Good going forward, the U.S. is often suspect at the back.

England

are carrying the hopes of an expectant (if economically fragile) nation. The country's only World Cup win came in 1966, but dreams of a repeat performance reach fever pitch every four years, regardless of the team's actual quality.

In Manchester United's Wayne Rooney (pictured above), England coach Fabio Capello has one of the world's great players, although the pugnacious forward will need to keep his temper in check, unless the Liverpudlian wants to end up like the alternative ending to the fabulous

Nike

commerical below.

Both England and the U.S. should make it out of World Cup Group C and into the knockout stage of the tournament. What happens after that, though, is anyone's guess. For America, defense is key, whereas England may need to overcome its near-pathological fear of penalty shootouts.

The other two teams in Group C are

Slovenia

and

Algeria

. Although lacking big-name stars, tiny Slovenia stunned Russia in a playoff to reach the World Cup. For Algeria, qualification was a true blood and guts affair, but more on that later.

Keep an Eye on the 'PIGS'

There may be a big economic cloud hanging over Europe, but there is soccer talent aplenty on the other side of the Atlantic. Defending champions

Italy

have a phenomenal Word Cup pedigree, although coach Marcello Lippi seems to favor aging stars over emerging talent. Still, players like Fabio Cannavaro and the combative Gennaro Gattuso are no pushovers. With four World Cup wins, the

Azzurri

are a soccer powerhouse, but a fifth victory may be too much for Lippi's old guard.

Portugal

reached the semifinals of the last World Cup and can also count on the sublimely talented Cristiano Ronaldo (pictured above). The team, however, was less than convincing during qualifying and will need something special when they meet Brazil on June 25.

Greece

will be hoping for some respite from the country's recent economic woes and to play solid if unspectacular football. Look out for striker Theofanis Gekas: the forward was Europe's top scorer during World Cup qualifying.

The Adidas Jabulani, the official ball of the 2010 World Cup

European Champions

Spain

are tournament favorites. Lining up against Switzerland, Honduras and Chile in Group H, the gifted Spanish side has an easy draw, and great things are expected from striker Fernando Torres. The Spanish, however, will be keen to avoid a repeat of last summer's Confederations Cup, when they were dumped out by the U.S.

A Tale of Two Koreas

The World Cup will provide a welcome distraction in Pyongyang and Seoul this summer, following the recent sinking of a South Korean warship. Both North and South Korea have clinched spots in South Africa but are unlikely to meet.

North Korea, in particular has a tough draw, facing Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast in Group G.

North Korea's attacking force is striker Jong Tae-se, known as "The People's Rooney," and the team is said to be a well-disciplined unit. Still, Kim Jong-Il's boys will have to perform a miracle to escape the World Cup's "Group of Death."

Like their communist neighbors, the sporting gods were not exactly smiling on

South Korea

when the World Cup draw was made. The "Red Devils" will suit up against Argentina, Nigeria and Greece in Group B. This, however, is the team's eighth finals appearance, and Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung will play a key role.

South Americans in South Africa

As always,

Brazil

are genuine contenders. Coached by 1994 World Cup winner Dunga, the Brazilians have a wealth of talent at their disposal, notably Real Madrid playmaker Kaká and Sevilla striker Luis Fabiano.

Brazil's arch-rivals

Argentina

are also tipped to do well. In the diminutive Lionel Messi (pictured above), the Argentines have the best player on the planet, although the team's combustible coach, the legendary Diego Maradona, is expected to grab plenty of headlines.

Up against France, South Africa and Mexico in Group A,

Uruguay

are seen as dark horses, capable of springing a surprise or two. Striker Diego Forlan, who has been banging in goals for Atlético Madrid, will be hoping to take his club form onto the world stage.

Impressive during World Cup qualifying,

Chile

are expected to ease their way out of Group H. The earthquake-ravaged country will be looking for a boost from players such as Mark González.

Paraguay

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face Italy, Slovakia and New Zealand in Group H, where they will likely be vying with the Slovaks for second place. Towering striker Óscar Cardozo, nicknamed "the bamboo tree," will be the player to watch.

Other Contenders

European giants

France

, who lost to Italy on penalty kicks in the 2006 final (yes, that game when French superstar Zinedine Zidane was red-carded for head-butting Italy's Marco Materazzi for insulting his sister) can thank the hand of Thierry Henry for their controversial World Cup qualification vs. Ireland this year. But

Les Bleus

could still go far. In addition to the mercurial Henry, Franck Ribery also has the skill to turn any game.

Three-time winners

Germany

have an impressive pedigree and can usually be counted on to reach the tournament's latter stages. The loss of captain Michael Ballack to injury, though, could hurt the Germans.

Holland

have been given a good draw, facing Japan, Denmark and Cameroon in Group E. Forward Robin Van Persie and winger Arjen Robben are two to watch.

Less-fancied

Mexico

--

El Tri

-- could be a surprise package, but have earned a reputation as poor travelers. Keep an eye on 37-year old former Chicago Fire playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco.

Stars of Africa

Hosts

South Africa

are expected to struggle in a group that includes France and Uruguay. Midfielder Steven Pienaar is the team's captain and creative spark.

Greater things are expected from

Ivory Coast

, although lady luck has hardly been smiling on "The Elephants." Drawn in a group with Brazil and Portugal, the fitness of Chelsea star Didier Drogba (left in photo above), who recently suffered an injury, will be key.

The physically imposing

Nigeria

team will make life difficult for opponents in Group B. Like the Ivory Coast, the Nigerians also have had injury woes, losing star midfielder John Obi Mikel.

Ghana

also lost a key player to injury just prior to the World Cup. The absence of Michael Essien is bad news for the Ghanaians, who face Serbia, Australia and Germany in Group D.

Cameroon

take on Japan, Denmark and Holland in Group E, but few expect the "Indomitable Lions" to repeat their heroics from 1990, when the team reached the World Cup quarterfinals. Inter Milan forward Samuel Eto'o is the star.

Of all the teams in South Africa,

Algeria

had the most eventful qualification. Marred by crowd violence, the team's two-game play-off against Egypt sparked a diplomatic incident between the two countries before Algeria eventually won a decider played in neutral Sudan. "The Desert Foxes" have plenty of pace but could still struggle.

Long Shots

Slovakia

make their World Cup debut in South Africa but have a tough group featuring Italy and Paraguay.

Switzerland

play efficient, if not scintillating, soccer but could make the second round.

Serbia

and

Denmark

, in contrast, offer a greater threat, and both sides were impressive in World Cup qualifying. Will Arsenal and Denmark striker Niklas Bendtner shine on the big stage?

Outside Europe,

Japan

are making their fourth finals appearance but could struggle to get out of their group.

Australia

, up against Germany, Ghana and Serbia, also face an uphill battle but could spring a surprise or two.

MLS Connections

New York Red Bulls defender Andy Boyens is in the

New Zealand

squad, while former New York and Toronto star Amado Guevara will be in midfield for

Honduras

. Neither team is expected to go far.

-- Reported by James Rogers in New York

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