American culture is filled with sporting events which have become major cultural events. These include the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Indy 500, Kentucky Derby, NCAA basketball tournament and many, many more.

To our closest cultural neighbors, the Canadians, there is nothing comparable to hockey and winning the Stanley Cup. An appreciation for what is known here in North America as ‘soccer’ has been slow in building at the professional level.

But elsewhere around the globe, from Europe to South America, Asia to Africa, Down Under and everywhere in between, no game is bigger than soccer, or what is actually known as ‘football’  to the rest of that world.

Today begins the biggest event in the biggest sport drawing the most interest the world over as the World Cup gets under way. It has been estimated that approximately 715 million people the world over watched the 2006 finals in which Italy defeated France in a shootout for the title.

Held every four years, the World Cup is the championship of football. Competitions actually begin three years earlier, so for this 2010 championship the competition began in 2007.

The early competitions occur within geographic regions of the planet, as nations battle against their neighbors for the right to advance to higher levels in the tournament.

The World Cup tournament began officially in 1930 with Uruguay dumping South American rivals Argentina by a 4-2 score.

There have been 18 World Cup tournaments, as the competition was not held in either 1942 or 1946 due to the events surrounding World War II.

The most successful nation has been perennial South American power Brazil, which is the only nation to appear in every tourney and which has won a record five times.

For this World Cup, a record 204 countries entered teams to the competition. Once the nations work their way through a qualifying period, a final 32-nation field is rewarded by earning their place in the official tournament. These 32 teams are now about to begin playing for the 2010 World Cup being hosted by South Africa, the first time the tourney final is ever to be held on the continent of Africa.

The final 32 qualifiers are now in South Africa, and have been split into eight ‘groups’ of four teams each known as Groups A-H. These groups of teams will meet the others within their group in a round-robin format with 3 points awarded for a win and 1 point awarded for a tie. The two teams with the most points at the end of group play will advance into the quarter-finals which are known as ‘knockout’ play. If a tie exists, goal differential and other tie-breakers are utilized to determine which nation advances.

The top eight teams have been ‘seeded’, or selected 1-8 as the best, although the host team is also seeded, meaning that the lowly-ranked South Africans are a seeded team this time around. The rest of the teams are ranked based on a formula developed by FIFA based on their performance in previous competitions. The seeded nations for 2010 are South Africa, Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Argentina, and England.

The winners of the tournament are awarded the FIFA World Cup Trophy which was designed back in 1970 and approved by the leading football playing nations. The winners receive a gold-plated replica of the actual solid gold trophy, and can keep the replica in their nation until the following tournament at which time it is returned to FIFA. The trophy is engraved at the bottom with the year and national winner of every tourney since 1974. FIFA, the Federation International de Football Association, is the international governing body of the sport.

So with those basics in mind, it’s time to take a look at the top teams and nations for this 2010 World Cup, and the chances that the U.S. team can bring home the nations’ first-ever title. The Americans will begin play in dramatic fashion, meeting seeded nation and historic rival England in their opener. Though the game is almost a religion in England, the nation has won the World Cup only once, way back in 1966 by 4-2 over then West Germany, and it’s only other final four appearance was a loss in the 1990 semi-final.

England has a strong club led by one of the best and most relentless players in the world in Wayne Rooney. You can think of Rooney as a sort-of Pete Rose in soccer shorts. He plays the game all-out, all the time, and at age 26 may be entering his prime at just the right time. The rest of the English squad is made up of regulars in the English Premier League, widely considered the top professional league in the world. It would be sort of like a bunch of Americans from Major League Baseball performing in the World Baseball Classic or other such competition. The English always expect their team to win, are some of the most passionate on earth, and usually end up as ultimately disappointing, feeling that their team is snake-bitten.

Other strong clubs and players include Brazil, with 27-year old midfielder Kaka leading the way. Kaka distributes the ball to his scoring teammates as well as any player ever, but has had knee problems that might effect his play here. Even if he is off his game, the single-named Brazilians still have high-scoring Robinho and others, and will definitely be a strong factor as usual.

My personal pick to win will come from one of two nations, Spain and the Netherlands. The Spaniards have never finished above 4th, and that all the way back in 1950. They are frequently considered one of the most disappointing teams in World Cup competition. The talent, led by the great Xavi Hernandez, says this time should be different. The Dutchmen of the Netherlands advanced to the finals in back-to-back World Cup finals in 1972 and 1976, but lost heart-breaking matches each time. They are again among the most talented passing teams in the world.

The defending champs from Italy have won the World Cup four times (1934, ’38, ’82, 2006) and are famously nicknamed the ‘Azzurri’. They are a veteran team this time around that should advance at least to the final eight. Argentina has perhaps the best player in the world in Lionel Messi, and their coach is the legendary Diego Maradona. Portugal has another of the planet’s top players in Cristiano Ronaldo. Both of these teams are serious World Cup title contenders, and both Messi and Ronaldo are legitimate stars and national heroes who could make the difference in making that happen.

Traditional power Germany will again be a factor, but has suffered some serious injuries to key players who will not be able to compete this time around. The Germans lost the 2002 final and finished with a win in the 3rd place game four years ago. They also finished 3rd in 1934, and as West Germany they won the World Cup in 1954, 1974 and 1990.

As with every major sporting event, there are dark-horse teams that could seriously disrupt the plans of the major contenders. One such club is the secretive Koreans, who advanced all the way to the semi-finals when they hosted the World Cup four years ago. Mexico, Serbia, Uruguay, Greece and Paraguay are among the others who are talented enough to pull an upset or two and advance farther than some anticipate.

Another of the dark-horse teams are the Americans, who are favored in their Group C to be one of the two teams (along with England) to advance into knockout play. The game, known as soccer here, has been building in popularity among American youth over the past 2-3 decades. The American professional game finally appears to have a serious, long-term answer with the growing popularity and market expansion of Major League Soccer. And the USA is finally developing the talent and experience to be competitive against the world’s best.

Leading the American team this time around is 28-year old forward Landon Donovan (pictured). The star of Los Angeles Galaxy in MLS play, Donovan has become the face of U.S. soccer, and this should be his time to shine on the world stage. The team also has 20-year old striker Jozy Altidore, who many consider the future national team star goal scorer. No player is hotter right now than forward Edson Buddle, the leading scorer this season in MLS play. Players such as forwards Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, and defenders Carlos Bocanegra (the team captain) and the physical Jay DeMerit, give the USA it’s deepest, most talented side ever. The goalkeeper, Tim Howard, is considered one of the best in the world.

Coach Bob Bradley has guided the national team all the way in preparing for this World Cup. The coach since 2006, he has led three teams in MLS and was a 2-time assistant with the national team. His team does not need to defeat England in it’s opener in order to advance, but a win or a draw against the Brits would be considered a major step forward for his team, and is very much within reach. A loss would mean the USA would need to beat out Algeria and Slovenia in order to advance, something they would be favored to accomplish.

The World Cup is the single most important and popular sporting event in the entire world. Despite the fact that the United States has not had much international success and that the game has been slow to catch on here in the hearts of the general public, it is indeed beginning to emerge into the American consciousness. This South African World Cup now beginning is the best opportunity for the American team to advance the game here that has ever existed. Let the play begin!