BERLIN—Karsten Voigt wasn't surprised when the cocktail party conversation around him recently turned to the United States and Iran.
As the coordinator for German-U.S. relations at Germany's foreign office, he expects geopolitics. But this conversation wasn't about uranium enrichment or brinksmanship, it was about soccer, specifically the upcoming World Cup, in which Iran and the United States will take part.
"People were wondering where the foreign ministers would sit if the teams played each other," he recalled.
That's not very likely to happen. Iran and the United States are in different playing groups for the month-long tournament, which begins June 9, and both would have to survive several rounds to face each other. But what Voigt found interesting about the conversation was that the United States' chances were being discussed at all. "Ten years ago, the idea was laughable," he said.
After decades of being on the outside looking in, America has finally arrived in world soccer. Experts now not only are talking about the U.S. men's team, but many also are voicing respect and admiration for it.
"The hosts (Germany) aren't at their best, and the South Americans don't tend to do so well when the cup is in Europe, meaning this could be a very wide-open tournament," noted James Dart, a soccer writer for The Guardian, a national newspaper in England. "In a wide-open tournament, the U.S. team is very interesting."
This isn't the first time the U.S. men have qualified for the World Cup tournament. In the first cup, in 1930, the United States made it to the semifinals. In 1950, it famously defeated England 1-0 in an early game. And while it didn't qualify from 1950 until 1990, this is its fifth cup appearance in a row.
In the last competition, in 2002 in South Korea and Japan, the U.S. men surprised when they reached the quarterfinals, where they lost very respectably 1-0 to Germany, which went on to lose to Brazil in the championship game.
This time, the United States enters the tournament ranked among the best teams in the world. But it's also a member of one of the most difficult groups of teams in the tournament.
To move on to the second round, the United States must finish first or second in its four-team group, which includes Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana. In the second round, the tournament is a series of one-game eliminations until only two teams remain.
Italy is a traditional soccer power, and this may be its best team in a decade. The Czech Republic, against which the United States opens June 12, is strong, and Ghana has several very high-profile players.
In the past, an opening group of this caliber would have meant very low expectations for the United States. But soccer experts think this year is different.
"We believe the United States is the big gun in our group," said Radim Trusina, a football writer for The People's Paper, the Czech Republic's oldest newspaper. "They're very athletic, very good. Our manager is spending a lot of time preparing to play them."
The United States is, after all, ranked fifth in the world right now, behind the Czech Republic (second) but ahead of Italy (13th) and Ghana (48th). There's no tradition of caring about rankings in soccer, so they don't mean as much as general impressions. Still, the impression of the United States right now is that it can play.
"They're not arriving as afterthoughts, but as a very good team," said Chris Tempelman, who writes about international soccer for Voetbal International, a top Dutch soccer magazine. "They're clearly better than a lot of teams who will be in Germany."
Betting odds place the United States almost exactly in the middle of the 32 teams in the tournament, at 80-to-1 odds to win, according to William Hill Online Sports Betting.
Patrick Krull, a soccer writer for the German national newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag, said that while the United States wasn't the favorite, it wasn't likely to be overwhelmed.
He guessed that the elite teams would be Brazil, and probably the Netherlands and Argentina. But other good teams have problems—key English and Czech players are injured and Italy is in the midst of a betting scandal—and that might give the United States an opening.
"They used to be weaklings," he noted. "That's no longer true. Just how strong they are, we'll know in a few weeks."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060531 WORLDCUP
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060517 FIFA ranking
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