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Years of qualifying matches have narrowed the field to the final 32 nations who will attempt to leave South Africa as winners of the 2010 World Cup. This tournament, held every four years, is the pinnacle of the soccer world, and will be watched by a worldwide audience of more than 26 billion people. Yet here in the United States, despite our national team's participation in the competition, the number of soccer fans continues to lag behind the rest of the world. But fear not!
ESPN.com has a simple way to help you get involved in this global spectacle, with our ESPN Soccernet Bracket Predictor. This will be an online competition similar to the traditional brackets that generate so much interest each year when the college basketball tournament rolls around, with some minor adjustments due to the little quirks in soccer's main event. For one, this is not a straight one-and-done single-elimination affair. After all that time spent working toward the goal of making it to South Africa, nobody is going to get sent packing just because it may have drawn the No. 1 overall seed in its first game. Rather, the 32 countries are placed in eight groups of four, playing a three-game round-robin schedule. The winning team gets three points for a victory and, if there is a tie, each team is awarded one point. The two teams with the most points in group play then advance into the round of 16, where the tournament then adopts a single-elimination format.
Your goal is to select which two teams will emerge from each of the eight groups. From there, you will be asked to select the winner of each elimination game, culminating in the World Cup final. Each subsequent round of the tournament is worth more points, so while you may want to take some leaps of faith here and there, it's best not to get too creative with your selections. But don't worry if you don't know your Kaka from your Drogba ... here are a few tips to help you figure out what countries might be worth taking a chance on to make a deep run.
Follow the Seeds: The top seven teams, as determined by FIFA, will be given a No. 1 seed in their group, and presumably an easier path through to the round of 16. Since 1962, every World Cup champion has been a seeded team, with the exception of Argentina in 1986, which needed the help of the disputed "hand of God goal" from Diego Maradona to make it past England. Since the tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1998, only three top seeds have failed to make it through group play, but all eight top seeds did advance in 2006.
Home, Sweet Home: The eighth top seed designation is reserved for the host country, which in 2010 is South Africa. This is a courtesy extended to the host nation from FIFA, even if it is not truly deserved based on its play on the field. However, in the history of the World Cup, every single host nation has made it past the first round of the tournament. Six host nations have won the tournament outright, and several others, including Germany in 2006 and South Korea in 2002, have made it at least as far as the semifinals. But don't expect miracles from South Africa. Only two African teams (Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002) have made it as far as the quarterfinal round. If there is going to be a home-continent "sleeper," it is far more likely to be Ivory Coast, ranked 16th in the world, as opposed to the 86th-ranked South Africans.
Europeans Don't Travel Well: Picking a team from Europe to win the World Cup seems like a logical choice ... after all with 13 nations (40.6 percent of the participating teams), the odds are certainly in that continent's favor. In fact, to date, the two teams in the World Cup final have always come from either Europe or South America. (The United States reached the semifinals way back in 1930, and South Korea did the same in 2002.) However, no European team has ever won a World Cup played outside of Europe.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can follow AJ on Twitter or e-mail him here.