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Golazo! 

This World Cup game will make you shout like Andrés Cantor.

The only time it's acceptable to use your hands in soccer . . .
  • The only time it's acceptable to use your hands in soccer . . .
Face paint? Check. NoDoz? Check. Deep wellsprings of violent nationalistic pride?

No doubt, mate.

Yes, it's time for the World Cup, that quadrennial spectacle that consumes the globe for a month of TV marathons, street parties, and patriotic gestures by men with shaved skulls.

That means it's also time for 2006 FIFA World Cup, the latest soccer title from Electronic Arts.

Call EA what you will -- a soulless sequel factory, the videogame equivalent of McDonald's, the true dwelling place of Satan -- the publisher regularly puts out entertaining sports games. 2006 FIFA World Cup is no exception.

A timely break from EA's annual FIFA soccer franchise, World Cup offers players the chance to compete as one of 32 finalists in the tournament, which kicks off in Germany this weekend.

Or take the pitch with any of the other 95 teams knocked out during qualifying rounds, and stage your own "What if?"

You can even battle through the entire qualifying process with a single team -- an affair that takes two years in the real world. Imagine going all the way to the finals in Berlin with itty bitty Tahiti, which was outscored 24 to 2 in qualifying.

Far more likely, though, that you'll slip into the silky Puma jerseys of the Italian Azzurri or perhaps the yellow and green of mighty Brazil.

Or you'll do the patriotic thing and play as Team USA. With the United States sending its best squad in history to the World Cup, it's hard not to like the boys in blue. Up McBride! Up Reyna! Up O'Brien!

And here's where EA's deep pockets pay off. 2006 FIFA World Cup was recently the best-selling game in footie-happy England, mainly because EA locked up an exclusive licensing deal with FIFA through 2014. Konami's technically superior Winning Eleven franchise has to settle for a phony tournament in fake stadiums.

Soccer fans will relish playing in the World Cup as dynamic Italian midfielder Francesco Totti or lethal Argentinean striker Hernán Crespo. American soccer fans get to step into the boots of Landon Donovan, all churning feet and slashing cuts, juking defenders out of their cleats.

Even from the distant TV-cam perspective, it's easy to pick out the stars, because EA accurately replicates their signature moves and playing styles -- everything from Cristiano Ronaldo's otherworldly stepovers to the cartwheel somersault that Robbie Keane does after bagging a goal. This is what soccer nuts want. And EA gives it to them.

Not that everything's perfect. No soccer title has ever cracked the true subtleties of the beautiful game: the off-the-ball movement, the defensive switches in midfield, the devastating diagonal runs that shred an opponent's back line. When an 11-man soccer team is working as one body, there's nothing else like it in sports.

FIFA World Cup falls short, due to a few prosaic problems. Players defend like dummies. Passes occasionally go to no one. Balls hit the post with unnerving frequency. And there's altogether too much confetti after wins.

But the game still manages to deftly capture the World Cup atmosphere. The crowd surges. A nation's pride is on the line. He shoots . . . Golazo!

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