For decades soccer in the United States has been defined mostly in terms of what it is not, and what it might someday be.

But the sport at last has begun to be accepted for what it is - a subject of enormous interest for many Americans, a number now large enough that it finally speaks for itself.

That tipping point has informed ESPN's ambitious plans for covering the World Cup that starts today in South Africa.

In 2006, the network tried to lure the casual and curious into the event. This time, the primary focus is serving true believers.

"We've targeted our presentation for a knowledgeable soccer audience,'' said Jed Drake, executive producer for the tournament.

Scott Guglielmino, a VP of programming and acquisitions, said "hardcore fans - that is the target, the sweet spot we are aiming at for the World Cup.''

So do not expect soccer rules primers on game telecasts; do expect an international roster of veteran announcers that will speak to avid followers of the game.

It starts with a British-heavy play-by-play crew headed by Martin Tyler, a favorite among the soccer cognoscenti, who were tough on American announcer Dave O'Brien in '06.

Part of the idea is that whatever ratings points are lost from casual fans will be made up for with more viewing hours by passionate ones.

Of course, ESPN would be happy to have as many people watch as possible, and believes it will bring in fans who enjoy big events regardless of the sport.

In April John Skipper, ESPN's executive VP for content - a huge soccer fan and arguably the sport's most influential advocate in American television - said he would be "disappointed'' if ratings did not rise 25 to 50 percent compared to 2006, even given a challenging time zone.

Even discounting for ESPN's famously aggressive self-promotion, the 2010 World Cup arguably has been the most heavily anticipated, ambitious project in the network's 31-year history.

It has 300 staff members in South Africa, 100 of which are local hires, and will show every game live on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2 as well as on ESPN3.com. Every game will have on-site announcers; in the past some have called games off monitors in the United States.

ESPN radio will carry games, too, 21 of them on 1050 in New York. The network will launch its 3D television channel to coincide with the tournament.

The Spanish-language channel Univision plans its customary blanket coverage.

For anyone who has watched interest in the World Cup evolve in the U.S. over the decades, the 21st Century reality is a marvel.

"There was a time when nobody cared,'' said ESPN studio analyst Alexi Lalas, who played in the 1994 World Cup for the United States. "Well, it's anything but that right now.''

ESPN brings in England’s respected Martin Tyler

Martin Tyler’s credentials as a soccer announcer are impeccable, but his situation entering tomorrow’s much-anticipated match between the United States and England is a wee bit awkward.

How can a British play-by-play man objectively call a game of this nationalistic magnitude for a U.S. audience on ABC?

“The way I look at it is I’m a professional broadcaster and it’s my job, whatever the circumstances, to reflect the two teams,’’ Tyler, 64, said on a conference call last week.

“I’ll be leaving John , to interpret the action. I won’t be looking upon it as an Englishman broadcasting it.’’’

The selection of Tyler has been widely hailed by American soccer fans.

Tracking down World Cup final scorers

One of ESPN’s most ambitious and rewarding World Cup-related projects has been tracking down and profiling every living person who scored in a Cup final.

The network does not yet have a complete set, but it is close and hasn’t given up on adding more as the tournament unfolds.

The results thus far can be viewed on the “I Scored a Goal in the FIFA World Cup Final’’ page on the network’s World Cup website. (Go to ESPN.com and follow the signs from there.)

My favorite line comes from Alcides Ghiggia, who scored the game-winner for Uruguay against Brazil in 1950, stunning nearly 200,000 people at Maracana Stadium in Rio.

Said Ghiggia, now 83: “The Maracana has been silenced by three people: the Pope, Frank Sinatra and me.’’

South Africans not afraid to blow their horns

To many soccer fans they are an annoyance and an irritant.

But South Africans insist the vuvuzela — a horn blown early, often and loudly at soccer matches — is part of the experience of watching games there.

TV executives are wary of the effect the background noise could have on World Cup telecasts, but they also are wary of meddling with local traditions.

“It is loud, and I will tell you it is louder in the venues themselves than on television,’’ ESPN executive producer Jed Drake said. “But we will do everything in our electronic power to ensure our viewers always have the ability to hear Martin and his colleagues.’’

John Skipper, ESPN executive VP for content, said: “I’m happy. Blow away.”

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