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World Cup always a thrill even if your favorite teams aren't going

By William Hennelly in New York | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-06-14 23:27
Mexico's football fans cheer outside Luzhniki Stadium ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia, June 14, 2018.

This World Cup will be a little less thrilling for me this year because the three teams I usually root for - the United States, Italy and Ireland - didn't qualify.

But of course I'll still watch the matches, which kick off Thursday in Russia, because there's really not another sporting event that creates so much frenzied, vivid excitement.

China, by the way - despite spending billions on its own professional league, coaches and foreign players, and with its business titans buying top-flight professional clubs around the world - will be watching from home, too.

But it's spending a lot on advertising. Chinese companies' ad outlay of $835 million for the monthlong tournament doubles the US' and far exceeds host nation Russia ($64 million), according to media group Zenith.

The US, a non-qualifier for the Cup for the first time since 1990, got a hopeful sign for the future last Saturday as the young Americans tied France, one of the 2018 Cup favorites, 1-1, in a friendly match in Lyon.

Isn't it peculiar that the world's two largest economies (economic strength is usually an indicator of international soccer success) couldn't make the 32-team field?

I became a soccer supporter somewhat by accident. I had always been an ardent fan of American football, having played in high school, until I got a strong dose of what the rest of the world calls football in the summer of 1982.

I was on an overseas study program (if you can call studying visiting museums and sitting on a loggia [terrace] sipping wine when $1 commanded 1,800 lire pre-euro) in Florence, Italy.

It happened to be right during the World Cup, which unfolded in Spain that summer.

Whenever the Italians scored a goal, the spontaneous eruption in the streets of Florence was something to behold, and in all the games during the tournament, you could literally hear roars of joy or groans reverberating off the terra cotta roofs of the medieval city.

This also was in the pre flat-screen-TV days, and many tifosi (fans) watched on rickety black-and-white sets, sometimes hooked up with extension cords, on the piazzas' cobblestone streets.

Even better, the Italians, or the azzurri (the blues), won the whole thing that year by defeating the team from what was then West Germany.

It was in that summer that I embraced the beautiful game.

Now for this year, there are a few teams I wouldn't mind seeing win.

For starters, there is Mexico. El Tri plays a fluid, exuberant brand of soccer but always seems to have some bad luck or questionable refereeing haunt them. In the 2014 Cup, they got a raw deal against perennial power the Netherlands.

Mexico also has a massive following in the US and could make a stand for a part of the world that has grown to expect a European or South American team taking home the hardware.

Mexico is in Group F with - and here's that tough luck again - defending champion Germany. But with Sweden and the Republic of Korea rounding out the group, Mexico has a decent chance to advance. (After three games, the top two teams in each of the eight groups move to the Round of 16).

Then there's England. Every four years, English fans believe this is the year they'll get that second bauble to recreate the glory of their only Cup in 1966. They look strong this year, but their passionate followers usually feel that way.

Then there are the usual favorites of Argentina (with the irrepressible Leo Messi), Brazil, Germany, Spain and Portugal (with the fantastic Cristiano Ronaldo). Belgium and France will make some noise, too.

And although they're facing 30-1 odds, imagine the media conspiracies that would surface if the host Russians won the World Cup?

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