Paul Wellman

When the United States failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1986, nobody cared. It was a time that columnists around the nation dismissed soccer as a sport that could never excite American fans with its scoreless ties and 1-0 results.

There was quite a different feeling last October when a disheartening 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago knocked the U.S. men out of the 2018 World Cup. With the growth of soccer in the country — from the youth leagues to the professional level — and seven consecutive appearances in the World Cup, the national team attracted a strong following. One of its most thrilling victories was by a 1-0 score, when Landon Donovan’s strike against Algeria in the final seconds of extra time enabled the Americans to advance in the 2010 World Cup.

The very scarcity of goals, and the persistence and skill that it takes to create a scoring strike in the continuous ebb and flow of action, are what makes them so special.

There will be no U.S. team on the pitch during the monthlong World Cup that begins Thursday, June 14, in Russia. But millions of Americans will be tuning into the games — all 64 will be televised live by the Fox networks — because we love to watch sports at the highest level. The lineup of 32 contending teams is appealing in its diversity.

It’s like food — who doesn’t like to sample dishes like paella from Spain, aebleskivers from Denmark, or anything Bolognese from Italy? (Damn, the Azzurri didn’t make the World Cup either.)

If Americans want to adopt a team, they might consider Peru, whose folk have waited 36 years to make it back since their last World Cup appearance. It’s tough to qualify out of South America, where every nation is passionate about fútbol.

Arriba, Peru!” said Alberto Herrera, a native of Lima and longtime Santa Barbara resident, before raising his country’s flag among the 31 others hanging from the ceiling of The Press Room, the pub on East Ortega Street that is rightfully known as the city’s World Cup headquarters. Herrera requested a special ceremony attended by Peruvian compatriots.

“Over the years, we support [the national team], get disappointed, believe in them again, up and down, up and down” Herrera said. Now they’re up.

Herrera talked up another Peruvian claim to fame. In a World Cup of cuisine, he suggested, their chefs would be dishing out winners. “Five of the 22 best restaurants in the world are in Lima,” he said. They do fabulous things with potatoes, of which there are hundreds of varieties.

Here are some selected matches to check out during the coming week and beyond:

Thursday (6/14) Russia vs. Saudi Arabia, 8 a.m.: The curtain rises with the host country drawing the lowest-ranked team in the tournament.

Friday (6/15) Egypt vs. Uruguay, 5 a.m.: Mohamed Salah, the “Egyptian King,” helped promote English-Muslim relations when he scored 32 goals for Liverpool in the Premier League. But he was injured in the European Champions League final and must be recovered for the Pharaohs to have a chance. Portugal vs. Spain, 11 a.m.: Cristiano Ronaldo’s brilliance helped Real Madrid win the European title, but the Portuguese striker has been less successful in the World Cup.

Saturday (6/16) Argentina vs. Iceland, 6 a.m.: All eyes will be on Argentina’s Lionel Messi. Can the acknowledged world’s greatest player lead his country to its third World Cup title, his first? Iceland, the smallest country (population less than 350,000) to qualify for the final 32, is a giant-killer that introduced the Viking clap (fans and players waving outstretched hands in unison) to the world. Peru vs. Denmark, 9 a.m.: If you pick a team by its colors, flip a coin before this look-alike matchup. Denmark is known as the Red-Whites, and Peru is La Blanquirroja.

Sunday (6/17) Germany vs. Mexico, 8 a.m.: Brats and chorizo will be on the breakfast menus for this match between the defending champions and the strongest representative of the Americas. Casa Blanca at State and Gutierrez streets will be teeming with Mexican supporters. Brazil vs. Switzerland, 11 a.m.: Drums will be pounding at the Brasil Arts Café, located at 1230 State Street, where the spirited Brazilian fans will feel at home.

Monday (6/18) Belgium vs. Panama, 8 a.m.: Belgium has the horses, but its past history makes it a dark horse. Tunisia vs. England, 11 a.m.: There will be bloody hell to pay if England does not improve on its winless performance in 2014.

Tuesday (6/19) Poland vs. Senegal, 8 a.m.: Senegal upset France in 2002 and makes its first appearance in the World Cup since then. Russia vs. Egypt, 11 a.m.: The start of the second round of group play. If the Russians shock the world and go on to win the championship, will they be invited to the White House?

Wednesday (6/20) Iran vs. Spain, 11 a.m.: The Spaniards, who won the Cup in 2010, could face Germany in the semifinals if both teams win their groups.

Thursday (6/21) France vs. Peru, 8 a.m.: With the dynamic Paul Pogba up front, France will try to prove its favorite’s status.

Friday (6/22) Brazil vs. Costa Rica, 5 a.m.: Brasil Arts will open its doors early for this one.

Saturday (6/23) South Korea vs. Mexico, 8 a.m.: El Tri should leave nothing to chance against the weakest opponent in the group.

Sunday (6/24) England vs. Panama, 5 a.m.: Coffee will be brewing in The Press Room before the taps start flowing.

Monday (6/25)-Thursday (6/28) In round three, there will be four matches each day, two at 7 a.m. and two at 11 a.m., that will determine the final standings of the eight groups. The top two teams in each group will advance to the knockout round of 16 (6/30-7/3), followed by the quarterfinals (7/6-7/7), semifinals (7/10-7/11), and the final at 8 a.m. on Sunday, July 15.


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