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World Cup draws fans from across area
Mario Jimenez, 21, places his order at El Carreton. Jimenez will be following the World Cup matches.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup

What: The World Cup begins at 4 p.m. today, when host Brazil plays Croatia.

Who plays: Home team Brazil is awarded an automatic spot. The other 31 teams qualified over the past two years based on their outcomes from various tournaments and matches in six regions.
Understanding the first round: The tournament begins with a group phase. The top two teams out of the four in each group move on to single-elimination playoff games, based on a points system. A win earns three points, a tie (yes, those are allowed) one point and a loss zero.

How to watch: All 64 World Cup games will be televised on ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, and ESPN will air all U.S. group games.

U.S. vs. Ghana will be at 6 p.m. Monday
U.S. vs. Portugal will be at 6 p.m. June 22
U.S. vs. Germany will be at noon June 26

The world’s elite soccer players converge today in Brazil for a tournament of monumental pride and legacy.

While other regions of the world may foster a higher concentration of fans, Hall County’s contingent of soccer aficionados boast the same spirit and enthusiasm that set the World Cup apart.

“Not a lot of people watch it around here, but the people who do watch it are very intense,” said 20-year-old Laura Echavarria. “They will be loud.”

Indeed, soccer fans expend a palpable emotional energy. The low-scoring matches are almost entirely agonizing anticipation, punctuated by at most a few moments of ecstasy, if any; many games end in scoreless draws.

In countries where soccer has ruled residents’ emotions for decades, it would be hard to overstate the quasi-religious fervor the World Cup inspires. That sentiment is especially seen among the flourishing local Latino community.

“Yes, we will be lighting some candles with La Virgen in the back,” said Angel Retana, who will be rooting for Mexico like many other foreign nationals of Gainesville. “It’s very religious, you could say, in that sense.”

“It’s very low-scoring. It’s a lot of praying,” Echavarria added with a laugh. She will be rooting for her native Colombia in the tournament of 32.

More than one fan said they believe the game’s passion is irresistible and inspiring, luring new recruits to watch a sport misty-eyed admirers dub “The Beautiful Game.”

“It’s definitely infectious, I think. You can just feel it from the fans in the stadium. The noise. The energy. It rubs off on you,” Retana said.

Whatever the specific reasons, soccer does seem to have momentum.

“I definitely think it’s grown in the past 10 years,” said John McKenzie, who will be rooting for the U.S. “It used to be that nobody watched it at all.”

Now, he said, the sport has gained enough viewers to be more of a social experience. The illegal offsides formation might be a frequent source of referee whistles and confusion for the uninitiated, but rules are otherwise easy for newcomers to understand.

Games are played in 45-minute halves with no timeouts, and like the Olympics, the tournament is held only every four years, a factor perhaps most cited as contributing to the heightened emotional investment of each match. There has been ample time to replay defining moments from games past, which could be as small as a wink captured by the cameras, or as obvious as a headbutt to the chest.

With a relatively newfound ascension and mixed results, the U.S. hasn’t had as much time and prestige to foster grudges. And yet it does, in fact, have a distinct history with its first game’s opponent, Ghana: Teams from the West African nation of less than 25 million sent the U.S. packing in both 2010 and 2006.

The other two teams in the U.S. team’s group are frequent finalist Germany, and Portugal, led by superstar player Cristiano Ronaldo.

U.S. fans in Gainesville were determined to not let their team’s place in the so-called Group of Death dampen their spirits.

“I think the U.S. can definitely get out of group,” said Mexico fan foremost, and U.S. fan second, Frank Camargo. “If we can stop Ronaldo, we can beat Portugal.

“I mean, I think we lose like 0-4 to Germany and come out in second, but I think we’ll get out,” he added. “The German players are machines.”

“I think they will surprise a lot of people,” Retana said of the U.S. squad. “They’re very young, and very hardworking.”

Often, fans have their No. 1 team — their mother country — then personal preferences and personalities shine through in the second and third picks.

Mario Jimenez, 21, also a Mexico fan first, favors Germany based on its “fast style of play.” His favorite player? Ronaldo.

Retana said if he were a betting man, he’d go with the home team, Brazil.

Camargo said his pick would be Argentina, a decision grounded both in the team’s solid history, and partially in superstition regarding the team’s enigmatic forward, Lionel Messi, whose nickname “La Pulga Atomica” translates to “The Atomic Flea.”

“If you look at past World Cups, a lot of legendary players won when they were 26,” he said. “Messi is 26. I think this is Argentina’s year.”

Camargo already has his sights set toward what would be a different type of U.S. victory — a 2022 hosting gig, a possibility should the tide continue to turn against embattled bid-winner Qatar.

“It would make me so happy,” he said, eyes misting.

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