June 11, 2014

Get ready for summer of World Cup soccer

A recast U.S. men’s team and Brazil’s extreme home-field advantage are among the storylines for this summer’s FIFA World Cup tournament.

Once every four years, the nations of the world put aside their diplomatic differences and settle their scores like they should — on the soccer pitch.

The FIFA World Cup begins with group play Thursday and ends with a final match July 13 that is expected to draw more than 700 million television viewers from around the world.

This time, the World Cup is being hosted by Brazil — and that’s awesome for several reasons. For one, Brazilians know how to have a good time, and their passion for pageantry is sure to show through on the television screen.

But on a more practical note, Brazil’s time zones are closely aligned with those in the good ol’ USA. That means American soccer fans can enjoy the games essentially in prime time, or something close to it. The United States’ first game against Ghana, for example, is scheduled to be played at 5 p.m. Fort Worth time on Monday (7 p.m. in Natal, Brazil).

For those who prefer watching the games on an English-language broadcast, every match will be shown on either ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC. For Spanish speakers, the games will be shown on Univision.

1 The new U.S. squad.

The Americans will make their first World Cup appearance under manager Juergen Klinsmann, a former German star who has brought a hybrid version of European-style attack to North America. The U.S. Men’s National Team is highly ranked — 13th in the world, according to FIFA — but has been put in a terribly tough Group G with opening matches against Germany, Portugal and Ghana. They will need to play three nearly flawless games to finish at least second in the group and secure advancement to the knockout stage.

The U.S. roster is also in transition. It’s the dawn of the Clint Dempsey era, with the brash player from Nacogdoches — who after several years of playing in England is now a star midfielder for the Seattle Sounders — serving as captain. And it could be a last go-around for goalkeeper Tim Howard, who, after signing a contract extension with English club Everton, suggested he might retire in four years.

2 Home team is No. 1.

Brazil probably doesn’t even need home-field advantage, but it’s got it. The club is widely considered the favorite to win the tournament, which would add to its collection of five World Cup trophies, the most of any country. What’s more, the team almost never loses on home soil. About the only thing that could derail the team is the pressure. Brazilian fans expect a championship from their yellow-shirted heroes, and anything less would be unacceptable.

3 Viva Mexico!

This team shouldn’t even be in the World Cup after a disappointing showing during last year’s qualification games. But in September, the U.S., which had already qualified, netted two last-minute goals to knock out Panama in both teams’ final qualifying match. That opened the door for Mexico to sneak into a playoff against New Zealand, the winners of the Oceania qualifying group. Mexico then easily won the two-leg playoff by an aggregate score of 9-3. And now that it’s in the tournament, El Tri has the talent to go far with players such as Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and Rafael “Rafa” Márquez.

4 Belgium boys.

This team has amazing young talent. It isn’t favored to win this year’s World Cup, but watch out in 2018. Many young players could make international names for themselves in this year’s World Cup. Romelu Lukaku, 21, plays professionally for Everton in England and is considered one of Europe’s most promising young strikers. Midfielder Eden Hazard, 23, who plays for Chelsea in England, is considered a fierce attacker who is being compared to legends Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

5 Who’s better: Ronaldo or Messi?

For many soccer fans, one of these two guys is the best player in the world. The Portuguese team, though highly ranked, is a shell of itself without Cristiano Ronaldo. Argentina is loaded but has yet to succeed internationally with its main little front man, Lionel Messi. One of these international stars — who have something of a rivalry — could create a new legacy by getting his team into the finals. The other could be seen as an international failure.

By the numbers

715 million estimated viewers who will watch the World Cup games on television.

32 Teams in the

World Cup.

5 World Cup championships for Brazil, which is hosting this year’s tournament. That’s the most World Cup titles for any country. Italy has four titles, followed by Germany with three, Argentina and Uruguay with two each and England, France and Spain with one each.

3rd Best U.S. finish in a FIFA World Cup. It happened in 1930 — the very first tournament.

2 People who have won the World Cup both as a player and head coach. Brazil’s Mario Zagallo won in 1958 and 1962 as a player and in 1970 as a coach. West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer won in 1974 as a player and in 1990 as head coach. Italy’s Vittorio Pozzo is the only head coach to win two World Cups (1934, 1938). All World Cup-winning head coaches were natives of the country they took to victory. U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann, a member of that 1990 West Germany team that won the whole thing, could become the first winning player to take a different country to the top — although very few World Cup experts give the U.S. much of a shot at the championship — not this time, at least.

The World Cup is made for group-watching, whether it’s with friends or fellow countrymen or perhaps even facing off against rivals in a pub.

Most bars with more than one television (and that’s most of them, right?) likely will have a game on during World Cup month. But a handful of places stand out for their soccer-specific experiences.

The Abbey Pub in Fort Worth’s hot West Seventh district is the official home of the American Outlaws Chapter 80. The Outlaws are a nationwide support group for the U.S. Men’s National Team and adopted Abbey Pub as a favorite hangout spot shortly after the bar, formerly the Shamrock Club, changed ownership about a year and a half ago.

“When the U.S. is playing, we’re wall to wall, and our maximum occupancy is 119,” said owner Jimmy Suarez. He said the relationship began when a group of adult recreational soccer players in the TCU area arrived at the pub one day seeking a sponsorship for their teams to offset day-to-day bills, such as uniform costs. From there, a friendship sprung, and the club now has men’s and women’s teams nicknamed the Abbeys.

And, the players and their friends are now regulars at the pub.

Suarez also credits his son, Matt Saurez, with rebranding the pub and making it a soccer-rific attraction.

“The Abbey Outlaws come in with USA regalia,” he said. “One time, the U.S. was playing Mexico, and four people were here for the Mexico side. They just kind of sat there, as if to say — ‘What can we do?’ ”

The American Outlaws Chapter 80 also has adopted the Fort Worth Vaqueros, a new minor league team that plays at LaGrave Field. When the supporters are cheering for that team, they go by the name Fort Worth Hellfire.

On July 13, the day of the World Cup final match, Vaqueros players and front office staff will be at Abbey Pub to hob-knob with fans and give away stuff.

Here are some other soccer-centric Fort Worth bars that are likely to be showing all World Cup games and also will feature watching-party appearances by Vaqueros players and staff on specific dates (appearance dates in parentheses):

• Fox and Hound, 6051 SW Loop 820 Suite 322 (Thursday, opening match Brazil vs. Croatia)
• Brass Tap, 901 Houston St. (Saturday, group C and D matches; July 5, quarterfinal match)
• Los Vaqueros Restaurant Stockyards, 2629 N. Main St. (Monday, Ghana vs. USA)
• Big Apple Cafe, 14200 Trinity Blvd. Suite 400 (June 26, USA vs. Germany; June 28, Round of 16 matches)

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