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With no USA to cheer for in the World Cup soccer tournament that starts Thursday, fans of the beautiful game have to dig deeper to decide which team to support in this summer’s monthlong futbol bonanza.

For Julius Ujeh, the decision is simple.

“My country is winning the World Cup! Nigeria is winning, I predict it to you,” the Atletico Santa Rosa Soccer Club coach said.

“That’s what we live for, what we have in our country, football,” he said, national pride bursting through in his voice.

But Ujeh, who played on the Nigerian junior national team and helped manage the 1999 Nigerian women’s World Cup team, is realistic about his No. 22-ranked Super Eagles’ chances.

“They’re not even in the top 10, but I have to root for them,” he said. Still, he has hope: “This is the World Cup. There’s always a surprise in the World Cup.”

Several Sonoma County bars will open bright and early for morning games, beginning Thursday when host country Russia plays Saudi Arabia at 8 a.m. — the first of 64 soccer games over 32 days in 11 stadiums that will eliminate all but the finalists, who play July 15 in Moscow.

Following two weeks of round-robin group stage games, the Round of 16 knockout stage begins.

The most-watched sporting event in the world, the World Cup drew 3.2 billion broadcast viewers in 2014, including more than 1 billion for the championship game, when Germany defeated Argentina, 1-0, in Brazil.

For local fans, World Cup games will be on the big screens at Victory House bar at Santa Rosa’s Epicenter sports facility, the Sweet Spot in downtown and on multiple screens at smaller sports bars throughout the county (Call your favorite watering hole about opening hours for early matches).

For that true English pub atmosphere, try The Toad in the Hole in Railroad Square or its sister pub, Elephant in the Room, in Healdsburg.

Owner Paul Stokeld will open his pubs for the 5 a.m. games if enough customers call and request so, though Bloody Marys will have to wait until halftime since alcohol can’t be served until 6 a.m.

Some bars will offer special breakfast and brunch menus for the occasion.

“People can cheer and sing and really get into the whole atmosphere of football, or soccer,” Englishman Stokeld said. “People enjoy that, so we get all walks of life, all nationalities.”

Toad in the Hole will host a festival for the championship game next month.

The American bandwagon “got huge” at the bar in 2014, Stokeld said, when the U.S. team advanced to the Round of 16 after a hard-fought 2-2 draw against Portugal.

That match became the most-watched soccer game in American history, according to Nielsen figures, when it attracted 25 million television viewers. (Compare that with the just-concluded NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, which averaged 18 million viewers on TV and streaming platforms.)

In the knockout-stage game, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard made a remarkable 16 saves against Belgium, single-handedly keeping the Americans in the match until the final whistle, ending in a 2-1 loss and elemination for the Americans.

World Cup time is a great excuse for soccer fans worldwide to wear their team’s jerseys, wave their country’s flags, don face paint and chant like crazy in the every-four-years spectacle.

But since the American team failed to qualify this year, U.S.fans will be forced to pledge allegiance to some other squad, at least for the next month.

Stokeld expects a packed house for Mexico games, particularly Mexico-Germany next Sunday morning. Iceland-Argentina could be a fun match, too, since everyone loves an underdog.

Though Mexico is the USA’s main soccer rival, Sonoma County’s large Latino population is expected to come out in droves to support El Tri.

Wherever you go, prepare to be vocal about your team — or pick a team if you have no commitment.

“I encourage people to pick a side. It’s no fun to be neutral,” said Sonoma resident Stefanie Jordan, who has hosted several watch parties for soccer friends during the men’s and women’s World Cup matches.

It’s a rough year for Jordan, whose ancestry is Italian. Italy failed to qualify this Cup, the first time since 1958 the Azzurri will not appear in the worldwide tournament.

“Normally I root for USA and Italy, so it’s sad for me. I went through a depression, and then decided if Italy and the U.S. are out, I’ll go for the country that inspires me,” she said.

“I have a lot of friends who support Mexico. There are so many Mexican-Americans in California, I think it’s going to be fun to see them go far.”

Her parties are full of lots of nation-based theme food and drink, lots of cheering and the occasional nationalistic teasing.

“Mainly, it’s about loving soccer,” she said, recalling in 1990 when she and some friends watched games in carefully chosen places — a Brazilian bar when Brazil was playing, in San Francisco’s North Beach for Italy games and a pub for Ireland matches.

Her first World Cup memory sticks with her.

It was 1982, when Italy won. She was watching the final with her family. An Italian neighbor lived across the street.

“He runs over after the game with a flag and a bottle of wine, everyone was celebrating,” she said. “I remember it being so fun. That’s when I realized the importance of a World Cup match.”

You can reach staff writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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