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Oh, the bounty.

For soccer fans, when the World Cup comes around, it’s like Christmas. So much anticipation, so much giddy excitement. And yes, a little bit of stress. Being a fan does that to you.

For American soccer fans (yes, we exist), we don’t have our team in the mix, but we know come Thursday morning, we’ll be happy. There will be so many offerings under our proverbial tree that we won’t know which package to crack first.

Soccer Claus will not let us down.

In conversations with soccer minds from around Sonoma County, I asked what they want out of this monthlong spectacle. What players do they hope get to lay hands on the FIFA World Cup Trophy — and who do they hope gets a lump of coal?

But just like Christmas, it’s not always about the gifts under the tree — it’s about the spirit of the season. And the season is upon us, so let’s have a look.

First of all, working stiffs have to be crafty come Thursday and beyond. These games run almost every day for a month, so only the lucky or the unemployed will get to watch everything live. The rest of us will have to turn off our phone notifications and record everything.

“I haven’t mapped out my schedule yet, but there are some 5 a.m. games I want to see,” said Sonoma Academy girls soccer coach Chris Ziemer.

I love how fans are mapping the next 30 days with the precision of a European train schedule. If you are going to watch soccer, watch with someone like that. Nick Rogers, head coach of the Rancho Cotate boys’ team, does.

“I like to watch the game with other coaches and other soccer players and soccer families,” he said. “I kind of pick the game of the day. I Tevo everything.”

With the U.S. out of the picture, most of us are free to choose favorites without feeling disloyal to the Stars and Stripes. So who should we watch?

Brazil or Argentina, says Rogers.

Brazil plays such a fun style of soccer, with a roster littered with dynamic players, it’s hard not to love them, Rogers said. And with superstar Neymar appearing recovered from injury, watch out Group E.

“Brazil has some of the most electrifying players right now,” Rogers said. “Neymar is in the prime of his career right now and he’s coupled with all these other guys, (Philippe) Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus.”

But Argentina has Lionel Messi, one of the greatest ever to play the game and a player whose place in history probably rides on whether or not he can win a World Cup. The Flea will be motivated.

“Hands down, he’s probably the greatest player of all time — but for him, none of that is justified if he doesn’t win,” Rogers said.

Ziemer agreed.

“I would love to see Messi, who has provided us with so many great moments, win a World Cup and hoist the trophy,” he said.

But of course Messi and his Argentinian teammates open the World Cup Saturday against everybody’s sentimental favorite, Iceland.

The island nation with a population smaller than Sonoma County’s is just about everyone’s second pick to do well in the World Cup.

Ziemer also has a soft spot for Germany. He has family there, he lived there, and let’s face it, they are winners. Germany is tied for second with Italy for the most World Cup titles, at four. Brazil has won five. “They have experience,” Rogers said. “They churn out winners and champions. They take pride in their craft.”

But John Gilson, coach of the Cardinal Newman girls’ team, said he’s locked in on Spain.

“I love Spain. I love the way Spain plays,” he said.

But they will have an uphill battle. Some tout Spain’s roster as one loaded with veterans. Others call it flat-out old. Four players on their 2010 World Cup champion team will suit up in Russia.

But that is where not having the U.S. playing can be a positive. We can pull for the teams we love because we choose to, not because we have to.

And you can buck what feels like an established norm. Ask Middletown High girls’ coach Lamont Kucer.

“We’re going to root for Mexico,” he said of the U.S.’s most fierce rival. “I have a lot of friends from Mexico. Nobody gives me too hard a time about it.”

There were probably a lot of Sonoma County soccer fans who were ready to throw their lot in with El Tri until Santa Rosa native Jonathan Gonzalez was left off their World Cup roster. Gonzalez, who played locally until he signed professionally in Mexico at 14, had played in the U.S. national team system since the age of 13 but switched to Mexico in January. There was hope the young phenom might make the cut.

He didn’t and is currently playing with Mexico’s under-21 squad.

It’s a loss for area fans because sometimes when you don’t have a team to root for, you naturally gravitate to a specific player.

Sometimes we just want to see stars shine.

Rogers’ pick for the tournament’s next bright light?

“Gabriel Jesus,” he said of the Brazilian striker. “He’s going to be a breakout player. It’s his time to shine.”

And Egypt’s Mo Salah almost single-handedly drove his squad to World Cup qualification for the first time in 28 years. But Salah’s arm was ripped out of its socket by Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final last month.

All of Egypt is likely holding their collective breath, hoping for Salah’s return in time for the World Cup.

A team with its share of stars is France.

“France has some crazy talent. Pogba?” Rogers said of the French midfielder, Paul Pogba. “They are long overdue … France has always had good teams, but they can never put it together.”

Ziemer called France’s roster “an embarrassment of riches.” But after Saturday’s tie with the U.S. in a pre-Cup friendly, perhaps just a little embarassing?

In addition to Pogba, France has the 21-year-old Ousmane Dembele who is also one to watch.

And then there is the well-coiffed Antoine Griezmann.

“He’s exciting and charismatic and has that kind of swagger about him that either turns people off or gets you to like him,” Ziemer said of the 27-year-old striker.

Sounds a lot like Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. The 33-year-old is about as good as it gets on the field, but his preening makes it easy to dislike the guy.

Santa Rosa High girls’ coach Nikki Kumasaka made it simple: “I do not want Portugal to win because I am not a Ronaldo fan.”

Her pick? Belgium.

While the Belgian roster is loaded, some U.S. fans might struggle getting on board with that pick.

It was Belgium who booted the U.S. from the tournament four years ago in the Round of 16 in a heartbreaker. Oh, Chris Wondolowski.

“They are one of those that if they put it all together, I don’t think it would be surprising to people,” Ziemer said of Belgium’s chances. “I think a lot of people have them as one of the top six or seven teams.”

But here’s a splash of cold water for a lot of soccer fans, and heck, a lot of nations: Only eight countries have won this thing. Eight. It’s a tough club to get in.

And the tournament is not for sissies. It’s long. It’s draining.

“There is so much room for upsets,” Ziemer said. “It’s not an easy tournament.”

And once the herd has been culled in the group stage, it’s one and done. Lose and go home.

“That’s why people love March Madness in the way they don’t love the regular season,” Ziemer said.

And soccer is a sport in which the best team doesn’t always win. Sure, they usually do, but not always. There is a cruelty to the beautiful game.

“You can dominate a game and lose,” Ziemer said. “It doesn’t happen in ways like other sports. That’s when it’s really hard to turn away and not enjoy the tense moment.”

Which makes almost every moment riveting. And a monthlong tournament becomes emotionally exhausting for players and fans alike. Just like Christmas.

And then there is the routine question we pose to ourselves every time a major soccer tournament grabs our collective attention, even if for a moment: Will it last? Will World Cup fever grip us and make us all lovers of the beautiful game?

“I hope so. Soccer is a beautiful sport; it should be more popular,” Kucer said. “At the end of the day, it’s still soccer and we are still the United States.”

In other words, enjoy the fever while it lasts.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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