Paul Stokeld still remembers watching the England national team lose a nail-biter to Germany on penalty kicks in 1990. He had just moved from London to Sonoma County and was visiting his uncle's British pub in Sonoma.
“It was the Fourth of July,” he said, “and here I am about to cry because I'm so distraught and no one around me gives a (damn) about the game!"
What a difference 24 years make.
Now he owns his own British pub — The Toad in the Hole in Santa Rosa — and Sonoma County soccer fans come out in droves every four years to drink beer, bang on drums, taunt one another with chants and cheer on their teams during the monthlong soccer-palooza known as the World Cup.
After 800 qualifying games, 2,898 yellow warning cards and hundreds of goals, the stage is finally set: Starting June 12 in Brazil, 32 of the world's best national teams will go head to head until only one remains. Once again, it will be the most watched sporting event in the history of humankind. (3.2 billion tuned in for the last tourney.)
Every team has its own distinct character: There's the creative flair and fluid Brazilian style known as “Jogo Bonito” (“the beautiful game”), that's been anything but beautiful as they've crashed out of the last two World Cups. The “tiki-taka” (short pass and possession) style of defending champion Spain. The clinical, fast-attacking machine of the Germans. The “catenaccio” (“door-bolt”) defense of the Italians. And the celebrity spectacle of Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo (and his frequent dives).
Somewhere in the mix, the Americans are still jockeying for worldwide respect. There was the quarterfinal run in 2002 and the shocking upset of England in 1950, but their seeding in the “Group of Death” with Germany, Portugal and Ghana will make it tough to advance to the second round.