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Column: World Cup teams making push for U.S. hearts, minds and money

Roger Bennett, one half of the follicly challenged “Men in Blazers” soccer pundits, has endured a lifetime of backing teams that have stubbornly refused to reward his support with success.

Everton, his hometown Premier League club, has finished in the top four just once since the league was formed. The Chicago Bears, the football team in his adopted hometown, have reached the Super Bowl just once since he moved to the U.S. He became an American citizen in March — five months after the national team’s first failed World Cup qualifying campaign in more than three decades.

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“It’s a body blow that the United States are not in it,” Bennett said of the World Cup, which kicks off June 14 in Moscow. “America loves a big event. They also love nothing more than an excuse to cut work en masse and daytime drink for 30 days.

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“I’m incredibly bullish on the impact of the World Cup.”

The United States’ absence is no reason to skip the party — although with the U.S. out, this one is strictly BYOT (Bring Your Own Team). Bennett’s history of failed fandom has made him an expert on how to temporarily channel your allegiance from an absent love to one that won’t mind if you go home alone when the party’s over.

“I’m a big believer that teams choose you, you don’t choose your team,” said Bennett, whose latest book “Encyclopedia Blazertannica: A Suboptimal Guide to Soccer, America’s Sport of the Future Since 1972,” written with partner Michael Davies, will be released Tuesday.

“The joy of the World Cup is that it’s like a solar eclipse that blankets the world, not just for an hour but for 30 days at a time. We’re all going to be watching,” he said.

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“Every fan that tunes in will develop an emotional connection to a different team for a different reason. It is fascinating.”

Several countries have already reached out in an effort to create that connection with U.S. fans, looking for a World Cup commitment as well as the discretionary spending that might lead them to plunk down $100 for a team jersey.

Men in Blazers Host BlazerCon
“Men in Blazers” star Roger Bennett poses with a fan at the inaugural BlazerCon on Nov. 14, 2015 in New York.
(Michael Nagle / For The Times )

The U.S.-based marketing arm of Bundesliga club Bayern Munich — which could have as many as six players on the German team in Russia — is trying to drum up support from the 49 million people with German ancestry living in the U.S., while France and Mexico have, in recent months, expanded their social media outreach into English.

“We will be immersed in the American market, speaking English and having content from Mexico in the U.S.,” said Guillermo Cantu, secretary general of the Mexican soccer federation.

Cantu says the Mexican national team, which has played four times as many friendlies in the U.S. as it has in Mexico since 2008, has seen its fan base in this country grow to include third- and fourth-generation, English-dominant Mexican Americans — as well as others who have no ties to Mexico. He said the absence of a U.S. team from soccer’s biggest event has created an opening to expand that growth.

“We are trying to take into account the opportunities that are in front of us,” said Cantu, whose team will meet Wales in a World Cup tuneup at the Rose Bowl on May 28. “Because of the circumstances that surround the national team in Mexico and in the U.S. [it] could be a huge and great opportunity to try things that normally we wouldn’t try.”

But language, geography or family background don’t have to be the deciding factors. You can also support a World Cup team because, well, they deserve it.

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Reyka Vodka World Cup
Part of vodka-maker Reyka’s pitch to Americans is this banner.
(PRNewsfoto )

The most sincere campaign for the hearts and minds of wayward U.S. supporters is the one coming from the team most in need of fans. Iceland, the least populous country to ever qualify for a World Cup, launched a digital campaign earlier this spring in which First Lady Eliza Reid tells viewers, “There’s always a place for you on our team.”

Reyka, an Icelandic vodka label, is also trying to drum up supporters with TV commercials planned for Baltimore, Nashville and Portland, Ore., later this month and public viewing parties in at least four U.S. markets during the World Cup. The company is opening an online shop, “Go Iceland,” where it will sell everything from team apparel to flags, scarves and temporary tattoos for fans who want to cheer the red, white and blue — in this case, Iceland. (The tongue-in-cheek campaign features a “Go USA” sign, with the word “Iceland” taped over “USA.”)

That bandwagon could fill up soon, though. Massive underdogs in the 2016 European Championships, Iceland played Portugal to a draw in group play then beat England in the knockout round en route to the quarterfinals of that tournament. That persuaded the team’s coach, Heimir Hallgrimsson, to finally give up dentistry and pursue soccer full time.

But neither Hallgrimsson nor his players have strayed from their roots, which makes them sentimental favorites heading to Russia.

“That’s our identity. Be humble, always be true to where you’re from. Our biggest star, he’s the guy who works the hardest. The team spirit and the bond between the fans and the team is second to none,” said team captain Aron Gunnarsson, who is battling to return from a knee injury in time for Iceland’s World Cup opener with Argentina.

Added Hallgrimsson, with a grin: “I think everybody will support Iceland in Russia. Everybody will be on our side.”

Landon Donovan, who knows a thing or two about World Cups, having played in three of them, also sees opportunity in a tournament that will go on without the U.S. Without a home team to root for, fans will have to do a little homework before the games and that, Donovan said, might lead to a deeper appreciation for the sport and the tournament.

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“You can still enjoy the World Cup, love the World Cup,” he said. “Find a team or player to support and educate yourself. There’s more to this thing then just every four years.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11


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