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World Cup: Local fans find that best viewing comes in groups

When the World Cup kicks off today at 7 a.m. with Mexico meeting host South Africa, Yamilet Valladolid will be ready.

Instead of catching that extra hour of sleep, Valladolid, the local site director of El Concilio, the Council for the Spanish Speaking, knows all consideration of normal hours must be waived for this 32-team, monthlong, once-every-four-years event.

"The World Cup is huge in the Latino community," she said. "And the fact that Mexico is playing in the first game makes it even more special."

Since soccer is one of those bonding sports that is best watched in a group, Valladolid is holding a small party for the game.

Not everyone has access to a friend or neighbor willing to be host of such an early-morning event, but there remains hope for those who prefer the group experience, even with the nine-hour time difference.

Supporting the U.S. team

Earlier this year, a chapter of the American Outlaws opened in Modesto, and the club has nothing to do with last decade's so-so Colin Farrell western of the same name.

It's the 25th and fastest-growing member of a national organization whose sole purpose, according to its Web site, is "To support the United States National Team through a unified and dedicated group of supporters."

They claim to want to support soccer in general, but with one catch: If the American side is playing, you have to root for the Stars and Stripes.

Don't be afraid of the club's name. The American Outlaws in no way advocate hooliganism.

"To be honest, the U.S. fans are probably the most friendly group out there," said Modesto's Matt Ernst, local club organizer and a former Johansen High teammate of Heath Pearce, a defender who was one of the final cuts from the U.S. side.

"We're passionate," said Ernst, 29. "We sing and chant but we do not promote violence. It's not what we're about. We just like getting people together to watch games. It's always better than watching it alone."

Most of the chapters are in major cities, such as Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and St. Louis. But the Modesto chapter, which has grown to more than 50 members since earning its charter just four months ago, is the only one on the West Coast between Los Angeles and Seattle.

As part of its charter, The American Outlaws had to find a tavern willing to serve as the team's headquarters. P. Wexford's Pub on McHenry Avenue has been a local mecca for soccer, rugby, darts and trivia for more than a decade, and was only too happy to affiliate with the Outlaws.

"They support the American squad," said Wexford's manager Ryan Johnson. "They're down here for most of the events and will be here for sure for the U.S. games."

Actually, the Outlaws are throwing their own party at another site for the U.S. opener, which is Saturday at 11:30 a.m. against England. But Wexford's is going well beyond simply being a headquarters for the U.S. effort.

The pub won't be open for the nine 4:30 a.m. kickoffs in the group stage, but that leaves the other 39 round-robin games for Wexford's to be ready to serve all fans who want to wander in and watch the World Cup. They plan to offer breakfast specials and are planning to have drink specials based on the team playing at the moment.

"We're going to make this very special," Johnson said.

A quick survey of some local ethnic centers indicates there may be few choices for groups seeking organized events to watch the team representing the country of particular ancestry.

La Bola de Oro, a billiards club on Yosemite Avenue, will be open for Mexico's game this morning and also for its 7 a.m. game June 22 against Uruguay. It might open early for other games as the tournament advances.

Calls to Portuguese cultural centers showed a lot of pride in Selecção das Quinas (Selection of the Shields,) which finished fourth in 2006, but not a willingness to open at 7 a.m. Tuesday for Portugal's opener against Ivory Coast.

"We have all the channels here and have access to all the games, but they're on too early for us to open," said Vital Marcelino, president of Casa Dos Acores de Hilmar. "And besides, you can watch all the games at home."

Who should you root for?

All this unwillingness to roll out of bed early to join a group of fans might change once the 32-team group stage is done, especially if your favorite team joins the final 16 for the knockout rounds.

But this also raises a question of allegiance. At what point does an American citizen consider rooting for the U.S. side over his or her family's ancestral base?

"I think once you get to the second generation born here, quite a percentage will be rooting for the U.S.," said Manuel Pires of Gustine, a longtime area soccer coach and insurance salesman. "I'm a first generation and I'm rooting for the U.S.

"I think it will be a good World Cup, but I worry. They claim they have everything in place for security in South Africa, but I don't know. I just hope everything goes well, in peace."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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