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Monday, Jan 21, 2019
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Just as the World Cup prepares to go on without us, hope arrives

Every four years, it happens. People who hate soccer take a back seat for a month. The World Cup is at the wheel. Every four years, the rest of our planet, which pretty much surrounds us on all sides, goes gaga.

Wait. Doesn't Gaga play for Brazil?

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The World Cup is on. It's all over but who wins the ugly little World Cup trophy and which parents are on the list to bring the snacks and juice boxes.

This year's World Cup is in Russia. The host nation defeated Saudi Arabia 2-1 in the opener, which will be played today. Yeah, Putin is at it again.

The United States is absent from this World Cup. It is joined on the sideline by actual Cup heavyweights Italy and Netherlands. My bracket is already a mess.

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Planet Soccer doesn't really need us. It is doing quite well. But there is good news. The United States, which hosted its first World Cup in 1994 to record profits, will be back at it as 2026 co-host with Canada and Mexico. See you at the watch party at the wall!

I have always been fascinated by the World Cup, if for no other reason than it's not an American show. What was this thing, anyway? I liked that no else around me liked it. It felt like my own private sports spectacle back in the 1970s, when I could only watch a handful of World Cup games on  public television.

Now look.

Hundreds of millions of people watch the Super Bowl.

Billions watch the World Cup.

"There's no way to really explain it," said Tampa Bay Rowdies player and assistant coach Joe Cole, who played for England in three World Cups, the last in 2010. "Countries stop for it. But we want you to come to the party. Sometimes you leave early. Sometimes you never show up. I think the hard part is America, it has so many other things. And it likes to win. There's not much chance of you winning the World Cup right now. What does it mean to us? You can't put it into words."

But let me try.

I have my own World Cup moment.

First, think of the loudest sporting event you've ever attended.

That Florida-Florida State game? The Lightning playoffs?

I've got them beat. Easy.

In 1990 I rode trains around Europe for a couple of months. In Austria I scalped a ticket to the World Cup in Italy – Italia 90. In Milan I watched with a hundred thousand other people as Netherlands beat Germany, a red-hot rivalry. World wars will do that.

But that isn't my World Cup moment. No, that came shortly after I arrived in Rome. A booking agent at the train station arranged for me to stay, cheaply, in a pensione, or boarding house.

The pensione owner was around 50, looked 70. He had gray hair and stubble on his unshaven face, and he was smoking an unfiltered cigarette. We clunked up four flights of stairs. He pointed to a bedroom. I threw my backpack on the bed.

I returned to a darkened living room. The man sat there with his friend, who was about 4 feet tall and also chain smoking and also nervous. They stared at soccer on a small black and white television with wavy lines. Italy was playing.

And then Italy scored.

The men jumped up, hugged and cried and kissed. As they were kissing me, I heard the rumble. I walked to the apartment balcony. The rumble grew. And then it hit me. It was all of Rome rejoicing over a soccer goal. It was an entire nation cheering at once. I had never heard a sound like that in sports in all my life and haven't since. I still get goose bumps over it.

That's the World Cup.

You can't put it into words.

But I tried.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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