The STU men’s soccer team has World Cup Fever … and National Championship Fever, too.
Usually, the World Cup is held in June and July, and it does not conflict with the college soccer schedule.
But this year, because Qatar is hosting, the World Cup will start in November, avoiding the worst of the Middle East heat that could make the event a health risk for players and fans.
The seventh-ranked STU Bobcats (9-1-5), who will host the start of the NAIA national soccer playoffs on Thursday at noon against Embry-Riddle, are seven consecutive wins away from the national championship.
In the meantime – in between school, practices, and playoff games – they plan to keep tabs on the World Cup, a once-every-four years event that is arguably second only to the Summer Olympics in grandeur.
The Bobcats have 28 out of 32 players on their roster who were born in foreign countries, and many of those athletes – understandably – are rooting for their home nations.
Take England native Harry Taylor, for example. He has been watching the World Cup since age six, and he has suffered through the English side’s ups and downs. They have not won soccer’s ultimate prize since 1966.
“I remember all my family gathering in the living room,” Taylor said when asked for his earliest World Cup memories. “I had a big ‘England’ inflatable chair, watching in the living room.”
England had a strong showing in the most recent World Cup, finishing fourth at Russia in 2018.
The other teams are too strong, especially the ones in South America. They’ve got some world-class players, and (England) has some sort of curse hanging over us at the moment.”
Taylor admitted that the Argentines on STU’s soccer team – there are 11 of them – are much more confident in their country’s World Cup squad.
Nicolas Bertuleit, an STU defender from Argentina, has actually been to a World Cup in person.
In 2006, he was in Berlin for the quarterfinals, when host Germany defeated Argentina 2-1 in penalty kicks.
“It was the best (memory) but the worst also,” Bertuleit said. “I was 12. It was a great experience at first. But then it was not fun at all.”
The World Cup kicks off on Sunday with host Qatar against Ecuador.
On Monday at 8 a.m., Taylor’s England side will face Iran. Later on Monday, Team USA will open its schedule with a game against Wales, at 2 p.m.
For the dozen or so Argentines on the STU team, they will get a very early wake-up call on Tuesday, as Argentina plays Saudi Arabia at 5 a.m.
Argentina has not won the World Cup since superstar Diego Maradona led the side – known as the Albiceleste – to the championship in 1986.
Now, Argentina has an aging superstar in Lionel Messi, 35. This will be his fifth and likely final World Cup, but Argentina’s Copa America championship last year has restored the nation’s faith in Messi.
“This year, we are confident,” Bertuleit said. “We (STU’s Argentine contingent) will watch the game together.
“We have Messi. That’s our hope. I think we will make it to the semifinals at least.”
If there are any players on STU’s team more confident that the Argentines, it is the four Germans, including Ben Becker and Levin Hutmacher.
Both Becker and Hutmacher said their fondest World Cup memory was from Germany’s most recent championship, which was in Brazil in 2014.
Becker said he was 14 during that tournament, and he and his family reacted to the victory by driving around the neighborhood, honking their horn and waving a German flag.
Hutmacher said he and his youth soccer team watched the final at his neighbor’s outdoor patio. There were about 35 people there, watching the game on a big screen.
“After we won, everyone went out into the city, wearing our Germany jerseys,” Hutmacher said. “The scene was amazing.”
Hutmacher said he is hoping to watch this year’s World Cup with his entire STU team, not just the German players.
“We want the whole team together,” he said.
STU’s Alvaro Bode, who is from Spain, grew up watching his country dominate soccer. From 2008 to 2012, Spain’s controlled-possession game ruled the world. They won the European Championships in 2008, the World Cup in 2010, and the Euros again in 2012.
No other team in the world has ever won three major titles consecutively. Spain was also undefeated for 35 consecutive matches from 2007 to 2009.
“When we watched our first Euro Cup in 2008, I was seven years old,” Bode said. “I saw that we played better than the rest. It gave me a great feeling.”
STU’s Juan Manuel Collazo, who is from Uruguay, said his fondest World Cup memory was from the 2010 competition, in South Africa.
Uruguay had an impressive World Cup that year, finishing fourth. It was Uruguay’s best finish in 40 years.
“It was crazy,” Collazo said. “We celebrated like Carnival. Fourth place for us was like we had won. We didn’t go to school the next day after the World Cup. I don’t even know how to really explain the feeling – in English or in Spanish.”
Team USA has never won a World Cup, but STU’s Mark Oghogho, who is from Miami, believes his side is improving.
“The World Cup is the biggest stage and biggest tournament,” Oghogho said. “I’m excited. There is definitely a difference in quality (for Team USA). I think the sport is growing here. I think the next couple generations, it’s promising. I think we have a good shot of doing something.”
Bertuleit, from Argentina, was among the STU players asked if he thought there was a better shot of the Bobcats winning the national title or their home country raising the World Cup trophy.
“I hope both,” Bertuleit said. “I would love both.”