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D.C. United gets into World Cup spirit


No D.C. United players are headed to Brazil for the World Cup, but on many days during the month-long tournament, they will gather around the big-screen TV in the locker room at RFK Stadium to watch soccer’s quadrennial jamboree unfold.

Most of the squad is American, so rooting interests are with Juergen Klinsmann’s clan. But for Spanish defender Cristian Fernandez, English midfielder Lewis Neal, Argentine forward Fabian Espindola and Italian-Canadian assistant coach Enzo Concina, allegiances fall with their native lands.

Fernandez, 28, said he attended U-19 and U-20 national team camps with current senior members Juanfran, Raul Albiol, Sergio Ramos, David Silva and Fernando Llorente.

He might cross paths with them in the tunnels of FedEx Field on June 7 during a doubleheader featuring a Spain-El Salvador friendly and United’s MLS match against the Columbus Crew.

Will Spain’s international dynasty continue in Brazil?

“It’s possible Spain will fight for the trophy but it’s going to be difficult with Germany, Brazil and Argentina in the competition,” said the first-year MLS player.

Four years ago, while on summer break with Spanish club Racing Santander, Fernandez watched the World Cup in the northern coastal city, his home town. After a half-century of false hope, Spain raised the trophy.

“It lifted a great weight off of Spain’s shoulders, to finally take that last step,” he said.

Fernandez’s earliest World Cup memory was Luis Enrique, the new FC Barcelona coach, getting his face bloodied by Mauro Tassotti’s elbow in a quarterfinal loss to Italy at the 1994 tournament in Foxborough, Mass.

Neal grew up in Leicester, England’s East Midlands. His father Dave was actually fond of Italian soccer. He would encourage his son to watch Serie A matches with him on Sunday afternoons.

“He used to think tactically and technically they were great,” the younger Neal said. “He appreciated the way they played.”

Neal, 32, was a child when Diego Maradona’s infamous Hand of God ruined England’s hopes at the 1986 World Cup. “When I associate England with the World Cup,” he said, “I always remember the Hand of God.”

Neal recalled marveling at Michael Owen’s breathtaking performance against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup in France.

He attended at least three England friendlies in his early years, but spent most of his free time playing. “I played more than I watched, every day and every night, always training and playing with friends.”

He and Ben Foster, one of England’s three goalkeepers set for Brazil, were at Stoke City at the same time, although Foster went on loan several times before signing with Manchester United.

How will England fare in Brazil?

“England will manage to scrape through the group and that is as far as it goes,” Neal said. “They will be on the next flight after the U.S. [laughing] Both are in tough groups. I like England’s side but I don’t think it’s for the right here and now. Four years down the line, maybe they have a better chance with all of these young guys.”

He will also keep a close eye on the U.S. squad.

“I am intrigued to see how all this goes with all that has gone on with Klinsmann in charge and the player selection,” he said.

Espindola, 29, is from a rural town in central Argentina. In an interview last month, he remembered gathering around a TV with family at home or a restaurant to watch the World Cup. He was too young to remember Argentina excel at the 1986 and ‘90 tournaments but, like all aspiring players, was mesmerized by the national team. (Espindola was battling illness this week and not available to share his opinion on the current squad.)

Concina was born in Italy, raised and schooled in Canada, and employed as a player, scout and assistant coach in Italy. He joined United’s staff this season.

While with Napoli, he worked with two players on Italy’s World Cup preliminary squad, forward Lorenzo Insigne and defender Christian Maggio. Napoli was also the breeding grounds for Uruguayan stars Edinson Cavani (now at Paris Saint-Germain) and Walter Gargano (Parma loan). Brazilian-bound players for Colombia and Switzerland were also at Napoli during his tenure.

Concina was at a Canadian under-21 camp at Vancouver in 1982 when Italy won the World Cup for the first time since 1938. He and two German professors from the University of British Columbia, where the team was housed, volleyed taunts during the final, won by Italy, 3-1, in Madrid.

As for this year’s Azzurri squad, “If we don’t go through the group stage again, it’s a nightmare. I think they will go far. I would be happy with a semifinal. Depends on the matchups. … The whole country is counting on the Italo-Americano, Giuseppe Rossi,” who was born in New Jersey and chose to play for Italy instead of the United States.

“Italy is my first team, but the United States is my second team,” Concina said. “If they do well, it’s good for our league.”

United Coach Ben Olsen will lead the American cheers in the RFK locker room. He and forward Eddie Johnson were members of the 2006 U.S. World Cup squad in Germany.

Twenty years ago, Olsen attended the historic U.S.-Colombia match at the Rose Bowl. At the time, the central Pennsylvania native was in the San Diego area attending a youth national team camp. The U.S. Soccer Federation provided tickets. The group sat behind one of the goals. Olsen remembers Marcelo Balboa’s audacious bicycle kick missing the net by a whisker.

“That was one of my first real soccer games,” he said. I was from [blue-collar] Middletown, Pa. — when would I see a game in person? I didn’t even watch the World Cup in 1990 on TV. I probably watched a couple games, but nothing I remember. My town wasn’t buzzing. They didn’t care about the World Cup. If I told them I was going to watch the World Cup, I would get my ass beaten.

“The buzz and exposure of soccer wasn’t like it is now.”

As for the Americans’ chances in the Group of Death next month …

“I certainly think we can get out of the group. It’s going to be extremely difficult but it’s doable. The low expectations will help. I can see us seeing the quarterfinals. You heard it here first.”