Iceland, Mexico, England vie for US World Cup support
MOSCOW (AP) — American soccer fans: Iceland's prime minister wants your support.
The United States is absent from the World Cup for the first time since 1986, which means up to 325 million Americans are temporarily free agents.
Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir says her island nation about 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) off Norway's coast is the perfect pick for their passion. Iceland is the least-populous country ever at soccer's showcase with just 350,000.
"We can do with more supporters. We absolutely need them," she said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "We've got a lot of support from people around the world. I think a lot of people like the way the Icelandic team played. I think the team spirit really was something that people liked."
Costa Rica, Egypt, Morocco, Peru and Saudi Arabia already are out, and Argentina is on the verge of elimination, but alluring alternatives remain for those still unsure how to release their pent-up fervor with no U.S. red-white-and-blue to root for.
About 200,000 tickets were bought by American residents for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, second behind only the host nation and up from approximately 130,000 four years earlier in South Africa. The U.S. remains second this year, but the total is down to approximately 87,000, FIFA said. That means more soccer supporters back home.
Reyka Vodka set up viewing parties in a dozen or so states to recruit fans for "Strakarnir Okkar," the nickname of Iceland's "Our Boys." Viet Lam, a 35-year-old emergency room pharmacist from Seattle, was at The George & Dragon Pub to watch Iceland's 2-0 loss Friday to Nigeria, which started at 8 a.m. PDT. He first visited Iceland in 2013 and has gone back two more times.
"I just fell in love with it. It was my first solo trip ever," he said. "I was gone for seven weeks and it was first stop. The landscape doesn't look like anything else."
Former American star Landon Donovan is part of Wells Fargo's "Vamos Mexico" marketing campaign, proclaiming on a scarf: "My other team is Mexico." The 35-year-old hopes El Tri can reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986.
"I find myself rooting for Mexico, having been there and seeing how the people have suffered over the years with this fifth game," Donovan said. "I think if fans need a team to get behind, they can get behind Mexico and hope to see that happen."
Given that Mexico is the Americans' biggest rival, Donovan's ads provoked an angry riposte.
"I'd rather cut off my toe than root for (Mexican flag)," tweeted former U.S. forward Taylor Twellman, now ESPN's lead soccer analyst.
Donovan responded with a statement saying "my heart bleeds red, white and blue and no one should ever question my allegiance to and support of US Soccer and its national teams," but reiterated that with no American team to cheer for he will root for Mexico.
The American Outlaws supporters group chartered two Boeing 767s from Houston that brought 530 fans to Brazil in 2014, and the U.S. Soccer Federation said it sold its official allotment of about 2,000 tickets.
"AO didn't organize anything," co-founder Korey Donahoo said.
Mexico has the biggest base for attracting U.S. fan affection.
Among 43 million foreign-born U.S. residents in 2015, 11.58 million were born in Mexico, according to the Pew Research Center. The next seven-highest totals were all countries that failed to reach the World Cup: China, India, the Philippines, El Salvador, Vietnam, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
Korea was ninth at 1.06 million. World Cup teams included Colombia (13th at 698,000), Germany (16th at 577,000), Peru (17th at 451,000), Ecuador (18th at 441,000), Poland (19th at 417,000), Iran (20th at 392,000) and Russia (21st at 389,000).
England was 28th at 318,000, and Iceland 149th at 4,400.
"For me it will be reminiscent of when I was a kid at the 1994 World Cup when I was wearing Valderrama wigs and cheering for Colombia!" American midfielder Alejandro Bedoja said, referring to star Carlos Valderrama's blond Afro. "I have so much family still living there, and it only feels natural for me to show support for the country of my heritage. I'll be eating a lot of empanadas and arepas and drinking Colombian coffee, all while cheering on for the Colombian team."
Several American players planned to root for their club teammates.
"When you come into training there is always games on here while you're getting prepared to go out or when you're coming in and doing rehab," American forward Clint Dempsey said. "If there's games on, you'll watch it. If my family, my kids, if they want to watch it or family, if my brother is in town or family is in town and they want to watch it, then yeah, we'll check it out. I'm not opposed to it."
Tony and Emmy Award-winning British actor James Corden, host of "The Late Late Show" on CBS, recorded a segment with England players Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Jesse Lingard, Jamie Vardy and Kyle Walker appealing to Americans for their support.
"Prince Harry. Harry Styles. Harry Kane. I may be your third-favorite British Harry," Kane said.
"We're forgetting Harry Potter," Corden interrupted.
In Reykjavik, Jakobsdottir hopes to see purple jerseys throughout the world.
"If I can say something about the Icelandic team, which I think also is part of the Icelandic national psyche," she proclaimed, "is that we never give up hope."
AP Sports Columnist Jim Litke, AP Sports Writer Tim Booth and AP Photographer Elaine M. Thompson contributed to this report.