World Cup fever sweeps Whitecaps locker room - Vancouver Sun

Players like Nelson Akwari place friendly wagers on tournament BY BRUCE CONSTANTINEAU Nelson Akwari wasn't thrilled with Nigeria's 2-2 draw Tuesday with Korea because it knocked the African country out of the World Cup. But the Vancouver Whitecaps defender – an American whose parents were born and raised in Nigeria – can still cheer hard for the U.S. today [WEDNESDAY] in their crucial match against Algeria. A U.S. win will put them through to the next stage. “I root for both teams equally,” Akwari said after training with the Whitecaps. “My parents are Nigerian but I grew up in the U.S. and played for youth national teams.” The reliable 28-year-old centre back played for U.S. U17, U20 and U23 teams and trained with U.S. stars like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. He maintains contact with some of them, even during the World Cup. World Cup fever has taken hold of the Whitecaps, with friendly wagers among players becoming routine and divided loyalties creating all kinds of reactions to game results. Caps midfielder Ricardo Sanchez supports Mexico, former Japanese international defender Takashi Hirano pulls for Japan, South African-born Luca Bellisomo clearly cheers for his birth country and Northern Ireland midfielder Jonny Steele wants England to go far. Good luck with that. Steele said it has been a tough tournament for several top teams so far because lower-ranked teams have played so defensively. “They're just packing themselves in and that's hard to break down,” Steele said. “But once we get to the next stage and top teams start playing top teams, it will start opening up.” Before the tournament began, he predicted Spain and England would play in the final on July 11 and still feels that can happen if England can get out of the group stage and “find its feet.” “A lot of top teams have struggled but I really believe England will pick it up and be a force at the end,” Steele said. England must beat Slovenia today [WEDNESDAY] to ensure a spot in the round of 16. Hirano, who played for Japan in the 1998 World Cup, feels “dark horses” like Serbia and Japan have done well so far and feels his native country is good enough to make it to the quarter-finals. Japan has a win and a loss so far and Hirano expects they will draw with Denmark on Thursday, a result that he hopes will get them to the knockout stage. Sanchez feels Spain, Brazil or Argentina will win the World Cup but doesn't dismiss the chances of his native Mexico, which will play Argentina in round two. “It's going to be a tough game for them but you never know – soccer is unpredictable,” he said. “Argentina beat Mexico in the last World Cup but it's a new game. “At this level of soccer, there are no small teams any more. Everybody is more prepared and you never know.” © Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun