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World Cup kindles some quirky allegiances

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — In India, World Cup fever has fueled a rivalry between rickshaw drivers.

Revenge-minded Serbians are backing the Americans — in hopes of a chance to beat them in Round Two. In Haiti, pro-Brazil passion helps chase away the post-earthquake blues.

No other sporting event stirs up such a surge of emotion all around the globe as the World Cup. It's not a simple matter of supporting one's home-country team — all sorts of subplots arise, and some of the most zealous fans can be found in countries with no team of their own in the field.

India, for example, has never played a World Cup match. Yet international soccer has a huge following in the planet's second-most populous country, and by some measures — including prominence on cable TV — the tournament overshadowed this weekend's Asia Cup cricket match with archrival Pakistan.

In India's southern state of Kerala, fans have been staying up late to watch World Cup telecasts, and two motorized rickshaw drivers have painted their vehicles in the colors of their favorite teams, Brazil and Argentina, to attract like-minded customers.

"I think Brazil has more supporters than Argentina, at least in Kerala," said a gleeful Mohammed Ali, whose rickshaw is now yellow with green highlights. He's threatened to set his vehicle on fire if the Brazilians fail to win their sixth title.

Brazil and Argentina also are the teams of choice in neighboring, impoverished Bangladesh, with flags of the two South American nations flying from rooftops and treetops. When a power outage interrupted a telecast of the Argentina-Nigeria match in the capital city of Dhaka, angry fans by the hundreds smashed vehicles.

One of Dhaka's top universities closed indefinitely Sunday after students clashed over whether to cancel classes to watch the World Cup. Fervent soccer fans demanded an early summer vacation so they could watch more matches. At least five injuries were reported when they clashed with other students who wanted classes to continue.

In Haiti, Argentina is an afterthought. Brazilians who visit the earthquake-wracked country say Haitians may be more passionate about the Selecao than the South Americans themselves.

Brazilian flags fly from cars overheating in Port-au-Prince's oppressive traffic; people who can barely afford shoes somehow break out new yellow jerseys of their favorite players. Whenever Brazil is on TV, even before the World Cup, activity slows and goals are greeted with shouts, screams and celebratory gunfire.

It's a decades-old love affair rooted in a passion for soccer and the Brazilian style of play, and it carries over off the field. Brazilian soldiers lead a 14,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force that's been in place since 2004, and Brazil has been a generous contributor to a post-quake reconstruction fund.

In Serbia, which has a team in the World Cup, the United States is getting unexpected support from some fans. Not because the Serbs have overcome their animosity toward Americans stemming from the 1999 NATO bombing of their country, but because they want to play the U.S. in the elimination round of the tournament.

When the U.S. tied the score at 2-2 against Slovenia on Friday night, there was a loud cheer from Serbs watching in Belgrade cafes.

"We would rather play the Americans than the Slovenes in the next round," said Marko Jovanovic. "It would be a sweet revenge for what the Americans did to us in the bombing."

Next door in Croatia, the question of who to cheer for is complicated. The soccer-crazy country's own team failed to make the World Cup, while teams from neighboring Serbia and Slovenia did qualify — resulting in a jealously-tinged dilemma.

On one hand, there's long history on conflict with the Serbs and a recent history of resentment toward Slovenia. On the other, there's a vestige of regional solidarity with neighbors that, like Croatia, used to be part of Yugoslavia.

Vesna Mijic of Zagreb compared it to the annual Eurovision song contest — which has an entry from each European nation.

"You vote for your neighbors because nobody else will," Mijic said.

The World Cup is a conundrum in China, the world's most populous nation. Millions of soccer-crazy fans are following live telecasts, but there's a bit of detachment because of the lowly status of the Chinese national team.

China has only played in one World Cup — in 2002, when it crashed out without scoring a goal.

Since then, it hasn't come close to qualifying, while three of its neighbors — North Korea, South Korea and Japan — made the field this year and are drawing at least lukewarm support from some Chinese.

"As an Asian, I am so happy to see our countries doing better and better on the world stage," Wang Wen, president of the Beijing Soccer Fans Association, told the People's Daily. "Obviously, China has been left far behind ... I'm afraid we won't be able to cheer for our own team at the World Cup in the near future."

Across Africa, which has six teams in the World Cup, there's widespread solidarity — due in part to pride that the continent is hosting the tournament for the first time.

In Uganda, though, there's been an unexpected hitch — some parents have prevented their children from watching matches on TV when Cameroon competes because the name of one of its players, Emana, is a sexually explicit obscenity in Luganda, one of Uganda's main languages.

"I would rather miss watching the match than being embarrassed before my children," said 57-year-old Aziz Kato.

In South Africa itself, where fans are steeling themselves for their beloved team's ouster, it was Soccer Sunday at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Pretoria.

"The hype around Bafana Bafana set us up for disappointment," said the Rev. Victor Phalana, urging his parishioners to relax and savor the excitement of being World Cup hosts.

"We must enjoy it while it lasts."

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Nirmala George in New Delhi; Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh; Godfrey Olukya in Kampala, Uganda; Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia; Jonathan M. Katz in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Christopher Bodeen in Beijing; Snjezana Vukic in Zagreb, Croatia.