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Psychology of Soccer: How to Pick a World Cup Team

Image: Uruguayan football fans celebrate the first goal of their team in the FIFA World Cup 2010 match against Mexico, at a bar in downtown Montevideo

Uruguayan football fans celebrate the first goal of their team in the FIFA World Cup 2010 match against Mexico, at a bar in downtown Montevideo, on June 22, 2010. MIGUEL ROJO / AFP/Getty Images file

When Brazil takes on Croatia in the first match of the World Cup in São Paulo on Thursday, millions of fans around the world will kick off a monthlong obsession with “football” (aka soccer).

Every four years, everyone else on Earth spend their nights and "sick days" in rowdy pubs cheering matches which traditionally leave American sports fans in the lurch, counting the days until the NFL season starts in the fall.

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It doesn't have to be this way. Yeah, most Americans don’t have the hardcore love of the rest of the world’s version of football, and this year, the U.S. team starts the tournament in the "Group of Death" — meaning it's almost certain that it will get eliminated early.

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But there are plenty of great reasons to get involved anyway. So grab a jersey, bring out the face paint and get ready to catch World Cup Fever. It’s easy! Here’s how.

Root for the Underdog

Unlike sports fans in every other country, most Americans didn't grow up obsessed with soccer. But plenty of psychological studies show that being a lifelong fan isn't a requirement when it comes to caring about whether a team wins or loses.

When students in a 2007 study by University of San Diego professor Nadav Goldschmied were presented with two generic teams, around 80 percent of them always chose the team that was randomly deemed the underdog.

Why is that? Obviously, winning feels better than losing. But when you don't have a strong connection with a team, losing does not feel that bad — and watching an underdog pull off an upset feels really good.

Even if you start cheering for a perennial loser, it can help build a sense of solidarity with other fans of the same team.

"It says, 'I’m a true fan, I’m not a fickle fan, it shows what a loyal person I am,'" Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Buffalo Bills fan, told NBC News.

Take heart, England. At least there is some upside to not winning the World Cup since 1966.

Image: Real Madrid's Ronaldo celebrates with team mate Morata after scoring a penalty against Atletico Madrid during their Champions League final soccer match at the Luz Stadium in Lisbon
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates with team mate Alvaro Morata after scoring a penalty against Atletico Madrid during their Champions League final soccer match at the Luz Stadium in Lisbon on May 24. KAI PFAFFENBACH / Reuters file

Pick a Star

Not many people can score goals like Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo or Argentina's Lionel Messi, the two most famous soccer stars on the planet. (Think of them like the LeBron James and Kobe Bryant of the "futbol" world, with the endorsements and bank accounts to match).

Human beings, however, are empathetic creatures. Even if fans are not the ones scoring the goal, they can sometimes get an ego boost when their favorite player does.

"When we are watching a competition, we are putting ourselves in their places," Whitbourne said. "A fan will say, 'I’m like them, and they’re great, so that makes me feel better about myself.'"

Jump on the Bandwagon

There is obviously a dark side to being a sports fan. People do all kinds of stupid things after games, like set couches on fire, get in fistfights and sometimes even start full-blown riots. But, overall, being a sports fan has serious mental health benefits, according Daniel L. Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University and author of "Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators."

"There is something magical thing about sports," he told NBC News. "There is an inherent desire we have to belong and to connect."

Most of that, he said, comes from sense of community that comes with rooting for a local team. Some of those benefits: lower levels of loneliness, higher levels of trust in others and higher levels of satisfaction with one's own social life.

Of course, when it comes to the World Cup, someone rooting for Spain in San Francisco might feel a little bit lonelier than someone doing the same in Barcelona. Connecting with an online community could produce the same effects as rooting for a local team, although no comprehensive studies have been done on the matter, he said.

Like many of life's problems, walking into a bar could be the solution.

"If I walk into a bar, and there are 30 people rooting for Spain, it’s a lot more fun to run around and high-five people," he said. "The beauty of it is, if Spain loses, you don’t have to cry in your beer. They are all depressed for the next week, but as a casual fan, you don’t really care."

Image: Japanese football fans in national team uniforms cheer before the start of the 2010 World Cup match between Japan and Cameroon at a sports bar in Tokyo
Japanese football fans in national team uniforms cheer before the start of the 2010 World Cup match between Japan and Cameroon at a sports bar in Tokyo on June 14, 2010. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO / AFP/Getty Images file

Pick Any Reason

"We have a natural tendency to pick a side," said Wann. "It does not take much for people to say, 'That is good enough, I’ll start following that team.'"

Ever wonder why Olympic broadcasts airs so many inspiring personal stories? Because narratives can make people care about sports and people they had never even heard of before, said both Wann and Whitbourne.

Random personal connections can also cause someone choose a team. Wann, for example, said he might cheer for Greece, mostly because he has a Greek colleague.

So when someone roots for Uruguay because she studied abroad there or Argentina because he likes the color of their uniforms, they are still getting more out the game, because they are emotionally invested. So pick a side, any side. It will make it even more fun to scream, "Goooaaal!"