The World Cup soccer tournament began Friday in South Africa. For fans in 32 countries, it's more than a sports event. It's the biggest recurring celebration of national pride.

That's where things get complicated for many people in a nation of immigrants like the United States - and especially a city of transplants like Los Angeles.

The question of whether to root for the old country or the new one divides households and leaves some individuals with their own personal international conflicts.

When the United States' improving team faces England's powerful squad in a first-round game todaySaturday in Rustenburg, Jean Karasek of Encino will face just such a national-pride quandary. Karasek, 57, is from Newcastle, England. But she has lived here for 29 years.

She said she'll cheer for England in this game but then cheer for both teams to survive the tournament-opening, four-team round-robin Group C competition and move on to the 16-team elimination phase.

"What it is is, we want (England) to beat the USA in the first round. Then we want the USA to beat the other two teams so the USA will move on," said Karasek, who owns a British food and gift shop in Tarzana called Oh, Fancy That!

"We want the U.S. to do well," said Karasek, adding that she'd like to see soccer become more popular here.

The theme is familiar to soccer promoters here who strive to build a following for the U.S. men's national team. They have plenty of soccer fans to draw from, but many of those fans are immigrants or children of immigrants whose initial loyalty has been to the national teams of their roots, as well as people who follow a national team more glamorous than the United States'.

"It's definitely a quandary," said Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, who was born in Germany but moved to the United States at age 4 and has coached UCLA, the L.os A.ngeles Galaxy and the U.S. under-20 team. "I root for Germany when they play anyone except the United States. I've always felt my first loyalty is to the United States.

"But that's me. I can certainly understand loyalty to your native country."

Let's hope U.S. players can overcome such mixed feelings. Of the 23 men on the U.S. roster, 13 were born in other countries or are sons of parents from other countries - including potential World Cup opponents Mexico, Brazil, Germany and Nigeria - and 19 play for professional clubs in Britain, Europe and Mexico.

At the Soccer Depot in Woodland Hills, store manager Andres Baena said his rooting interests have changed.

Divided loyalties?

Baena, 26, a Van Nuys resident who was born in Manizales, Colombia, and came here when he was 3, remembers attending the Colombia-United States match in the 1994 World Cup at the Pasadena Rose Bowl wearing his native country's yellow-and-blue soccer uniform and a Carlos Valderrama bushy wig.

He said if the same match were played today, he'd wear a red, white and blue U.S. jersey.

"As I've evolved, I see myself more as an American," Baena said.

In California, immigrants make up 27 percent of the population, and children of immigrants make up 48 percent.

An estimated 24 percent of U.S. immigrants in 2010 were born in Mexico. People born in Mexico are estimated to comprise 24 percent of U.S. immigrants in 2010. Not surprisingly, Baena said, Mexico's green, red and white World Cup jerseys are his shop's best-seller.

Manuel Pastor, a USC professor who heads the university's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, said immigrants' support of their old nation's World Cup teams doesn't mean they're detached from U.S. culture.

"Rooting for the 'home' team in this case is largely symbolic - sort of how St. Patrick's Day brings out the Irish in Irish Americans but doesn't change their cultural/ political identification in matters that matter," Pastor said in an e-mail.

When it comes to divided loyalties, this writer can relate.

I'm a U.S. native, son of an L.A.-native father. I root for the United States in all things. I got excited when the U.S. soccer team upset top-ranked Spain in a 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal.

But I'm also the son of an English womanmother. My first sports memory was England's 1966 World Cup triumph during one of my boyhood visits to relatives there. (Family legend says everyone except my uncle David was too nervous to watch the final minutes of the final victory over Germany, so we left the TV room.) I've cheered for England in soccer since long before the United States began qualifying for World Cups again in the 1990 s.

So how should I root when my United States and my England kick off this morning at 11:30 PDT?

"Well, how do you feel?" said Monica Modesti, my mom, who usually is more helpful.

A matter of country

I'll probably root for England, because its success or failure in the World Cup will mean more to my British roots than the United States' fate will mean to my American soul.

But I'll feel guilty about it. I worry about what people will think. This isn't like being a Boston Celtics fan in Los Angeles – this is about country.

I realize going against the United States in anything might mean the end of my lifelong dream of winning the Republican nomination for governor of Arizona.

Yes, it can get complicated.

Xiomara Leon, 38, manager of Baja Bud's in the food court at the Westfield Promenade shopping mall in Woodland Hills, is a Guatemala native who roots for Brazil and the United States.

A U.S.-Brazil showdown could only happen in the semifinals, which, assuming the U.S. made it to that point, can't happen before the semifinals, which would make it the United States' best World Cup since 1930.

What if that occurs?

"My heart would go with the United States," Leon said. "I love the U.S. This country gave us everything - all the opportunities."

She said her Mexican co-workers make fun of her for cheering for the United States, which in soccer terms is an emerging nation.

Fun being the key in these patriot games.

"It's just (soccer)," Leon said. "Nothing serious."

kevin.modesti@dailynews.com