Thirty-two teams qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Unfortunately for one of the most patriotic countries on Earth, the United States is not one of them.
While Americans might still be hurting after the U.S. men’s national team’s 2-1 defeat to Trinidad & Tobago prevented it from qualifying for Russia, the greatest international tournament the sports world has to offer will still happen.
Even without this country’s beloved red, white and blue in attendance, the World Cup still has so much to offer. Of course, choosing just one team out of 32 to dedicate attention to is a bit of a tall task for those whose national origins aren’t represented in this great tournament.
If you fall into this category, then you’re in luck. Sporting News has done the work for you. We’ve picked out nine national teams based on nine different storylines so everyone has a chance to find a team that best suits them.
Will it be as enjoyable as watching the U.S. compete against other national teams in the search for global footballing supremacy? Probably not, but the alternative is avoiding a global phenomenon that will define the sports world’s zeitgeist for two weeks, and that just doesn’t seem like fun.
The MJ-vs.-LeBron debate
Can’t get enough of this timeless debate that has certainly not worn out its welcome in sports media? Then we’ve got a great two-for-one deal for you! Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, indisputably the best two players in the world, will be participating in what will likely be the last World Cup of their prime years. Each player has shown why he’s better than the other through scoring records, trophies and jaw-dropping highlights. The one accolade missing from their resumes: a World Cup trophy. This time around, Messi’s Argentinian side looks to be a bit stronger than Ronaldo’s Portugal team, but Ronaldo’s squad has tasted glory most recently, winning the 2016 European Championship in France. For what it’s worth, each player has been more impressive on the club level, but a win for either Messi or Ronaldo could put one over the other for good.
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The one-man underdog
Mohamed Salah is finishing up perhaps one of the greatest individual seasons a footballer could ask for. Not only did he smash the Premier League single-season scoring record (32 goals) and help Liverpool reach the Champions League final, he also got Egypt to its first World Cup in 28 years. But while Salah might have cemented himself as one of the top five players in the world, the rest of his team leaves much to be desired. Egypt’s goalkeeper, Essam El-Hadary, is 45 years old — which would make him the oldest player to compete in a World Cup. Not to mention, the team’s best midfielder, Mohammed Elneny, is nursing an ankle injury. It will likely take a Salah-led miracle for Egypt to go far in the tournament. Regardless, the story of one man putting an entire nation on his back is always fun to watch.
The organizational Dumpster fire
Since winning the whole thing in 1966, England’s World Cup success can be characterized by the team’s inability to meet the nation’s high expectations. It’s not just that it loses games it should win. Some of England’s biggest moments have become some of the tournament’s all-time biggest blunders. Whether it’s one of the team’s promising young talents getting a red card in an important elimination game, or a keeper fumbling an easy save to allow a goal, the team is always good for a facepalm-worthy moment. The best part might be the incredibly irrational fan base that wants heads to roll for every loss, but then suddenly believes England can win it all after every win. If schadenfreude is your cup of tea (pun intended), then England might be the team to watch.
The Cinderella story
Iceland is the Cinderella story of this World Cup because Iceland has no business having a good football team. The country has a population of about 340,000, most of the ground is either tundra or lava, and the sun doesn’t rise for three months a year. But still, the Nordic island nation has found a surprising amount of success since 2012 thanks in part to heavily funded training facilities and high-level coaches who produced the talented generation the team fields today. Iceland qualified for its first major international tournament in 2016, the UEFA European Championship, where it beat England in the Round of 16 before losing to host nation France in the quarterfinals. It also made headlines with its signature “Viking war chant.” The team will hope to make a similar impact in Russia as the smallest nation by population to ever clinch a World Cup berth.
The comeback story
James Rodriguez announced his presence at the 2014 World Cup. His opening volley not only won the fan vote for best goal in the tournament, but it also got him the FIFA Puskas Award for goal of the year. He led Colombia to its first World Cup quarterfinals appearance, landed on the 10-man shortlist for FIFA’s Golden Ball award for the tournament’s best player, and won the golden boot for leading all players in scoring in Brazil. His stellar tournament performance earned him a six-year contract with Real Madrid, his dream club. Unfortunately, that’s where the feel-good story ended. After three unimpressive seasons in Spain, James was sent to Bayern Munich, where he has shown improvement but hasn’t reached anything close to his form in Brazil. Now that Colombia and James are back in the tournament, he’ll get an opportunity to show the world what it has been missing and make the comeback his career most certainly needs.
Do you enjoy the buzzing atmosphere that only home crowds can provide? Do you believe that sports highlights are significantly better when they’re made in front of a supportive crowd? Then Russia is the squad for you! This year’s World Cup host is in an easy group that will likely allow the team to make it to the knockout stages. Also, given the current political climate, imagine all of the jokes you can get off! World Cup success is temporary, but retweets are forever.
Depending on who you ask, Luis Suarez is either one of the greatest strikers of his generation, or a rat-faced racist who deserves to be launched into the moon. There’s an argument to be made on both sides. Suarez has proven to be one of the most lethal forwards in the world, and he has a less-than-ideal history when it comes to being a good person on the pitch. From blocking a goal-bound extra-time header with his hands during Uruguay’s quarterfinal match against Ghana, to multiple incidents of biting opposing players, the Barcelona striker has truly earned every jeer he has had thrown his way in his career. If that sort of villainy is important to a team’s dynamic, then Uruguay should be the team you support.
Are you a Golden State Warriors/Houston Astros/Philadelphia Eagles/Villanova basketball/Alabama football fan? Do you base your support on “what have you won for me lately?” If so, then Germany is the team for you. It’s not just that this team has one of the most talented squads in the competition, it also has one of the best managers in the World Cup. Nearly every player that has left the squad since winning the tournament in 2014 has been replaced by a player of equal or better talent. To top it all off, because the tournament will be taking place in a European country, Germany has an added bonus of being landlocked to its home country. With all of these factors, the team is absolutely primed to repeat as champions.
If your fandom is more about the Yankees/Lakers/Cowboys/Duke basketball/Alabama football, the tried-and-true teams that can default to “ringzzz” when getting into online sports debates, then Brazil is the squad for you. The five-time World Cup winners have always had some of the most technically gifted players in the tournament, and this year is no different. Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus make up an attacking trio that will give any backline nightmares. Sure, the past few World Cups have not been kind to Brazil, and South American teams rarely do well in Europe, but the oddsmakers still have this squad high up and that should be worth something.
Regardless of who you pick between these two teams, just know you’ll receive a fair share of eyerolls. Of course, those mean nothing when your team is picking up all the wins.