Four years ago, this nation began to embrace the event that, for those in every other country, had long been a shared experience. We in these United States got interested in the World Cup, largely because the U.S. team survived its Group of Death to reach the Round of 16, where it succumbed in extra time to Belgium.
That the U.S. won’t partake in the 2018 World Cup, which opens Thursday in Moscow, has nothing to do with Russian hacking. This failure came because, on the final night of qualifying, the U.S. men lost to Trinidad and Tobago (pop. 1.36 million) when a draw would have sufficed. That cosmic flop called into question every perceived advance made by American soccer over three decades, and it leaves us asking: With the U.S. absent for the first time since 1986, will we care about the World Cup?
The guess here is yes, largely because the “we” part is different. As we’re seeing with Atlanta United, soccer’s audience doesn’t consist of those who grew up on a diet of baseball/football/basketball. Younger Americans have been exposed to the global game in a way that previous generations weren’t. A U.S. teenager is more apt to know Cristiano Ronaldo than Clayton Kershaw.
The guess is that a changing U.S. will pay attention to the World Cup, even without U.S. involvement and the latest games from Russia starting at 2 p.m. EDT. The guess is that Fox’s ratings will be better than you’d think. We watch the Super Bowl no matter who’s playing, and that’s one game every February. The World Cup, which comes once every four years and lasts a month, builds on itself. By the time July arrives, you’ll want to know who’s who. Here are 10 teams to watch.
Brazil: It’s the favorite, which it usually is, but it’s also coming off the worst loss ever suffered by a team of its stature – 7-1 to Germany in the 2014 semifinals. Neymar is considered the world’s third-best player, but he just missed three months with a foot injury. He’s also rumored to be switching clubs for the second time in a year: After exiting Barcelona and joining Paris Saint-Germain for a record transfer fee of $263 million, there’s thought he’s bound for Real Madrid.
Germany: It’s the reigning champ, but it appears past its peak. Owing to injury, the great goalkeeper Manuel Neuer barely played for Bayern Munich this season. Staples Philipp Lahm and Bastien Schweinsteiger have retired from international duty. Mario Gotze, scorer of the Cup-winning goal against Argentina, didn’t make the squad.
Spain: It’s trending upward. After 2008 and 2012 Euro titles bracketed by the 2010 World Cup triumph, Spain has re-calibrated. The elegant Andres Iniesta, who’s leaving Barcelona to play in Japan, is the most respected player of his generation. Less revered is defender Sergio Ramos, who enters this tournament off a Champions League final that saw Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah injured and keeper Loris Karius concussed after encounters with guess who. Salah exited after 30 minutes; two Karius howlers gifted Real Madrid its first and third goals. An unrepentant Ramos lifted the trophy and took selfies on the platform.
France: It’s the mystery team. Man for man, this could be the world’s most talented squad, but somehow it lost the Euro 2016 final on home soil to a Portugal side working without the injured Ronaldo. Forward Antoine Griezmann just led Atletico Madrid to the Europa League title. Pre-Neymar, midfielder Paul Pogba was the most expensive transfer in soccer annals, but his second season at Manchester United saw him fall from favor to the extent that he wasn’t a certain starter. France could win the World Cup. It could also lose in the Round of 16.
Argentina: It’s Lionel Messi’s team. The only gap in his dazzling career – he and Ronaldo have each won five Ballon d’Ors, awarded to the world’s top player – is that he has never lifted his national team to a major championship. Unlike, say, Diego Maradona, who hand-delivered (heh heh) a World Cup in 1986. Argentina finished third behind Brazil and Uruguay in qualifying, which wouldn’t suggest a breakthrough is at hand. Still, it has little Leo.
Belgium: It’s due. This smallish nation has its own Golden Generation. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku are pillars of Premier League giants. Still, Belgium was trounced 3-1 by Wales in the Euro 2016 quarterfinals. That result led to the firing of overmatched coach Marc Wilmots and the hiring of Roberto Martinez, who was part of ESPN’s commentary team when the Worldwide Leader held World Cup rights.
Uruguay: It’s the team with bite. Luis Suarez was suspended during the 2016 World Cup for biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, which was the striker’s third career strike for dental damage. The emotive Suarez is back, and he leaves a mark – sometimes a literal one – on every match. A Fox promo shows a clip of Suarez and then cuts to Evander Holyfield watching TV from his couch. Says Holyfield: “For some reason, I don’t like that guy.”
Mexico: It’s the team that loses in the Round of 16. That has been its fate in the past six World Cups – good enough to escape the group stage, not good enough to win a knockout game. Mexico’s place in soccer remains a curious thing: It’s a big country that loves the sport, but its team always trips over itself. There will always be support for El Tri in this country; there will also be those Americans who will never root for the U.S. team’s bitter CONCACAF rival.
England: It’s the team that always flops. For the English, the run-up to every major tournament is schizoid – fans are optimistic; Brit writers are convinced nothing will come of it because lately so little has. By England standards, this is a very fast team, and in Harry Kane it has a goal poacher of the first rank. Its best chance to make real noise, however, seems four years away.
Russia: According to FIFA rankings, it’s the world’s 70th-best team. It’s also a host nation that landed in a soft group. It’s also, er, Russia. Conspiracy theorists, this Cup’s for you!