The World Cup starts on Thursday at 11:00 a.m. EST (the first game will be broadcast on Fox) and the United States isn’t in it. Boo-hoo. We’ve had a good run: America is one of just thirteen teams to have qualified for six of the last seven tournaments so we’ve had a good run If we weren’t in the unusually non-competitive CONCACAF region, we likely would have qualified for even future World Cup finals so we’re pretty damn lucky. That we couldn’t beat Trinidad and Tobago (and Panama) is disappointing, sure, but the beauty of World Cup soccer has always been that the most powerful countries have no built-in advantage on the pitch.
Think about it: America has been eliminated from the World Cup twice by Ghana, a country ranked 85th in World GDP and where nearly 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. That’s not a disgrace—it’s testament to how great an equalizer soccer can be and how, in the World Cup, anything can happen.
In a way, America’s exclusion from the World Cup this year opens up all sorts of avenues for U.S. fans. Now you can root for the country you studied abroad in, or who’s cuisine you’ve always loved. You can dive into international rivalries that have been fueled by centuries of warfare, or give your heart to a team that has virtually no shot at winning.
Because the truth is that you don’t even have to be a year-round soccer fan to dive in for a month every four years. If people can get crazy for bizarro Olympic sports like curling and luge, you might as well drink in World Cup soccer while it’s here.
With all of that said, here’s an (incredibly subjective) list of the teams that you should consider rooting for:
Why You Should Root for Them: Believe it or not, the best opportunity to see international soccer in all its rambunctious glory in the United States is the Mexican team. Of Mexico’s last 76 international friendlies, 61 of them have been played on U.S. soil and they regularly sell out professional football stadiums. And despite what the president and his allies say, America loves Mexico! We vacation on Mexican beaches and named Chichen Itza one of the seven wonders of the World. Four of the last five Best Director Oscars have gone to Mexican directors (Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Inarritu, and Alfonso Cuaron). Taco Bell and Chipotle are staples of our culture and guacamole is where the Great American Boom started. Rooting for Mexico at the World Cup is a way to support our Southern neighbors, for whom this soccer business is most definitely not a one-month-every-four-years pastime.
Why You Should Root for Them: Every other major soccer power in the tournament—Spain, Brazil, Argentina, England, France, Uruguay—has won a World Cup and watching a team win their first championship is always a great storyline. If you want to root for a country that has been kicking ass for over 15 years to finally see the fruits of their labor pay off, then this is the team for you. They’re the reigning European champions, they’ve won their last nine games, and they have one of the game’s two best players (33-year-old Christiano Ronaldo, who is worth rooting for all on his own). Another plus: Portugal seems to be using players with actual first and last names this time around (past stars included Pauletta, Nani, and Deco)..
Why You Should Root for Them: The tournament has always given a ridiculous advantage to Europe while undercutting South America. Typically, 14 or 15 of the 32 slots go to European teams while South America gets 5. (An exception was made when Brazil hosted: Europe got 13 teams and South America got 6.) Lately, the South American teams have been showing they deserve better. In 2010, all five South American teams advanced to the second round and four made the quarterfinals. In 2014, five advanced the second round and three made the quarterfinals. Brazil and Argentina are always at the front of the South American charge. Your personal preference between these two giants is like apples and oranges (I was drawn to the aesthetics of the Argentinian uniform long before I knew anything about the country and Brazil’s ugly yellow/green combo didn’t do it any favors) but this year Argentina will probably have a more unpredictable and entertaining run.
Argentina has a habit of mythologizing their recent history, including soccer great Diego Maradona (who is currently serving as their national coach). Someday, Lionel Messi will be part of that mythology, too. Why not get in on what could be part of his epic story?
Why You Should Root for Them: Their historic pedigree. Brazil’s general sense of entitlement that the World Cup is their birthright can get a little obnoxious. But there’s also something exciting about watching a team operate with the supreme confidence that they own the sport. (This, despite the fact that they haven’t won Copa America since 2007 and massively underperformed in 2014). Also Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world population-wise and numbers 1-4 aren’t soccer powers. So from a utilitarian perspective, returning the trophy to Brazil would bring the most joy to the most people.
Why You Should Root for Them: It’s simple. If you’re in a bar when England is playing, you’re going to have a good time. England is legendary for their hooliganism and while that can be a bad thing in Europe, it’s significantly more tame stateside. Also, for the first time in ages, England has a substantial infusion of young talent that can make an impact. (Fun fact: England, not Brazil, is the birthplace of soccer.)
Why You Should Root for Them: With a population about half the size of Oklahoma City, the consensus is that Iceland is this year’s small-time Cinderella. Despite the limited talent pool, the country has one of the most efficient and best-subsidized youth development soccer programs in the world. Even small towns with teams in Iceland’s national league have first-class stadiums and facilities (they double as the town’s fitness and aquatic centers). And they aren’t just happy to be in Russia: This is a team with a chance of winning some games.
Why You Should Root for Them: When you tried to picture Switzerland, would you have thought of the names listed above? Switzerland has four official languages and its team is even more diverse, with players from Cameroon, Cape Verde, Albania, and Chile, and their coach is Frenchman Didier Deschamps who captained France to their historic victory in 1998.
Why You Should Root for Them: Costa Rica was the little engine that could in 2014. In the first round, they won a group that included past champions Italy and England and managed to hold off fast-charging Holland until penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. While the odds of Costa Rica repeating that success in a tough qualifying group aren’t great, we have an obligation to root for fellow North American teams because any success by a CONCACAF team will help the U.S. get more qualifying opportunities in future tournaments (ditto Panama in Group G)..
Why You Should Root for Them: You’ve watched Narcos or one of the many documentaries about the days when Colombia was a paramilitary state. The country has come a long way since then with beautiful cities with bullet trains, trams and ambitious public projects. As their quarterfinal appearance showed, this is a time for Colombia to shine and show us it’s a country whose advancements are worth celebration.
Why You Should Root for Them: Like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, and Iraq in years past, this is the annual team to root for because they’re overcoming near-impossible levels of socio-political adversity at home. Mohamed Salah scored 32 goals to lead his club team, Liverpool, to the Champions League final and might have been able to lift them to victory if he hadn’t been injured (many say deliberately) by Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid. As a result, he has become a national hero for a nation in desperate need of one. This isn’t hyperbole: Salah got more write-in votes than the second-place finisher in the last presidential election and he wasn’t even running.