The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia is now upon us, and if you haven’t heard yet (at this point, everyone who’s shown the least bit of interest in soccer knows by now), the United States will not be participating in this iteration of the world’s biggest sports tournament.
Eight months have passed since that fateful night in Couva where the United States men’s national team lost 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago in the final qualifying round, and in that time, I’ve come to grips regarding the team’s fate. Despite this World Cup bringing about a drastically different viewing experience for the first time in my life, I have decided not to let the USMNT’s absence ruin my enjoyment of the event.
Thankfully, we’re not alone in terms of missing out on the tournament. Italy, the Netherlands, Chile, Ghana, and Ivory Coast are among the other notable countries that failed to qualify for Russia 2018. In fact, if you can remember Group E from 2006 (Italy, Ghana, Czech Republic, United States), that entire group, perceived to be by some as a “group of death,” is nowhere to be found this year. (I had originally thought this was the most recent group to be entirely absent from this World Cup, but the insultingly easy group Italy was given in 2010 of Paraguay, Slovakia, and New Zealand [which, believe it or not, Italy wound up finishing dead last in] will also not feature this year.) Some have even joked (and seriously proposed) about an NIT-style “loser’s tournament” for a number of teams that failed to qualify this year.
Regardless of who’s in this tournament (and who didn’t make it), I will still make this interesting after having ranked all 32 teams in order of my rooting interest. I have based this on a combination of which countries have players I like, which have players I don’t like, which have players either on or formerly on my favorite teams, and other various non-soccer factors, admittedly by various consistency. A common way many Americans (and other neutrals) partake in the World Cup is to support their ancestral country whenever their own country has been eliminated, but as someone whose own exact nation of ancestry is unknown, I have taken these measures to keep my interest up. Your rooting interests may be different, though.
With that said, here’s how I’ve ranked each of the 32 teams in this year’s World Cup.
I can’t stand Portugal. At all. While I’m not too fond of Cristiano Ronaldo, I do respect his talent. But he’s not the reason I have them all the way down here, and he’s not the only unlikeable (to some) player on the team. If you can believe it, Pepe, who has a reputation of being one of the dirtiest footballers in the world, is still playing for Portugal even at 35. (Amazingly, he hadn’t even been called up to the senior national team in 2006, when this melee disguised as a football match occurred in that year’s World Cup [though the Dutch team arguably bears more responsibility for how that match went sideways]).
It’s also not only because they just so happened to be the defending Euro champions. It’s more because of how they won the Euros two years ago. That year, the Euros had expanded from 16 to 24 teams, all funneling into a round of 16 after the group stages. Portugal finished 3rd in its group after getting draws in all three games. Under the old format, they’d have been eliminated. But they ranked among the best third-placed teams in the tournament, so they went through to the Round of 16. They then proceeded to win four straight from there to take home the title, with three of those games having been decided in either extra time or penalty kicks (including the final). And I’m also still not over the USMNT dropping points against them in the last minutes four years ago. F*ck them.
I will admit that a lot of the sentiment of having Russia near the bottom of this ladder has very little to do with football or sports in general, and I’ll leave it at that. Although if you want to talk about Russia’s well-documented history of doping in international sports, you could say that too.
T-29.) CROATIA, SERBIA
This one also has more to do with outside factors than the players themselves. Both sets of fans tend to seem to want to cause trouble at any cost. In a game that I had been watching last year, a Croatian club’s fans got rather violent in the middle of a match. And, well, I can’t ignore the history of racist chants and banners, either. I mean, Confederate flags? Seriously? Yeah. It’s a shame, because I kind of like the red-and-white checkered shirts.
Nothing against the players or fans, but I just tend to root against teams that win the previous World Cup.
Does Luis Suarez still play for Uruguay? Yes? OK then.
They’ve also won World Cups and Euros rather recently, and they also have an unlikeable player in Sergio Ramos. Despite my support for Real Madrid defeating Liverpool in last month’s Champions League final, Ramos concussing Liverpool’s goalkeeper and injuring Mohamed Salah really made me feel dirty for having supported them in that game (although to be honest, this was a matter of the lesser of two evils as an Everton fan). Heck, you can find Ramos’ track record right here.
T-24.) IRAN, SAUDI ARABIA
I don’t know much about the footballing nature of either country, but both tend to have problematic ways they go about things outside of sports.
I don’t know. Something just seems a little unsettling about a bunch of White guys wearing an eagle emblem on their chest. Or maybe I’m being a bit too harsh on them.
Normally, I support all non-Mexico CONCACAF countries in the World Cup or in other international competitions, but after knowing that Panama knocked the U.S. out of the World Cup by scoring a goal that fails to meet any of the criteria that a goal requires, the most important of which is actually getting the ball to cross the goal line inside the net, I can’t get with them this time. It’s like Don Denkinger, Brett Hull’s skate in the crease, and the Fail Mary all rolled into one. Yeah, you could say again that the USMNT could have avoided this by not losing to Trinidad and Tobago, but this isn’t the place for rationality, damnit!
T-20.) DENMARK, SOUTH KOREA
Both of these teams are interchangeable. Both have players I recognize from the Premier League (namely, from Spurs). Meh.
You’re going to hear about Lionel Messi’s lack of international honors and about how this could be his last best chance to get one at the World Cup or maybe at the next Copa America, despite being one of the two best players in the world. (Argentina also barely avoided joining the mythical World Cup NIT this qualifying phase as well.) You won’t hear much about how he doesn’t seem to like to pay his taxes. Or that he momentarily quit the Argentina team after they lost the Copa America final in 2016 to Chile in a penalty shootout (a penalty shootout in which Messi missed his own kick). Not to mention, Argentina is effectively a Spanish-speaking Italy, so they get penalized there.
They do have a badass nickname (The Eagles of Carthage). That’s just about it, though.
Switzerland does virtually nothing emotionally for me, whether positive or negative. Fittingly, knowing Switzerland’s reputation in the world, they go right in the middle (or they would go there if there were an odd number of teams in the World Cup). But this is close enough.
The post-Ibrahimovic Sweden also doesn’t do much for me either. But at least they knocked out Italy, so I guess they get a bump up?
I normally don’t support Mexico’s in international competitions, but part of me kind of wants to see them go deeper than usual in the World Cup just to see how people react. I know I’m going to get sh*t from American fans for even thinking about supporting Mexico. Oh, and no era penal de hace 4 años. (Gee, the more I think about it, the more I’m glad the Netherlands missed out on the World Cup. Between Robben’s dive, the Battle of Nuremberg, Johnny Heitinga in the 2010 final, they needed to be kicked in the shins.)
There are definitely worse teams in this World Cup to get behind. It also helps to be familiar with pretty much all of these players from watching the Premier League. But of course, when all of the players you see on this team are from one league, you have to put up with players from rival teams as well. If Jordan Pickford is chosen as their starting goalkeeper, they get more points from me.
Can you believe that it’s already been 16 years since Brazil last lifted the World Cup trophy? Can you believe that despite them having won the most World Cups in the history of the competition, this 16 year drought isn’t the longest in the country’s history (that would be 24 between 1970 and 1994, with five consecutive non-wins in between, unless you want to count the 28 years it took from the first World Cup in 1930 to their first victory in 1958)? After seeing that 7-1 annihilation against Germany four years ago in an awe-inspiring performance that I didn’t even know anyone was capable of doing at this level of the game (especially to that team in that country), part of me also kind of felt sorry for Brazil in that moment (although Neymar was kneed in the back in the previous game and couldn’t play and their captain Thiago Silva couldn’t either due to getting two yellow cards earlier in the tournament). But then I remembered that they’ve already won enough World Cups for several lifetimes, so my sympathy stopped there.
All I really have to say here is that for most of my life, Nintendo had been my choice of video gaming entertainment. I may now have gotten the last few Xboxes and no Nintendo systems since the first Wii, but there’s still that special place in my heart. So there.
Ah, it’s the feel-good story of Euro 2016. The island nation with the population of Santa Ana, California that got to the quarterfinals with their coach who was a part-time dentist and their Viking clap gained a lot of neutral support and will continue to get some for this tournament. Gylfi Sigurdsson, arguably their most prominent player, is back in action after suffering an injury during the season. Gone are the days where I would make some Mighty Ducks reference with regard to an Icelandic sports team and move on.
The only thing that I know about Morocco from a footballing standpoint is that Marouane Fellaini (more on him later) is of Moroccan descent, even though he doesn’t play for Morocco. And I’ve heard good things about them as a potential dark horse. Also, how about Morocco Mole from the Secret Squirrel cartoons? Any of you post-millennials reading this won’t get that one.
It’ll be the first time Peru’s made the World Cup since I’ve been alive, after always having struggled to get out of the meat grinder that is CONMEBOL qualifying. They have one of the best jerseys in the competition even though they look more like an endorsement of Red Stripe beer. And now they’re another potential dark horse with Paolo Guerrero returning to the team after Peru’s version of a literal teapot scandal of some sort.
I’ve been using the France national team pretty consistently in FIFA and getting results. I always look forward to Antoine Griezmann goals just to see how he’s going to celebrate. And their World Cup win 20 years ago was a figurative punch in the face to all the racists out there.
7.) COSTA RICA
As I’ve said before, I normally support other CONCACAF teams in the World Cup, and other than the exception of Panama as mentioned earlier, this will hold true there. Costa Rica making it out of one of the groups of death four years ago and getting to the quarterfinals as the last CONCACAF team alive made an impression on me. Sadly they had to lose to the Netherlands on penalty kicks, but oh well.
If a bunch of former Evertonians (including the aforementioned Fellaini and his legendary hair) didn’t already have ties to Belgium national team, this would be a lot lower due to everyone having them as a trendy pick. I mean, I agree that they could do damage, and I’m still fond of Romelu Lukaku even though he emphatically celebrated his goal against Everton, his former team. And despite Roberto Martinez setting Everton back a few years with his managerial style, I can’t help but like his approach to the game. Just as long as it’s not threatening my teams with relegation, though.
This boils down to one man and one man only: Tim Cahill. He’s 38 now, but he still has a chance to score in four different World Cups.
As someone who’s still striving towards being able to comfortably speak Spanish, this will be the highest Spanish-speaking country in my rankings. Let’s also not forget that Colombia was also screwed out of a goal against Brazil in the same game that Neymar was hurt. I’ve got Colombia on my short-but-slightly-longer-than-short list of places I’d like to visit as well.
Of course, I’m rooting for the rest of the African teams in this World Cup, in case you haven’t noticed by now. I also figure that Salah will be the reason Egypt gets a lot of neutral support this time around, and for good reason. Despite the fact that he plays for Liverpool, he’s been a joy to watch. Whether he’s able to play, unfortunately, is another question, mainly due to the aforementioned injury he suffered at the hands of Ramos in that Champions League final.
Whether Nigeria can get past the round of 16 is one question, but what’s assured is that they’ve always subscribed to the notion of “look good, feel good. Feel good, play good.” Both on and off the field. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any Everton connections to this Nigeria team now that Yakubu and Joseph Yobo have long since been out of the picture, so that’s why they come up second here. But if one green-clad team called the Eagles could get over the hump in another type of football, who knows?
Not only do they have a current Everton player in Idrissa Gueye, but they could actually do some damage in what’s perceived to be a winnable (or at least advanceable) group. Oh, and let’s reminisce on the time Senegal shocked then-defending champions France to open the 2002 World Cup.
There you have it. The USMNT might have given us lemons in October, but we can still make lemonade from an entertainment and storyline standpoint out at the World Cup this year. Or you can just pretend that this tournament is one big United Nations meeting with all sorts of metaphorical posturing and muscle-flexing. After the news that came out this week, at least I won’t have to make this kind of post eight years from now. We’ll just have to see how much progress US Soccer has made for these next four, though.