I know this is news to some of you and weird for all of us, but the U.S. men’s soccer team did not qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
There will be no Clint Dempsey, Christian Pulisic or “American Outlaws” chants. No opinions about the men’s national team from people who haven’t watched since the last World Cup or lazy think pieces about the future of American men’s soccer. There is no consolation prize or solace in “getting them next year.” Only absence and a long, depressing wait until 2022.
But fear not, fellow countrymen! We may not have a home nation to rally behind, but I’ll be damned if we can’t still use this event as an excuse to cut work and ditch the cubicle in the name of daytime drinking. Nations will rise, players will fall and Google searches for “What’s offside in soccer?” will rise by 2,000 percent in this country. It will be glorious.
Here are four teams from each of the first four groups that you should root for — Egypt, Portugal, France and Iceland. Keep an eye out for a future list detailing Groups E-H.
Group A: Egypt
The reasons for this pick begin and end with Mohamed Salah. His magical run with Liverpool has been one of the best stories in world football this year, and a sustained World Cup run would tie the bow on an already incredible season for the 25-year-old. The Egyptian already secured the Professional Footballers Association Player’s Player of the Year award and helped lead the Reds to the Champions League final. Unfortunately Salah sustained a serious shoulder injury in the Champions League final versus Real Madrid, so it’s unclear just how healthy the “Egyptian King” will be for the tournament, but Salah is “confident that I’ll be in Russia to make you all proud.”
America loves a hero and though the nation may not know it yet, it is just waiting to fall in love with this diminutive striker with luscious locks. He plays with the finesse of a ballerina and the instincts of a killer bee, all while performing with a schoolboy’s joy and a boy-next-door smile. It is physically impossible to root against this man.
His impact extends far beyond the pitch as well. Salah has been one of the strongest cultural bulwarks against Islamophobic sentiments in Britain and mainland Europe, compelling supporters to sing songs with lyrics such as “If he’s good enough for you/He’s good enough for me/If he scores another few/Then I’ll be Muslim too!” This kind of unabashed love for an Arab athlete with strong Islamic faith is sort of surreal in a sport that still suffers ugly incidents of racism and far-right nationalism among fans and media. What makes it even more incredible is he’s accomplished all this without making any grand political statements or a carefully managed public relations campaign.
He’s just been himself. America will like him just the way he is.
Honorable mention: Uruguay
Group B: Portugal
Every American Western contains two crucial characters: the “White Hat” and the “Black Hat.” Our seminal film genre has taught us to hate the bad guy, and there are few players in this tournament who fit that bill better than Cristiano Ronaldo. This isn’t to suggest that Ronaldo the man is a bad guy — in the same way that you hate the bad guy as a character, not the actor who is paid to be a dick, many soccer fans hate the character Ronaldo plays, even if the man himself does good charity work and seems to be a gracious fellow.
Fans hate the Ronaldo who takes his shirt off after every goal to show off his Michelangelo-sculpted torso. The one who seems to only care about scoring goals. The one who dates supermodels and looks as if he smells the way Axe body spray commercials pretend you’ll smell if you use their products. And yes, the one who brought back frosted tips.
However, his greatness is undeniable and his resume fantastical. The dude has won five Ballon d’Or (most valuable player) awards, five Champions League titles, three English Premier League championships, two Spanish La Liga championships, 16 scoring titles and a European Championship title. His incredible career is only missing a World Cup trophy.
I’m not asking you to root for Ronaldo. I’m only asking you to root for the spectacle of seeing how far Ronaldo can drag a team no one believes can win. LeBron James has already showed us this season that sometimes one man’s greatness is enough, and Ronaldo may be poised to do the same.
Honorable mention: Spain
Group C: France
Two reasons: France helped us big-time during the American Revolution and Americans like French fries (Yes, I am aware French fries aren’t really French, but I’ll ignore that annoying little factoid for the sake of my vanity. I look forward to your emails.).
America is the home of Hollywood and if there’s any team that is filled with A-list stars, it’s France. From the charismatic Paul Pogba to the up-and-coming Kylian Mbappé, the steady N’Golo Kanté to the wickedly handsome Olivier Giroud, Les Bleus are overflowing with talent and potential. The biggest question remains whether they can put it all together come time for the World Cup.
The rich diversity of the French side is on par with the United States and the “black, blanc, beur” — black, white, Arab — collection of players makes for a fun, eclectic group that is easy to root for and celebrate.
When this team is rolling, it’s truly like watching an all-star game. At least during the group stage, this French team should put on quite the show for Americans to become enthralled in, like a new season of your favorite Netflix series. The talented Antoine Griezmann should become an adopted fan favorite because of his finishing ability and lame but endearing goal celebrations, and there are enough talented players to go around for everyone at home to have their own pet favorite.
This could go very well or very badly for France, and if there’s one thing we Americans enjoy, it’s a good soap opera. Stay tuned.
Honorable Mention: Peru
Group D: Iceland
Do you like beards? Do you like Vikings? Do you like tattooed Scandinavian men with awesome beards?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then Iceland is the team for you. After a Cinderella run in the European Championships two years ago in which they defeated heavyweights such as England and introduced the world to the badass “Skol” chant, Iceland has become a fan favorite for neutral observers and football purists alike. Its direct, physical style makes Iceland a perfect team to follow for the casual fan. Iceland is also the ultimate underdog in this tournament, representing the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup but boasting some of the strongest fan support.
Iceland’s players also have the best names in the World Cup. I don’t think players from other nations can come close to names such as Ragnar Sigurðsson, Birkir Bjarnason, Hörður Björgvin Magnússon and Sverrir Ingi Ingason. Say those ten times fast.
If you like death metal, Vikings, Norse mythology, underdog stories, volcanoes or chaos, then it’s time to hop on Iceland’s bandwagon. It’s a small island, but there’s just enough room for a few more of you.
Honorable Mention: Argentina
Rory O’Toole writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].