Road To Russia: Who Should U.S. Fans Support in the 2018 World Cup?
American hopes for another World Cup run were erased before the tournament even began. On a steamy night in Trinidad the United States men’s team scuffed a chance at international glory like it was another attempted one-touch pass that bobbling around on that notoriously patchy Caribbean pitch.
This failure was the final impetus for an overdue crisis of confidence for U.S. soccer—specifically the men’s team as of course the women’s squad is one of the best in the world. Jürgen Klinsmann didn’t even make it to the final game, Bruce Arena brought back some of the less endearing aspects of the American style of play in a desperate grasp at qualification, and then after the fall out of the Trinidad result a contentious vote for a new president of U.S. to replace the now-deposed Sunil Gulati added more fuel to the fire, and drove a wedge between some supporters, players, and observers.
While most fans are probably disheartened—and perhaps even disenfranchised—about the abject failure of the USMNT, there is a silver lining within the dark clouds. You now have a chance to ignore the disarray and hitch your hopes somewhere decidedly less dispiriting. There are a lot of options to choose from: Underdogs, powerhouses, and teams reliant on a superstar’s individual excellence.
Consider the following my case to you for four teams that are U.S. fans’ best options to suddenly care too much about. It’s not a permanent shift, just a summer fling, so let’s have some fun.
The Aesthetes: France
Oh boy, I love this French team. Let’s get the negatives out the way first, I know some Americans have a natural distaste for the French, but let’s just throw that shit away. It’s all very 2003 and Freedom Fry, George Bush-era nonsense. Don’t let it get in the way of a good time.
And this French team is a really, really good time. They are, by my estimation, easily the most stylish attacking ensemble in this tournament. Now, I hope you’re sitting down, and if you aren’t then I’d advise you to get your fainting couch ready, because these names are enough to get anyone feeling light-headed. At any time, manager Didier Deschamps can roll out a combination of Kylian Mbappe who is perhaps the best under-23 forward in the world, Ousmane Dembélé who is literally lightning with a bag full of stepovers, Thomas Lemar, Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial, Dmitry Payet… Oh and future Barcelona superstar Antoine Griezmann and current only-good-thing-about-Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba. Someone come here and hose me down.
They also have defenders and stuff, but really if you’re watching this team it’s for what they’ve got going forward. If you need extra motivation to support this team think about how French President Emmanuel Macron’s failure to convince Donald Trump to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. The French need a win.
Stylish Underdogs: Nigeria
I know this might be blasphemous, but Nigeria has the best kits in the tournament. Normally, that title is exclusively held by the Brazilians or the Netherlands (who didn’t qualify), but I mean seriously:
That is a physical manifestation of the flame emoji. Beyond just the kits, the Super Eagles sport an exciting crop of young talent featuring my beautiful son Alex Iwobi, Leicester City stiker Kelechi Iheanacho, and Chelsea’s Victor Moses— who will be buzzing up and down the wing on his Tron light-bike. John Mikel Obi is somehow still out there crashing into ankles all around the center of the park, and Odion Ighalo can score some goals when the moon is in waxing gibbous and mercury is in retrograde. German manager Gernot Rohr is definitely not shorn of options.
The downside: My guys have been saddled with, probably, the toughest group in tournament. That means making it to the knockout stages will be a steep task. Facing Argentina—a team that starts greatest player of all time—Croatia, and Iceland is about as stiff of a group as there is in this tournament. But hey, Americans love an underdog.
Seeking Maradona: Egypt
So, uh, I don’t want to disrespect the Egyptians—I love you Mohamed Elneny—but you really can’t talk about Egypt and think of anyone but Liverpool’s Mo Salah. The forward is a Golden boot winner for the Premier League, Professional Footballers Association player of the year for 2017-2018, and a probable position among stalwart Ballon d’Or finalists Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Salah has a had a year for the ages. With a chance to seal it off with a victory in the Champions League, over the previously mentioned Ronaldo, and then a World Cup run.
In 1986, Diego Maradona lit the world on fire and carried Argentina on his shoulder—and one mischievous hand—to World Cup glory. Every four years since, like the anticipation for a Triple Crown winner, people have been watching to see if another player can impose his individual brilliance upon the global stage. We haven’t seen it, but if anyone can bring some of that magic back to the pitch in this year’s tournament it’s Salah who seems to the most poised to do so.
Returning to Glory: Brazil
Finally, you can choose Brazil—if you’re brave. Brazil used to have the reputation of the team that the uninformed fan would follow. Like choosing the Lakers if you just started to watch the NBA or the Cowboys in the NFL. They were usually a favorite in any World Cup, had brilliant uniforms, and could often count on global megastars like Ronaldinho or Ronaldo—the original one—to bring in the casual observer. Not to mention the fact that even people who had never watched a game of football probably knew the name Pelé, who of course is Brazilian.
All that being said, I would argue it’s now interesting to support the Seleção again. After all, once you’ve been shellacked 7-1 in a semi-final in your home country well… It’s hard to say you’re favorite in the next tournament. They still have star power, but I’d argue that Neymar, despite his attempts at mainstream American fame through appearances in classic films like ‘XxX: The Return of Xander Cage’ is not of the caliber of the Ronaldinho’s in terms of love and recognition. But he’s an amazing footballer, and combined with Coutinho, Douglas Costa, and Gabriel Jesus, he plays the key role in a formidable frontline that is destined to bring back some jogo bonito to spectators eyes. If you want to get on the Brazilian bandwagon, and not seem like rube, this is the year.
More Options: Because I couldn’t help myself
Just a quick run through of some other teams that are available, but that I personally wouldn’t throw my weight behind. There’s Cristiano’s crew in Portugal and Messi’s compañeros if you’re interested in that debate. You could also go for Belgium, but they have three strikes against them: boring kits, Eden Hazard, and they knocked the Americans out of the last tournament. Iceland if you like underdogs, vikings, or geothermal energy. And the English, if you’re an anglophile or a masochist.
My choice is going to be a little bit of a cheat, but that’s okay, it’s an occasion. I’m all in on the Super Eagles of Nigeria for as long as they’re around—those uniforms—and then when that ride ends I’m throwing my lot in with the good wine, existentialist philosophy, and free scoring lot up in France. Choose wisely my friends.