Soccer

An American’s guide to picking a team to root for in the World Cup

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 14: Russia and Saudi Arabia line up prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium on June 14, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
The World Cup kicked off Thursday with a game between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

With the start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, there’s an inevitable demographic of United States fans who might feel a little apathetic. For the first time in nearly three decades, their team isn’t in it.

Since the US men’s team failed to qualify for the World Cup, there’s the lingering threat that many Americans simply won’t care. Part of the problem could be that casual soccer fans won’t feel tied to another country with especially strong convictions.

Yet a World Cup minus a fan’s home country can not only be fun, it can actually be the purest way of enjoying the tournament. Without the all-encompassing emotion of being tied to the fate of a single team, fans are able to hop on and off various bandwagons, getting a true taste of the world’s game.

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Here’s how you can pick a team (or teams) based on what you might be looking for:

You love misery

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We’ve started with a seemingly odd choice of rooting interest, but any classic Boston sports fan will recognize this scenario. Given the decades of suffering that the Red Sox endured – and the gratifying feeling that followed the team’s eventual breakthrough after 86 years, maybe this is the right path for you?

England: The inventors of the game were its original dominant force. But the rest of the world caught up, eventually tearing down England’s superiority. A World Cup won on home soil in 1966 remains the nation’s lone international achievement. Since then it’s been nothing but false dawns, embarrassing upsets, and losing on penalty kicks. But maybe this is their year? (Spoiler alert: It most certainly isn’t, but it’s still OK to dream the dream).

Argentina: This would appear a quizzical inclusion given the spoil of talent decorating the nation’s roster for the last 20 years. And yet Lionel Messi, won of the greatest players of all time, has never won a major trophy at the international level (sorry, the Olympics don’t really count in soccer). Argentina hasn’t won at the highest levels since 1993. Since 2004, the team has lost in the Copa America final four times. Put it that way, and they begin to sound like the Buffalo Bills.

Messi, who completely missed the goal during the penalty kick loss to Chile at the 2016 Copa America Centenario final played in New York, is entering what might be his final chance at World Cup glory.

Lionel Messi (right) and Argentina face Iceland in their first game in the World Cup.
Ricardo Mazalan/AP
Lionel Messi (right) and Argentina face Iceland in their first game in the World Cup.

You want an underdog (and maybe want to vacation there)

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As Americans, we like to think that we enjoy a good underdog story. After all, the “Miracle on Ice” remains one of the country’s cherished sports moments. And if the American men were in the tournament, they would certainly be a classic long shot. This could be a fun category to pick up, and potentially serve as the launching pad for a trip afterward.

Iceland: The island nation has the smallest population of any World Cup team in history. But don’t underestimate them, as though they be but little, they are fierce. Just ask England, which Iceland unceremoniously dumped out of Euro 2016 on its way to a place in the quarterfinals. Despite being the villains in the Mighty Ducks sequel, Iceland is a solid underdog pick.

Sweden: You might be thinking, “How are they an underdog if that’s where Zlatan is from?” And that’s partly correct, as superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovich is indeed Swedish. Yet the talismanic goal scorer is retired from international play, confining his many talents to MLS these days. In his place, the Swedes are sending an unheralded but admirable team of hard workers. They stunned the world by beating Italy in a two-leg playoff to qualify, and will have to face both Germany and Mexico in a difficult group.

Emil Forsberg and Sweden play their first World Cup game against South Korea.
Antonio Calanni/AP
Emil Forsberg and Sweden play their first World Cup game against South Korea.

You want to root for a dark horse

Building off of the underdog theme, maybe you want to scale up a little bit. Sure, advancing to the round of 16 is great, but what about maybe winning the whole thing? And maybe, on top of that, you don’t want to simply pick a frontrunner. Some might accuse you of just being really, really picky. But it’s OK, we have options for you.

Uruguay: On the surface, Uruguay sounds like another underdog, given that it has a population of just 3.5 million (basically half of Massachusetts). In reality, the Uruguayans possess a few of the best players in the world. Central defenders Diego Godin and José Giménez play alongside each other at the club level in one of Europe’s best defenses (Atlético Madrid), while Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez remain a world class goal scoring partnership. They should advance from a weaker Group A and potentially make some noise in the knockout round.

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Belgium: Based purely on their squad, Belgium are debatably a dark horse. Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku (among several others) are all established stars in their primes. But Belgium has so far underachieved amid the team’s golden age of talent, so a dark horse they remain. It could be a good time to hitch your free agent fandom to the bandwagon.

Romelu Lukaku and Belgium take on Panama in their Word Cup opener.
Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP
Romelu Lukaku and Belgium take on Panama in their Word Cup opener.

You want to buy (and wear) a cool jersey

Some might scoff at this approach, but a legitimate part of being a soccer fan is seeking out cool gear. Whether it’s retro or current, owning stylish jerseys can certainly improve your rooting experience (as Deion Sanders would say, “U look good, u feel good“).

Nigeria: The Super Eagles (yes, their nickname is also awesome) have attracted a buzz heading into the World Cup partly because of Nike’s inspired uniform design. In a fascinating group that includes Argentina, Iceland, and Croatia, Nigeria will have its work cut out. Luckily, the players (and you) will look really good regardless of the result. The only real problem at this point is finding a Nigeria jersey.

Nigerian World Cup jerseys were for sale in a store in Lagos.
STEFAN HEUNISSTEFAN HEUNIS/AFP/Getty Images
Nigerian World Cup jerseys were for sale in a store in Lagos.

Peru: If everyone’s going for the flashy look, sometimes it’s better to go with some old fashioned style. Peru is exactly that, with a classic single stripe and national badge. It’s simple and to the point. Also, Peru’s actual team has looked pretty good lately as well (the last loss was 12 games ago, in 2016). Bonus: Peruvian coach Ricardo Gareca looks like a classic rockstar.

You want to cheer for “the beautiful game”

Cool jerseys and underdog stories are compelling, but as a prominent New Englander might ask, where’s the beef? More specifically, where are the dazzling goals? Every World Cup tends to produce a few specific teams who throw caution to the wind and play a free-flowing, attacking game. They might be the right choice for you.

Mexico: The traditional US soccer rival is one worth rooting for based on style. El Tri regularly feature a team of fast, creative players you can’t help but enjoy watching. Hirving “Chucky” Lozano could be a breakout tournament star, and he only adds to the existing array of talent Mexico has up front. Everyone in the squad can pass the ball. Maybe they can unleash this talent on Germany in the group stages?

Brazil: A predictable choice, but accurate nonetheless. An interesting point is that Brazil haven’t always been the purveyors of “jogo bonito” (or the “beautiful game”). In the 1994 World Cup in the US, Brazil won on defensive solidarity, while 2014’s team was anything but aesthetically pleasing. This time, it appears Brazilian coach Tite has more of the traditional style in his squad. With Neymar, Coutinho, and Marcelo set to feature prominently, it’s likely you’ll be seeing plenty of skill (and maybe a World Cup win).

Hayden Bird can be reached at hayden.bird@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @haydenhbird.