The single worst thing about the World Cup is the wait. Waiting sucks. And in United States, we aren’t used to waiting for sports.
The best American sporting event is the NCAA basketball tournament. It begins two days after its field is set. The NFL, NBA, MLB and MLS postseasons all begin within six days of regular season conclusions. Sure, the two weeks between NFL conference championships and the Super Bowl can feel like forever, and the near month between college football season and semifinals can drag on. But six-plus months? Over 200 days?
That’s how long we have in between World Cup draw and opener. And my goodness, it’s tough. We’re not even a month-and-a-half in.
But the best thing about the World Cup – eh, rather, one of the best examples of its grandeur and beauty – is that the wait doesn’t matter. No matter the participants, no matter the storylines, enthusiasm never fails to return to a fever pitch.
Which brings us to this column, January’s World Cup Touchline. Most of you reading it are probably American. That doesn’t necessarily mean your favorite international team missed out on Russia 2018. But for many of you, that’s the case.
I would hope, though, that every single one of you is still planning to stuff your face with soccer this summer. I certainly am. And if you’re thinking you’ll have trouble? Well, we’re here to help.
WORLD CUP TOUCHLINE: THE POST-DRAW DOLDRUMS
1. It has been three months since that horrifying night. Three months since the U.S. failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 32 years. Three months later, U.S. Soccer is still as infuriating as ever. But hopefully reality has begun to set in. Let’s all take a pledge to enjoy the greatest sporting event on earth in June without the specter of Trinidad haunting our experience. If you root for the U.S. men’s national team, some portion of you must enjoy soccer. So spend the summer learning about the beautiful game, and about why others treasure it so much.
2. As June 14 nears, we’ll roll out a full rooting guide for you. We’ll hit every single preview angle you could ever dream of. But may I suggest a few teams worthy of your affection right now?
3. If you’re into favorites, consider two teams – or rather one team and a 5-foot-7 genius. Brazil and Lionel Messi, in a few ways, will enter the tournament under similar circumstances. They’re both under immense pressure. Brazil collapsed on home soil four years ago. Messi has never won a major tournament for Argentina. They’re also both the best in the world. The Brazilians stormed through South American qualifying playing both stylish and sturdy soccer. Messi, meanwhile, is the G.O.A.T. His greatness deserves a World Cup trophy as a crown.
4. If you’re not into favorites, but are into attractive soccer that could kill off a few giants and spur a semifinal run, consider Mexico. Yes, adopt the U.S.’s fiercest – but also friendliest – rival. Seriously.
5. If you’re into underdogs … well, it depends what kind. Do you want electrifying attacking talent, but with meltdown potential? Then Nigeria is your squad.
6. Or do you want scrappy, overmatched minnows with a recent history of improbable upsets? And with the best fans at the tournament? From the smallest nation ever to qualify? And with a chant that could, in its own intensely tribal way, become one of the soundtracks of Russia? Yes. You want that. Hop on the tiny but overflowing Iceland bandwagon.
7. Or maybe you don’t want to commit to one nation before June 14. Maybe you want to sample every flavor before ordering. That’s totally fine too. In fact, it’s part of the beauty of not having a home nation to attach yourself too. Spend the first round of group games exploring, taste-testing, and then devour whichever storyline or style is most satisfying.
8. Park yourself in front of a TV on the first weekend and make your choice then. The schedule aligns excellently with typical life schedules. Just take a half day at work on Friday, June 15, and over the next 48 hours, you’ll be able to catch Portugal-Spain, France-Australia, Argentina-Iceland, Croatia-Nigeria, Costa Rica-Serbia, Germany-Mexico and Brazil-Switzerland. Brilliant.
9. However, the group stage could be relatively light on high-profile drama compared to years past. As predicted, the new seeding format snuffed out Groups of Death. Perhaps, then, to fully engross yourself in marathon soccer mornings and afternoons in June, you want to design some sort of betting competition with buddies. Well, we’ve got suggestions for that approach, too …
10. Betting competition No. 1: The Auction. Let’s say there are four of you. Each person gets an imaginary budget of $100. You bug (or threaten) a friend until he or she agrees to serve as an auctioneer. You then take turns nominating the 32 teams and bidding on them until all 32 have been purchased, or until everybody’s $100 budget has been exhausted. Each person then has a “roster” of teams. You get three points for a win, one for a draw, zero for a loss, from the group stage all the way through to the final. Whoever’s roster accumulates the most points wins. Play for real money, or stipulate punishments for losers, as you see fit.
11. Betting competition No. 2: The Confidence Pool: Don’t fancy the complexity or exclusivity of the auction? Or have too many friends who want in? Turn to a confidence pool. Each participant ranks the 32 teams 32-1, with No. 32 the team he or she believes is most likely to win its group, and No. 1 the team most likely to finish in last place. A group winner is worth the confidence score (32-1 ranking) times 2. A runner-up is worth the confidence score, straight up. Third-place finishers are zeros. For every fourth-place finisher, a participant must subtract his or her confidence score for that team from his or her total. The person with the most points after the group stage wins.
12. Or maybe you don’t want to root for anybody. Maybe you want to simply sit back and savor the sport. Either way, make a point to savor its diversity – and not just diversity as we often consider it. Appreciate its wondrous assortment of playing styles, personalities, rituals, supporter cultures, and so on. The World Cup is as much a cultural convention as it is a sporting event.
13. On that note, our first Twitter question. Stuart Allen asks: Who will be the biggest surprise performer from each region? For example, what Asian player/team should we watch that we might not know much of? Let’s go region by region …
14. There’s no surprise CONCACAF team. Panama will struggle. Costa Rica won’t live up to inflated expectations. But there are plenty of Mexican players to watch. If you’re not familiar with Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, study up.
15. Don’t sleep on Iran out of Asia. If it can beat Tunisia in its opening match, its resolute defense will give either Spain or Portugal problems. As far as players go, I’ll stan for Australian midfielder Aaron Mooy any day of the week.
16. From Europe, I am very, very in on Serbia. Elsewhere, players to keep an eye on are young Swiss midfielder Denis Zakaria and Swedish playmaker Emil Forsberg.
17. From Africa, Senegal is going to get out of Group H, and Sadio Mane – I know, I know, not exactly under-the-radar – is going to star. If you want to dig a bit deeper, Morocco is stocked with intriguing players, such as Ajax attacker Hakim Ziyech.
18. Peru is the only unheralded team of the five from South America, so we’ll focus on players. Christian Cueva is the one to watch for the Peruvians. And Uruguay has a quartet of young midfielders – Federico Valverde (19), Rodrigo Betancur (20), Nahitan Nandez (22) and Giorgian de Arrascaeta (23) – who will be crucial in support of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
19. A second Twitter question, from the esteemed Ben Goren: Who’s going to be the worst team? Who’s coming out 0-3 with a minus-12 goal differential?
There are six candidates. Costa Rica and Saudi Arabia could, but neither will come up against enough attacking firepower in their group. Iceland could, because it will face that attacking firepower; but it has also shown it can withstand plenty. Australia is another option. But the top two come from the same group: Tunisia and Panama. They both open with England and Belgium, then get each other in the final group game. They could both come in out of contention, with unsightly goal differentials, and full of free-spirited attacking intent. That’s the most likely recipe for minus-12.
20. Another question: Which teams do we have no freakin’ clue about? That’s one I was considering when I set out to compile an aggregate set of World Cup power rankings. I tossed my own into a spreadsheet alongside Sports Illustrated’s (Jonathan Wilson), Bleacher Report’s (Sam Tighe), the Guardian’s (Ed Aarons) and the Elo ratings. What I found, among other things, was that my off-the-top-of-the-head answer to the above question jibed with the rankings, in that the two widest ranges were for Nigeria (Guardian: 7; Elo: 27) and Peru (Elo: 10; SI: 27). And the range for Russia came in tied for third.
21. In general, our power rankings lined up pretty well with the aggregate. Our bottom 10 was almost identical to the average. At the other end, there’s a fairly concrete top nine – the same as our top nine. And because the nine are spread out over seven groups, it will be surprising if any of them fail to reach the knockout rounds.
22. The Guardian had England 14th – behind Iceland. LOL. Not that that’s categorically wrong. But man, that level of pessimism is almost unhealthy.
23. The Guardian also had Colombia 20th. That is wrong. Sorry, lads.
24. Back to Twitter for another reader question, from James Geluso: If you measure distance capital to capital for all six matchups in a group, I bet Group B is [the shortest] since 1994. — I’m going to cut you off right there, James, because I spent way too much time researching this. You are indeed correct. Group B – Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Iran – is actually the shortest cumulative distance since 1990, and the shortest ever for a four-team group involving only two European teams (the current geographical restriction wasn’t put in place until the move to 32 teams in 1998).
25. Under current draw regulations, what would be the shortest possible distance? I’m 95 percent sure it would be Cyprus (UEFA), Israel (UEFA), Lebanon (Asia) and Egypt (Africa), but please do tell me if I’m wrong. And if you can find the longest cumulative distance, please do email (below) or tweet at me. I’ll retweet the heck out of it.
26. Back to James’ actual question: Does proximity and familiarity change how the game is played? Or does the concentration of the pro game in Western Europe kill that?
I think it used to matter. I don’t think it does anymore. But it’s not that all the players play in Western Europe. At least eight countries in this year’s field draw the majority of their players from elsewhere. It’s more so the scouting tools available. There are still stylistic clashes – Group H will be a perfect example – but there are very few unknowns heading into World Cups nowadays.
27. The biggest unknown heading into the 2018 World Cup might be the World Cup itself. There has been incessant controversy surrounding it ever since it was awarded to Russia over seven years ago. Will it all go to plan? The concerns, and the irreversibly damaged, toxic FIFA brand, have apparently sapped confidence out of advertisers. As of August, the most recent update, only one of 20 regional sponsorship spots for the World Cup had been claimed. There was even one top-tier “FIFA Partner” spot open, and two second-tier World Cup sponsor spots unfilled. By August 2013, all sponsorship opportunities for the 2014 World Cup had been sold out.
28. There’s a tendency to hope it does all go to plan. That for one month, all of Russia’s and FIFA’s problems are obscured by the spectacle. Events of this magnitude often have the power to do that. But I, for one, hope they aren’t obscured. I hope that FIFA, a corrupt organization, and Russia, a country with many problems of its own, are exposed for what they are. Why?
29. Because sweeping things under the rug when a spotlight readies itself is exactly what FIFA so often does. It has been sitting on no fewer than 34 Russian soccer doping cases for more than six months now. It has allegedly not sought out the whistleblower, even after the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics for state-sponsored doping. FIFA will do anything to make its banner event appear untarnished, no matter how tarnished it actually is. And that’s wrong.
30. That’s why FIFA suspended Colombian midfielder Edwin Cardona five games – the exact amount of friendlies Colombia will play between now and the World Cup – for a racist gesture toward a South Korean player. Convenient, huh?
31. It’s also why rumors about Peru and Spain possibly being expelled from the World Cup for government interference will almost surely amount to nothing. No government would pass a law that had such a consequence. And if it were desperate to, FIFA would work with it extensively to ensure a rule-bending compromise was struck.
32. But even if FIFA and Russia are exposed, the World Cup will go on. And it will be glorious. Even if your favorite team won’t be there. And even if you’re doubting you’ll enjoy it. Hop on board, come along for the ride, and see where the beautiful game takes you.
More World Cup Touchline: The story of qualification
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