The world’s most popular sporting event is under way, but maybe you missed the hype surrounding soccer’s World Cup. By some estimates 3.4 billion people – half of the planet - are expected to tune in before the final on July 15.
If you feel left out or left behind, there is one really good reason. The U.S. national team failed to qualify for the first time in a generation. As the U.S. established itself as a perennial contestant since 1990, appetites for soccer have soared in this country.
After this year, only Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and Spain can boast that record. Combined, those countries have won 12 of the 20 World Cups, stretching back to 1930. The U.S. was in elite company.
Not any more, leaving Americans, with a relatively newfound hunger for soccer, feeling a little lost. Where do they direct their passion? Whom do they support? They’ve acquired the soccer bug, so they can’t just ignore the World Cup.
Televisions ads have captured the cultural moment. One ad features people of different nationalities sitting in cars explaining why you should back their team. The German brags about giving us the frankfurter, the Icelandic woman implores help because the country is too small to complete a Mexican wave. The Belgian claims the world’s largest electronic dance festival. The ad reps got that one wrong. It’s the beer. Duh. Or if you’re on the wagon, the chocolate.
The message? Jump on the bandwagon. It’s a Volkswagen plug.
But how, and for whom do you cheer for, if you are serious about getting your World Cup groove on? Here’s a guide for some 10 tried and true ways for Americans to cope with being left out.
We are a nation of immigrants, after all. So many people go for the “land of my fathers” approach, which is handy for millions of hyphenated Americans who get to hedge their bets. Do a DNA test and you can claim just about any country you like. For the more traditional, consider this: The most recent U.S. Census Bureau data available on the subject of ancestry comes via the 2015 American Community Survey. Based on that data, here are the five nations, in order, from which most Arizonans claim heritage: Germany, England, France, Poland, and Sweden.
2. Pick a winner.
One way to do this is to follow the official world ranking list put out by FIFA, the governing body of international soccer. On this method, you’ll be favoring Brazil, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, and Argentina. But the rankings are notoriously hinkey, based on some algorithm of historical performance that nobody understands and very few agree with.
3. Hedge your bets.
So if you want to pick a winner but don’t trust FIFA (and why would you, considering the large number of corruption indictments that have been unsealed since the last tournament), you might want to follow the more scientific and marginally more trustworthy source: Las Vegas. The bookies in Sin City right now have Brazil the favorite at 4-to-1, Germany at 5-to-1, Spain at 6-to-1, France at 13-to-2, and Argentina at 9-to-1.
4. The enemy or your enemy.
Every country has a historical antagonist. Every national soccer team has a hated rival that wronged them in the past. So you can always go with whichever team is playing that villain. Right now, much of the world wants the hosts from Russia to lose (we don't know where President Trump stands on this, though,) But this approach can get prickly. Former U.S. front man Landon Donovan found himself in a world of online hurt after declaring allegiance to Mexico. His theory was that it’s good for the U.S. if teams from the same conference do well. Many former teammates beat him up over that, reminding him of some bruising encounters with their Mexican rivals through the years. There are some funny self-effacing ads running during the games poking fun of the whole controversy. But if you can’t love, then there is plenty of room for you to be hater. It’s a big World Cup.
5. Pick a name.
This is how I bet with chronic failure on horses. If a steed has a cool name, that’s good enough. The same applies for soccer. Many of the national teams have wonderfully colorful nicknames. Australia is the Socceroos. Saudi Arabia flies as the Green Falcons. Egypt is the Pharaohs. Morocco fields the Lions of the Atlas. Nigeria has the Super Eagles. Denmark is the Danish Dynamite. Belgium and South Korea share dibs to the title the Red Devils. For what it’s worth, some other teams gave great names too. Mauritius, for instance, are Les Dodos. They have never been to a World Cup and are not at this one. Makes one wonder if the name preceded results or the other way round. Dodo or the egg?
6. Everybody loves an underdog.
The World Cup, let’s face it, tends to churn out the same old powerhouses. Spain was the last team to lift the trophy for the first time, in 2010. Before that, it was France in 1998. So if you’re looking for a newbie with a real shot at it, then Belgium or Portugal is your team. If you just like the romance of a little team upsetting the world cup order, nobody right now is more popular than Iceland. The country sent 10 percent of its population to European national championships two years ago, knocking out England, and celebrating just about everything with this really cool Viking-inspired Iceland Thunderclap. YouTube it. It’s cool. You’ll see. This year’s debutante is Panama, which pipped the U.S. to qualification. Egypt is another fan favorite with their attacking style and all-round nice-guy superstar in the making, Mohamed Salah. When he scored the goal that put Egypt into its first tournament since 1990, the government offered him a luxury condo. He told them to donate it to poor kids.
7. A pretty face or a hot bod
Only you can follow your own counsel on this one. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and many a soccer spectator enjoys the sport for the physical beauty of men in their prime doing athletic things. I’m not really the best judge of this, but on this metric, it’s pretty hard to ignore Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal. And you’ll get plenty of chances to ogle him, because he’s more than happy to reveal his perfect abs when he scores, and he scores a lot. Miami.com ranked the top 10, leading with “We have to talk about these men,” and thanking its “World Cup Hotties.” Based on their eye, you are being advised to go with Portugal, Switzerland, Mexico, England, or Egypt.
8. Favorite color.
Many a team has been picked by favorite color. I also pick horses this way, with the same disastrous results as going by the name, but this is as good a system as any.
Red: Russia, Egypt, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Denmark, Costa Rica, Serbia, Belgium, Panama, Poland
Green: Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Mexico
Sky Blue: Uruguay
White: Iran, Switzerland, Germany, South Korea, Tunisia, England, Senegal
Blue: France, Iceland, Japan
Yellow: Australia, Brazil, Sweden, Colombia
White/Red: Peru, Croatia
Sky Blue/White: Argentina
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Bear in mind, all these teams play in two sets of uniforms, and color doesn’t always equate to an aesthetically pleasing design. You can check all of them out at this site, where British journalists ranked all 64 jerseys.
One of the great things about the World Cup is the chance to see such a variety of soccer styles. Often these are inseparable from national psyches. That’s definitely the case for Russia, who reveres goalkeepers. Something to do with fending off invasions. It’s no coincidence the official poster is of a Soviet-era goalkeeper. So if you empathize with the last line of defense, Russia is your team, although the world’s best goalkeepers play elsewhere these days. Or maybe you prefer rugged defending? Australia. Blistering counter-attacks? Mexico perfected this against the defending champion. Short, crisp mesmerizing passing? Spain. Silky passing and dribbling moves? France or Belgium. Teamwork? Iceland, if you like the “we’re all in this Viking boat together” version, or Germany if you prefer the well-oiled machine edition. The beautiful game of the maestros? Brazil with its tricks, flicks and sheer magic with a ball. Or Argentina with the feet of Lionel Messi.
10. Star power.
Another great attraction of the World Cup is the glittering array of superstars on display. Some of these guys become larger than life in their countries and even globally. You’ll recognize some of the names. Currently Ronaldo is officially voted the world’s best player. He’s with Portugal. For years, Messi has been his sole competition. He’s with Argentina. Those two have traded first and second spots seven years on the trot. After that, the bookies consider Salah of Egypt, Neymar of Brazil, and Kevin DeBruyne of Belgium most likely to dethrone the dynamic duo. The British Museum put Salah’s boots in the Egyptian room, along with all the Pharaohs and sphinxes, and nobody else can claim that honor.
Happy viewing. And if you’re still not over the non-appearance of the U.S. team, don’t fret. The 2026 tournament will be hosted jointly by Canada, Mexico, and the United States.