Let’s start with the bad news.
As you may have heard, the United States will not be participating in next year’s World Cup, after a shockingly bad qualifying campaign ended in failure Tuesday night.
The good news? Even a US-free World Cup is full of interesting storylines, and although the Stars and Stripes will be absent from next year’s competition in Russia — it is still a tournament worth viewing.
So, if you’re one of those every-four-years soccer fans, there’s no reason to change up the routine. Here are six other countries with World Cup soccer teams worth rooting for in 2018.
The tiny, frigid country will be the darlings of next year’s tournament, considering they are the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup. With a population of just over 330,000, the nation as a whole is smaller than Wichita, Kan. Consider this incredible statistic: some estimates say about 0.1% of all Icelandic men between the ages 22-34 are members of the World Cup team.
If that’s not enough reason, there’s also the super cool “Viking War” chant ritual the team performs with its fans, and the supreme talents of playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson. They’re going to be fun – if nothing else.
One of the true delights of World Cup qualifying is seeing the raw emotions of players and supporters when their respective nation officially punches its ticket. And this week, when emotions were high in World Cup qualifying games across the world, there was no scene more heartwarming than that in Egypt.
After Liverpool winger Mohamed Salah scored a last-second goal to seal Egypt’s qualification, fans mobbed the field in celebration. Commentators cried on air. Grandfathers wept in living rooms. Players rejoiced.
If these were the emotions triggered by qualification for the tournament, imagine if the country succeeds in Russia.
3. South Korea
Meet Son Heung-min, the lightning-fast South Korean goal scorer who is likely the one of the best player in the country’s history. Known for his elaborately fun goal celebrations, Son’s personality should be enough for you to root for South Korea’s success, but there’s something else.
All Koreans are mandated by law to participate in 21 months of military service by the age of 28. This has loomed over Son’s entire career, considering he could have to return to South Korea unless given an exemption. Previously, South Korean soccer superstars have earned military exemptions by performing well in tournaments like the Olympics, World Cup, or Asian Games, but Son has had no such luck so far in earning the exemption he desperately desires.
The World Cup may be one of his final shots, and although South Korea isn’t a major favorite, it’s a storyline worth remembering.
Like the United States, Argentina also had a must-win game Tuesday night in order to qualify for the World Cup. But unlike the United States, Argentina has Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest soccer player to grace the Earth. With a nervous country on his back, Messi scored three goals to punch the Argentines’ ticket to Russia.
Messi is 30 years old, and the 2018 World Cup is likely the last major international competition he will compete in. He’s well aware that lifting the trophy would seal his legacy. Messi has a complicated and sometimes fraught relationship with his home country, even abruptly retiring from the national team last year. Regardless, the little magician is now back, and currently scoring goals at a rate only normal for someone of his prowess. That, combined with new Argentine talents like Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi, and Erik Lamela, could mean this is Messi’s best and last shot at World Cup immortality.
One more thing: this will likely be the final international stage for Messi’s decades-long rivalry with another great, Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal. Savor every second.
The hardest thing for any team in soccer is to do is score a goal. And at next year’s World Cup, the Iran national team might be the hardest team upon which to score.
In their World Cup qualifiers, Iran set a record with 12 consecutive clean sheets, a term used when a team holds their opponent to zero goals.
A defensive style of play can be somewhat boring to watch, but it’s also strategically genius. It’s a bend-but-don’t-break mentality that seeks to frustrate opponents of higher quality, and often works. Last World Cup, Iran almost beat Messi, until he went out and did this in the final moments. This time, Iran is back, and could be poised for a historic upset.
There’s a saying in soccer, first uttered by English legend Gary Lineker: “[Soccer] is a simple game. Twenty two men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and in the end, the Germans always win.”
It’s pretty true. Not only are the Germans the defending World Cup champions, but they’ve won most major competitions they’ve entered in the last two years. If you can’t root for the United States, why not back the favorites? Plus, who doesn’t love schnitzel?Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.