It’s been nearly eight months since my home team failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but the bitter taste left in American mouths after their team dropped a decisive 2-1 defeat to Trinidad & Tobago remains nonetheless. Mexico later failed to bail out the USMNT, losing to Honduras 3-2 and making that fateful October an utter catastrophe for the Stars and Stripes.
This is still all too tragic, because it comes four years after the US impressively clawed their way out of a tough group stage — made up of Germany, Portugal and Ghana — making it the second straight instance they made it to the knockout round. But the seeming renaissance of American soccer has been abruptly halted, and we now must watch on our couches as other teams experience the euphoria that is the World Cup.
C’est la vie. It’s no way to live life sulking while watching other fans proudly wave their flags and chant their songs in jubilation. The only option is to adopt a new team for the next month and a half, and I believe there is a great selection of countries whom I’d be delighted to root for.
Below are five teams any fan should feel great about cheering for in the coming World Cup…
One simple reason making Iceland a fantastic candidate is the fact they’re the smallest-ever country to qualify for the World Cup. It’s a puny country that’s had little to no history of football until the past decade. Iceland might come across as an underdog story, but their recent, unlikely excursion into the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 — defeating Portugal, Austria and England — put their name on the football map.
Since then, Iceland have established themselves as a team that belongs. The country is ranked 22nd in FIFA’s world rankings, marking an impressive ascension. It’s come as a result of a local investment in the sport — Iceland built several huge indoor football facilities and made sure to pack them with experienced coaches in order to build a new era of local players.
Equally as important, though, is that Iceland are straight up out there. So are their fans. This isn’t news anymore, but their coach — Heimir Hallgrímsson — spends the other half of his life as a dentist. Aron Gunnarsson leads a band of bearded giant-killers with a “thunderclapping” fanbase behind them. Iceland’s odds to win the World Cup stand just at 250/1, but they’ve overcome long odds before.
There are a multitude of reasons to back the Super Eagles other than because they just unveiled what is undoubtedly the best kit in the World Cup field.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) June 1, 2018
Unlike Iceland, Nigeria do have somewhat of a significant football history. They ranked fifth in the FIFA world rankings as recently as 1994 and of the last seven World Cups, Nigeria have qualified for six.
Nigeria’s had just modest success since, winning the Africa Cup of Nations in that year and again in 2013, but they bring a strong team to Russia this year. They wrangled through a stalwart qualifying group — containing the current African champion Cameroon, Zambia and Algeria — and were the first team from the continent to qualify.
They’re led by the likes of Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi and Chelsea midfielder Victor Moses. Nigeria have had a lack of stability the past few decades with 20 different managers serving since 2000, but they might have finally found some in current coach Gernot Rohr. There are six Premier League players in the World Cup squad, so don’t be surprised if they advance to the knockout stage for the second straight time.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a World Cup team that relies more on a single player. One-man bands are not exactly the formula for a winning team, but Mohamed Salah proved he’s capable of bearing that load when he scored a team and league-leading 44 goals this past season for Liverpool. He carried the Reds all the way to the Champions League final, and he’ll have to overcome a shoulder injury and serve a similar role for Egypt.
Probably the only reason Egypt are even here is because of Salah, who scored five goals in six qualifying matches. The Pharaohs are historically great with seven Africa Cup of Nations titles, but they didn’t even qualify once from 2012-2015.
On one hand, this Egypt team — the first to make the World Cup since 1990 — isn’t one that inspires confidence. They’re ranked by FIFA as the 46th best team in the world. On the other, they employ one of the best players in the game right now and that can be enough to suffice if Salah plays to his capabilities in every match.
There’s something beautiful-if-infuriating about watching a deeply flawed team led by a football demigod. If that’s what you’re looking for, Egypt is your team.
Tied with Saudi Arabia, Panama has the longest odds to win the World Cup final at 1000 to 1, and that alone should rouse undying support. That, and the fact that this is the country’s first qualification ever. Their president declared a national holiday last October after it happened.
Panama are the prototypical “happy to be here” team which has virtually no chance to do any damage past the group stage, but the idea of that happening is intoxicating. Imagine a scenario in which Panama make a run similar to what Senegal did in 2002. That Senegal team was also making its first World Cup appearance, and they defeated France and Sweden on their way to making the quarterfinals.
Panama are in a group with Belgium and England, two countries with top-1o odds to win the whole thing. But it’s not like they don’t have experience. Forward Luis Tejada has scored 43 goals in his 105 appearances for the Central American country, and coach Hernan Dario Gomez has led two other teams — Colombia and Ecuador — into the World Cup before.
The qualification has brought profound pride and meaning to Panama as the nation has come to a standstill to watch these matches. A swift exit is the most likely outcome, but enjoy this delightful story while it lasts.
Of the five teams listed here, Croatia are the one with the best odds to win at 28/1. Whereas Iceland and Panama are unlikely to play more than three matches in Russia, Croatia represent the group’s best chance to make noise past the group stage.
Croatia are a quality football team, ranked 18th in the world with four World Cup appearances since 1998. They’re led by captain Luka Modric, a midfielder for Real Madrid heavily regarded as one of the best disseminators in the world. He’s backed up by great players like forward Mario Mandzukic and midfielder Ivan Rakitić.
While still an underdog when compared to countries like Brazil and Germany, Croatia are by no means worth snubbing. But their play in the qualifying games was suspect as they lost to Iceland and Turkey last year and fell to Peru earlier this year. Croatia have the pieces to make a run into the later rounds of the bracket — it’s just about individual players meshing together in a formidable way.