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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

With the World Cup Approaching, Whom Do We Root For?

Posted by on Wed, Jun 6, 2018 at 4:29 PM

With the start of the World Cup less than two weeks away, the marketing machines of FIFA, Nike, Adidas, and presumably every other worldwide brand are in overdrive, hoping to cash in on the billions of eyeballs trained on thirty-two national soccer teams over the course of a few summer weeks.


Commercials featuring Lionel Messi, Neymar, David Silva, and scads of other international superstars pipe through our televisions and computer screens, reminding us that the greatest tournament in sports is nigh. Radio spots and internet ads pop up without prompting, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo’s chiseled face, Zlatan Ibrahimović’s trademark attitude, and Gareth Bale’s man bun.


It’s a party that everyone on earth is invited to, especially if your national team has a seat at the table.


So where does that leave us Yanks?


Thanks to a catastrophic blunder by our men’s national team in an October elimination loss against Trinidad and Tobago, the United States will not be competing in the World Cup for the first time in more than three decades. (If nothing else, this should simply serve as a reminder that the greatest soccer players in America sometimes wear braids.) Without a team representing us at the World Cup, whom do we root for?


If you ask 23andme.com—which is currently benefiting from a marketing godsend in the form of the U.S. team’s failure to qualify—this summer is all about rooting for our roots. In other words, go online, grab the jersey of wherever your grandparents or their parents before them emigrated from, do some research on some players whose names you will want to pronounce correctly, and get to cheering.


As a Venutolo-Mantovani, this is easy enough for me.


Forza Azzurri! Sempre Italia! Andiamo ragazzi!


Thanks to the United States’ perpetually woeful soccer on the world stage, I've always been a fan of the Italian team, the Azzurri. Since I was a boy watching Roberto and Dino Baggio, Salvatore Schillaci, Gianfrano Zola, Alessandro Del Piero, and a young man cheering on Christian Vieri, Gigi Buffon, Marco Materazzi, and so many others, the Italians have been my go-to squad, once the Americans were inevitably bounced from tournament contention.


One of the planet’s premier and most successful soccer foundations, the Italians are—alongside Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and France—a mainstay in World Cup play. Without question, the Azzurri are one of the few teams you can count on to be there every fourth summer.


The problem is, for the first time in half a century and the second time in history, Italy did not qualify for the World Cup.


In a result even more stupefying than the American’s effort, Italy’s six-decade presence as a World Cup mainstay came to end after a November qualifying-round loss to Sweden.


No Americans. No Italians.


Who then to cheer?


In the heavyweight category, I don’t like Germany’s calculating style of play, and I feel Spain might be slightly overrated. France is mainland Europe’s version of England, meaning they will most likely underachieve, commit costly mistakes, and see themselves out early.


Beyond having arguably the world’s greatest player, Portugal might not possess the depth to make a deep tournament run, and much like the vaunted Italians, the Dutch are shockingly absent from this year’s tournament.


Somewhere in the middle, you have teams that are fun to root for and who might give you hope, but who will inevitably fall to a stronger, deeper side. Teams like Sweden, Belgium, Uruguay, Croatia, Iceland, and Nigeria will provide some early-tournament excitement, with several emerging from group play only to be knocked out by one of the superior teams mentioned above.


Then, of course, there are the teams that have little shot to emerge from their groups, whose mere bids for World Cup play are reason enough for national celebration. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Panama, Iran, Morocco, and Costa Rica will likely be done in by the conclusion of their second games.


So who does that leave?


For me, Argentina. A side whose style of play blends the flair and creativity of the Brazilians with the one-on-one, technically proficient mentality of Spain. Of course, their fielding of the world’s other greatest player, Lionel Messi, no doubt helps their cause.


A team that counts two World Cup victories and were runners-up in 2014’s iteration of the tournament, La Albiceleste (or “The White and Sky-Blue”) are as poised as any team on earth to make a run for this year’s final. They’ll face stiff group competition from both an Icelandic side that became international darlings during 2016’s Euro Cup and a ferociously fast Nigerian team, though their toughest test will likely be the Croatians, who at 40–1 odds sit just outside the top-ten favorites heading into this tournament.


So while I could settle for a more fun, less likely team, hoping for a Cinderella run, a miracle summer, I think I’ll just stick with what might work best. Because if I can’t root for the squad of my nation or the team of my roots, I might as well cheer for the team that I think is most likely to win the whole damn thing.


Which would be an entirely new feeling for someone who is used to rooting for the Americans.

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