Today the World Cup of 2018 begins. Are you hyped yet?! Probably not. The coverage and marketing in the US has been conspicuously terrible leading up to the world's greatest, most-viewed sporting event. We in the States have seen more highlights of JR Smith dribbling a basketball up his own ass than we have World Cup replays, punditry, or anything truly hypeworthy in the past few weeks.
Some of this has to do with the shameful exit the USMNT made from qualifying just a few months ago, and some of this has to do with the purchase of the World Cup coverage by Fox Sports (yuck) over ESPN, but still some of it also has to do with the fact that, without a home team to root for, American fans, many of them just beginning to dip their toes into the world of football, are at a loss without a team to cheer on. Many ask: how do we watch a sport when we don't know who to root for?
Well, fear not, there are still so many reasons to follow along with this year's World Cup, even if you don't have a horse in the race. Here are just a few.
Because Messi and Ronaldo.
Here's some low-hanging fruit: if you haven't been under a rock the past decade, you've heard of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo—global celebrities, philanthropists, and players who have transformed the landscape of modern football, CR7 and Messi are a story unto themselves—players who have achieved everything imaginable at the club level for giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, but who are still one belt-notch away from being marked as the best to ever touch a football. That's right, they are that close. If Ronaldo and Portugal repeat their winning performance at the 2016 Euro Cup (1-0 over France), or if Messi and Argentina grit out just one more victory than the 2014 World Cup (1-0 to Germany), then either player can rest easy as the most decorated footballer in world history.
Imagine, for the sake of comparison, Lebron playing Michael Jordan at his zenith, Tom Brady facing off against a thriving Steve Young or Joe Namath, or any other lackluster matchup that would still do no justice to the epicness of this duo.
We are truly living in an historic moment of football, one where two players exist so decorated, so successful, so lethal, so unalike in style yet so intertwined in their comparable careers, that only a victory in this World Cup could truly separate one from the other in the history books. Will one rise above the other in this glorious tournament and cement himself at the top forever? Nah, Germany will probably win. But still, watch.
Look for these guys to meet in the quarter-finals
Have you heard the one about the Tunisian National Team? Most recently, the veteran keeper has made a habit of taking an injury break once the sun sets during international friendly matchups. That timeout allows his Ramadan-observing teammates to break their day-long fasts and grab some food on the sideline. Seriously, the man lays down on his goal line, holds his chest, and brings the game to halt when the sun drops behind the stadium walls so his teammates can eat.
Nom nom nom. Tunisia opens against England Monday, 6/18. Ramadan ends 6/14
What about Egypt and Mohamed Salah? Mo is the English Premier League's Player of the Year after a record-breaking 2017-2018 campaign, and a UEFA Champions League Finalist who, injured, walked off in the 30th minute of the game, only to return three weeks later on a broken shoulder to try and carry his team out of a fun looking Group A alongside hosts Russia. If that wasn't enough, did you know that Mo has been gifted a piece of land in Mecca for his year of football? No joke. According to Egypt Today, he has been hailed as a great ambassador for the Islam world. To quote Fahd al-Ruqi, vice president of the Municipal Council of the Holy City of Mecca, due to "his ethics and high values... he is the best representative for spreading the message of tolerant Islam in Britain, and he is also a role model and ambassador to Muslims in Britain, and all Mecca citizens cherish and appreciate every role model in the Islamic world."
Wake up and watch Mo and Company take on Uruguay Friday morning
There's also Iceland. That group of super-hunks everyone was swooning over during Euro 2016, who also happen to be the smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup tournament, a remarkable achievement for Strákarnir okkar (Our Boys), representatives of a country with a population of approximately 335,000. The previous smallest country to have reached the finals was Trinidad & Tobago in 2006 (1.3 million people) followed by Northern Ireland (1.85 million), Slovenia (2.08 million), Jamaica (2.89 million) and Wales (3.1 million).
Gulp. Iceland plays Argentina Saturday morning.
Throw Panama in the mix, who qualified, controversially at best, at the last damned second to hoist the US from entry and make their first World Cup ever, and you have a host of stories before the damn thing has even started.
Oh, and do you like Spain? Well, they just fired their Head Coach two days ago. So there's that.
Despite the fact that every citizen in the country drives around with a dashcam on their car because people are always trying to pull some nonsense, the outside world still has very little access into the workings behind the old Iron Shawl. Not as steely of late, but still dictated by a stoic bear of a leader in Vladimir Putin, this will be the second time in a decade where the international eye has been cast on the Russian Federation. Then, it was the 2014 Sochi Olympics, noted as the most expensive Olympics ever held, with $50 Billion poured into stadium construction, transportation, player development and tourist accommodations. A notoriously competitive country, don't think for a moment that Russia are taking this tournament lightly. If they don't perform up to par, well, keep your eye on the streets, heads could roll.
And here's a fun tidbit: A beer company wants Mexican fans at the upcoming World Cup in Russia to chant “Putin” instead of the gay slur "puto." Russia’s ambassador to Mexico is not amused.
He wants this trophy bad. Russia opens against Saudi Arabia today.
Because you are not a Nationalist pig.
Sure, we don't get to see the old red, white and blue (France anyone?) chasing around on the field in haphazard fashion. We don't get to hear Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas criticize every USMNT player game in and game out as they reminisce on the "glory days" (when were those, again?). We don't get to see our President say something stupid about the coach, or watch as a player takes a knee on the global stage during the National Anthem (that would be awesome), but we are also, now, free of those tethers—free to watch the game unadulterated, to root for whichever team meets your fancy, whether it's the exquisite movement of the German side, the fluidity of Brazil, or simply because you like the guy with the big hair on Belgium who elbows everyone in the face as he goes up for a header. You are free to watch as the cameraman (and they always do this) pans to the best looking women in the stadium during tense moments, or to follow along with any other story that suits your mood.
Perhaps, amidst this forced neutrality, Americans can open up to the rest of the world, free to cast a critical eye on any and every event, while still keeping their feet in their mouths with a sense of humility over our own team not being a part of this Cup run. What an exercise for this nation's citizens, are you up for it?