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COLUMN: Who to root for in the 2018 World Cup



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Midfielder Aron Gunnarsson of Iceland celebrates after a match against England in the 2016 European Championships at Allianz Riviera Stadium in Nice, France. Iceland is the smallest country to qualify for a World Cup.  Photo courtesy of Tribune News Service Buy Photos

The United States failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup, but that doesn’t mean you should miss out on the world’s biggest sporting event. 

This summer, in the absence of the stars and stripes, I’m jumping ship. Allow me to be your 2018 Russia World Cup team guide. 

Let’s start with the clear favorites:

Brazil: If you root for the Yankees, Warriors or Patriots, Brazil is probably your team. Neymar da Silva Santos is obviously the centerpiece of this squad, but F.C. Barcelona stars José Paulo Bezerra Maciel Júnior, better known as "Paulinho," and Philippe Coutinho make this team incredibly entertaining to watch. Not only is Brazil stacked, but they have a chip on their shoulder. At the last World Cup, in front of a home crowd, Brazil got walloped 7-1 by Germany in the semi-finals. This year, the only way to redeem themselves from their embarrassing finish in 2014, is to bring the cup home. 

Belgium: This team is loaded with some of the Premier League’s best goal scorers, but can struggle playing well as a unit. Belgium is an easy team to get behind. Not only do they produce world class soccer talent, but they boast some of the finest beer, a necessity for any World Cup watch party. 

Germany: Please don’t root for Germany. I mean, you can if you like a sure thing, but how boring is that? The reigning champs are favorites to win again in Russia. They have a boatload of talent and a long history of success. If you’re thinking of rooting for Germany, consider Spain instead. They are equally talented but play a much more exciting version of the game...next!

The Dark horses: 

Argentina: Why root for Argentina? Lionel Messi. He alone gives Argentina a shot at winning it all. Some describe Messi’s play as poetry in motion, but poetry has never made me audibly gasp in amazement. Sorry, Robert Frost. For one of the most accomplished players in the history of soccer, Messi has never won a single national team title. 2018 will be his chance to cement his legacy as one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Mexico: Despite being the USA’s biggest soccer rival, Mexico is who I’ll be rooting for. The Mexican national team is the most American team in the tournament. Roughly 11 percent of the U.S. population is of Mexican decent. El Tri — as the Mexican fans refer to their team, because of the three-colored-flag — is led by veteran striker Javier “Chicarito” Hernández. They received arguably the hardest grouping — Group F — with favorite Germany, Sweden and South Korea. If they can advance from the first stage, don’t be surprised to see these underdogs go far. 

England: The English invented soccer in the mid 19th century, but more recently have been the laughingstock of the sport. All 23 players on England’s roster play in the Premier League, so if you’re a casual soccer fan you’ll recognize a lot of names. Can they win it all? Probably not, but striker Harry Kane is a threat to score anytime his foot is on the ball. 

Long shot teams:

Nigeria: What Nigeria lacks in skill they make up for in fashion. The Super Eagles without a doubt have the coolest kits in the entire tournament. Africa’s best team has several formidable attacking players, but pays little attention to defense. If you’d rather watch the runway than the pitch, Nigeria is your team.

Iceland: Iceland is the smallest country to ever make the World Cup. With a population of 337,780, Iceland is roughly the same size as Pittsburgh. Iceland is known for their viking war chant that when performed by an entire stadium can leave shivers down your spine. This squad has upset teams like England and Croatia in the past, but don’t expect them to advance far this summer.

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