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An Extremely Objective Guide to Who to Root for During the World Cup

We have entered the Sporting Dead Zone, as the NBA Finals passed with a sweet sigh of lopsided relief and all we are left with is the pleasant Sunday afternoon snooze that is regular season baseball. But wait! Just coming into view on the horizon is the World Cup, the quadrennial festival of The World’s Game that sees the globe’s very best in soccer talent compete for one of the greatest prizes in sports so that we don’t have to settle in for the Orioles-Royals game.

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The 2018 edition kicks off this Thursday, June 14, as host nation Russia faces off against Saudi Arabia in the battle of the oil-soaked champions of human rights. Now, those Russian time zones present an issue, as most games start before noon Eastern Time, sometimes as early as 6 a.m. And Real Cupheads know that this year will not feature the strongest field of teams in World Cup history: Italy, the Netherlands, Ghana, Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, and yes, the United States all failed to qualify. But just because the Stars and Stripes couldn’t make it out of North America—the world’s easiest region to qualify from by some distance—doesn’t mean there’s no reason to watch and no one to root for.

In fact, there are certain teams you should definitely root for, because science and facts. The favorites this year are the favorites every year: Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and France. Ignore all of them, except France. And Argentina. OK, fine, just read on, and learn the objective truth about eight squads that deserve your allegiance over the next month.


Iceland

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The tiny island nation’s soccer outfit has been the subject of fawning profiles and a cult following for a couple of years now, and for good reason. They produced a sum-greater-than-the-parts performance at the European championships in 2016, thanks in no small part to the atmosphere created by their rabid traveling fanbase. That now-famous chant you heard at Minnesota Vikings games last season? They got that from Iceland, where it has been a Haka-style war dance since the real Vikings were pillaging.

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In a notable achievement, Iceland knocked England out of Euro 2016, marking the second time that week those Brits left Europe after Brexit.

This will be Iceland’s first World Cup in the nation’s history, and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of things from The Mountain for that. In terms of personnel, look out for Gylfi Sigurdsson, the classy central midfielder who has long plied his trade in England’s Premier League. They kick off against mighty Argentina on Saturday at 9 a.m. Eastern.


Nigeria

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Africa’s largest economy also has the consensus-best jerseys in the tournament. They are hot fire. They have supplemented that with some dynamite airport style. They’re on the way to their sixth appearance on the biggest stage, and they’re the only of the traditional African powerhouses to qualify. They’ll boast a team full of young attacking talent, including Alex Iwobi of Arsenal, Victor Moses of Chelsea, and the strikers Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa. Add in the grizzled veteran Mikel John Obi in central midfield—who legally changed his name in a fascinating response to a clerical error by the Nigerian Football Association—and you’ve got a pretty formidable side.

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Nigeria was thrown into Group D with Iceland and Argentina. They’ll start off against Croatia, another solid squad rounding out one of the tournament’s most exciting groups, at 3 p.m. Saturday.


Belgium

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Belgium’s Michy Batshuayi celebrates in style after scoring at Euro 2016.

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The hipster pick to win the tournament, this midsize Western European nation is currently enjoying a golden generation of soccer talent. Kevin De Bruyne was the runner-up for player of the season in the Barclays Premier League this past campaign, while Eden Hazard has been a world-class player—most of the time—for a number of years. The team is packed from back to front with bright young things, many of whom are the children of immigrants and who hail from both Belgium’s Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities. Success will bridge political and cultural divides as the country comes together to cheer the national team. You know, like the U.S. team could’ve done.

They’ll kick off against Panama, the America-slayer, at 11 a.m. Monday in one of the tournament’s easiest groups.


Mexico

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Giovani Dos Santos, Mexico’s half-Brazilian star in attack.

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The relationship with our southern neighbors is not at an all-time high, but they are by far North America’s most formidable representation now that the U.S. somehow lost out to Panama. Also, they have great away jerseys. The Mexicans boast an extraordinary record in World Cup play: they have made it to the round of 16 in the last five tournaments—something only Germany and Brazil can also claim to have achieved. Except those two have racked up three World Cup trophies between them in that period, while Mexico has crashed out in the Sweet Sixteen every single time.

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This is a chance at redemption, and El Tri has the exciting young talent and inventive coach to do the business. Plus, you’ll be able to tell which guy at the bar is against more than just illegal immigration” when he gets mad at you for cheering them on. Mexico begins its run against the giants of Germany on Sunday at 11 a.m.


Portugal

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The Iberians are the reigning champions of Europe, and they can thank one man for that. Cristiano Ronaldo is an attacking powerhouse, all rippling strength and explosive speed and deadly goalscoring. The winner of four of the last five Ballon d’Or trophies—for the world’s greatest player—Ronaldo is two-footed and one of the most deadly headers of the ball the game has ever seen. He is a supremely gifted athlete and perhaps the hardest-working player in the game—a LeBron James-type generational talent. It is worth rooting for Portugal if only to see him cement his legacy as one of the greatest to ever step on a field. Plus, it’s an event in itself when he tears his shirt off.

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Portugal kicks off against Spain in one of the games of the tournament on Friday at 2 p.m.


Argentina

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You can’t have one without the other. While Argentina has a few more potent attacking options to call on than Portugal—Sergio Aguero and Paulo Dybala come to mind—there is only one player with whom the whole world knows this team lives and dies. If Ronaldo is LeBron, Lionel Messi is Wayne Gretzky: the natural, the chosen one.

A five-time world player of the year, Messi still looks like a kid on the playground as he tears apart the world’s greatest defenses, game after game and year after year, with the kind of instinctive movement and skill that simply cannot be taught. His touch is magnetic. Once he gets hold of it, the ball seems to be attached to his foot on a string. He can see or feel everything moving around him, all at once, and where it will be next. He is one of the great all-time dribblers, and he simply never stops scoring goals—and creating them for teammates.

He is soccer’s Great One, among the most decorated players ever, but he has never won a major tournament with Argentina. (Of the 29 cup finals he’s reached with Barcelona, he has won 21 and scored 28 goals with 14 assists.) He dragged them to the final last time around at Brazil 2014, only to lose out to the eternally dominant Germans. He, too, has a chance at redemption and a legacy-making achievement. That’s worth rooting for as Argentina starts things off against Iceland on Saturday.

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Egypt

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Mohamed Salah in a training session last week.

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The North Africans head into the tournament with their talismanic star’s participation in some doubt, after Mohamed Salah was hauled off with injury in the Champions League Final, the world’s most prestigious cup competition, on Memorial Day Weekend. He was player of the year in the Barclay’s Premier League last year, scoring 32 goals in 36 games and reaching the aforementioned final with Liverpool. He is a clinical goalscorer, a dangerous dribbler, and has electric pace on the counter attack. He’s simply the kind of talent that no African team has been able to call on for some time, since at least the last match where Samuel Eto’o pulled on a jersey for Cameroon.

It appears that Salah will probably be fit to participate, but it’s going down to the wire. With him, Egypt could be one of the most exciting teams in the tournament. Without him, they’ll be forgettable. Let’s bank on his taking the field when Egypt faces up to Uruguay at 8 a.m. Friday. No team’s fortunes, except maybe Portugal, are more dependent on one man.


France

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The French are shockingly talented, and up there with Brazil, Spain, and Germany among the clear favorites to win the big prize. But unlike the others, their World Cup history is a topsy-turvy tale of spectacular achievement and enigmatic Frenchness. This year, they can call on crazy talent going forward that includes Antoine Griezemann and Kylian Mbappe. Behind them, Paul Pogba is one of the world’s premier central midfielders—all athletic dynamism and sublime skill. In an intriguing subplot, star striker Karim Benzema will miss out after being implicated in a teammate-sex-tape-blackmail scandal.

Like Belgium, France are an example of how the nationalist anti-immigrant fervor sweeping Europe at the moment seems to subside when the best damn players your country has to offer can just as likely trace their roots to North Africa as Bordeaux. They are a testament to the unifying power of sport, and will start their champions-or-bust campaign against Australia at 6 a.m. Saturday.


Well, there you have it—with a brief disclaimer: these are the teams you should root for, not bet on. Always bet on Germany.


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