Not that most Americans ever get all that passionate about soccer but, once every four years, we get at least a passing interest in a sport where scoreless ties are common. Usually, that’s because our national team is involved, and it’s the only time we as Americans ever get to feel like the underdog. But, this year, the Yanks failed to qualify for the World Cup, which means that other than rooting for whoever Germany is playing against, it’s hard to pick a team.
But if you’re looking for a bandwagon to jump on in the 2018 World Cup, there are some great contenders. We chatted with Miami-based soccer journalist Neal Blackmon who tipped us to the teams who, if nothing else, with be fun to root for in this World Cup — some of which may actually have a chance.
1. The closest thing to rooting for America: Mexico
Mexico is basically the United States’ second team, who just happens to play better soccer. The team plays more games on American soil than it does at home, and El Tri even has its own US fan group, Pancho Villa’s Army. The jersey is the best-selling national jersey in most states and, no matter where you are, you’ll have no shortage of passionate Mexican fans cheering along with you. After an impressive win over defending champ Germany last week, this looks to be the best Mexican squad in decades, and though the country is traditionally strong at soccer, they haven’t even reached the quarterfinals since 1986.
2. The little guy who can play with the big boys: Iceland
It seems Iceland felt comfortable leaving its country in the hands of millions of American tourists this summer, since, judging by the massive crowds, most of the 334,000 residents of this country are in Russia. The team that shocked England in 2014 and made the quarterfinals of the 2016 UEFA European Championship are a surprise contender this year after an early draw against powerhouse Argentina. As the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup, they’re a little guy with a real chance, mostly thanks to Gylfi Sigurdsson, a midfielder from the English Premier League who is among the best in the world at bending in free kicks. If the Vikings make a run, he’ll be the reason why.
3. Where the fans are as fun as the team: Senegal
“Senegal’s fans are basically the soccer equivalent of ‘we may lose the game but we never lose a party,’” says Blackmon. And though the brightly-colored contingent of Senegalese supporters are always fun to watch, the team itself isn’t half bad. They’ve got a midfield full of EPL and Serie-A players, plus a legitimate global superstar in Sadio Mané. They traipsed through African qualifying without a loss and trounced a solid Poland squad to open the tournament. African teams traditionally don’t dominate on this stage, but this just might be the year we see one make a run. That, and manager Aliou Cisse is the youngest in the World Cup at 40 years old, and easily the most entertaining.
4. The team nobody gave a shot: Japan
Japan was considered by many to be the worst team in the tournament this year, ranked 61st in the world and fresh off firing Vahid Halilhodzic as coach in April. So, how did the UMBC of the World Cup respond? Just by beating soccer perennial Colombia to open up play. Japan’s also worth rooting for off the pitch as many players have families who were severely impacted by the massive earthquake in Osaka earlier this month. But it’s not all underdog stories here. The team has some real talent with a handful of EPL players on the squad including Leicester City’s Shinji Okazaki. A man familiar with winning championships on a team nobody gave a chance.
5. The great team that’s still not hateable: Portugal
If you’re going to pick a bandwagon to jump on, it’s Portugal. One of 2018’s big favorites is hailing from a country that’s lived in the shadow of Spain pretty much since colonial exploration went out of style. But this might be their shot to finally climb out. Portugal won the 2016 EURO and is currently ranked fourth in the world, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best players to ever put on cleats. Also on the roster: Turkish star Pepe and MLS #1 overall pick João Moutinho. The team that’s been a perennial World Cup disappointment might finally give their homeland something to cheer about in 2018. Or, at the very least, have something to hold over their neighbors to the east.
6. The team with rough roots that plays as tough as anyone: Iran
Some might find it tough to root for a country who only recently stopped stoning people to death, but if you put politics aside, it’s hard not to appreciate this upstart squad from Southwest Asia. Here’s a team that doesn’t even have its own field to practice on, has no training camps, and has only limited access to the best equipment due to economic sanctions. Nike even dropped them shortly before the World Cup. Despite all that, the Iranians have fielded one of the best defensive teams in the world, only giving up a goal in one qualifying match, shutting out Morocco in its opener, and fighting Spain tough in a 1-0 defeat. Iran is now an upset of Portugal away from reaching the knockout round. With no budget, no stars, and cut-rate gear, Iran is the ultimate rag-tag underdog punching way above its weight. Oh, and the internet is collectively thirsting over how attractive they all are, so if you couldn’t care less about the sport, there’s that.
7. The team with the player who keeps it interesting, even if you don’t like soccer: Spain
Spain as a team isn’t anything special to get behind — one of many very-good squads who might get hot and win it all. But the longer Diego Costa is in this tournament, the more entertaining it’ll be. Some might call him “dirty,” or “crazy,” or “an undiagnosed sociopath,” but in terms of pure entertainment, how can you not root for a striker who once bit an opposing player and threatened to leave his first pro team because the city didn’t have a beach? He has regular on-field meltdowns against opposing players and picks up yellow cards almost as often as he scores goals. Which he does frequently. He’s like Albert Belle meets Ron Artest in a soccer uniform, i.e. a guy you wouldn’t ever want to play against but who is endlessly entertaining. And the longer he’s in the World Cup, the better the chances that he does something absolutely batshit insane.