After years of qualifiers, months of hype, and weeks of roster speculation, the 2018 World Cup is set to finally kick off Thursday in Russia. Thirty-two teams from around the world will descend on Moscow, St. Petersburg, and nine other cities to compete for four years of global bragging rights.
The U.S. men's national team, after a spectacular flameout on a muggy night last October in Trinidad and Tobago, will not be among them. So if you're an American outlaw — or just another neutral fan marooned without a favorite team — who should you root for?
With so many options to potentially bandwagon, it can be exhausting to try to pick your new favorite squad. You could always do the tenuous "I'm 1/64th Danish, go Christian Eriksen!" reasoning, or the even more tired, "I studied abroad in Lisbon, so clearly Cristiano Ronaldo is the G.O.A.T." But you're better than that. So here are five smart choices, varying from tournament favorites to fun underdogs, to guide your quest.
1. The wild card: Egypt
One of the biggest questions heading into the World Cup centers on a 25-year-old forward and his shoulder: Will Mo Salah be healthy enough to lead Egypt in only its third World Cup ever? Liverpool's historically prolific scorer was taken out of the Champions League final — some say maliciously — by Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos, and the resulting shoulder injury will hang heavy on the Pharaohs. Even the most optimistic reports have Salah returning only in the team's second game, against Russia; it's also very likely that he'll be operating at less than 100 percent if he does return in time.
Egypt does have other weapons that it could use to stay afloat until its best player returns. Mohamed Elneny, of Arsenal fame, will help solidify the midfield, while Mahmoud Hassan "Trezeguet" and Ahmed "Kouka" Mahgoub can push the attack just enough to grind out some points. And if Salah does return with Egypt still in contention, the morale boost (along with his deadly left foot) could help the Egyptians make the knockout stages for the first time ever.
If they make it there, with a hopefully game-fit Salah, then Egypt can beat anyone ... especially likely first-round opponent Spain, whose captain will be none other than Sergio Ramos. You can't script a better story than that.
2. The powerhouse: Germany
If you want your fandom to adhere to the most American of values — winning at all costs — you can't do much better than backing the defending world champions. Spain and Brazil may be the consensus favorites, but that's only because Germany provides a boring kind of efficiency and talent that excites few fans. It should, though. This German squad might be better than the one that won back in 2014, and that side memorably stomped hosts Brazil 7-1 in one of the most surreal sporting moments of the millennium.
Real Madrid's Toni Kroos has blossomed into one of the best players in the world, and with him commanding the center of the field, the Germans are virtually guaranteed to win the midfield battle each and every time out. It doesn't hurt that he'll be flanked by so much talent in the attack; Manchester City's Leroy Sane, the best young player in England this past club season, didn't even make Germany's World Cup roster because the team is so stacked. There are still some liabilities for Die Mannschaft, particularly on defense — but when your biggest problem is figuring out which world-class midfielders to start, you can probably give up a couple dumb goals here and there.
Helping the Germans is the fact that they should feel very little pressure, having just won the tournament on their terms. They're as safe a bet as any to at least make the semifinals. What happens from there is always up to chance, but it never hurts to be the most talented side in the field.
3. The neighbor: Mexico
If Germany stumbles, its very first opponent at the World Cup could stand to benefit. While the on-field rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico might prevent you from rooting for America's neighbors to the south in good consciousness, this El Tri side is so fun and loose that they might just force millions of Americans to fall in love with them anyway.
Led by Hirving "Chucky" Lozano and eternal babyface Javier "Chicharito" Hernández, Mexico's attack is more dynamic than it has been in years, while its defense is solid enough to stymie the mightiest foes. The combination should be strong enough to propel Mexico through the stacked Group F, which also includes Germany, Sweden, and South Korea. The Mexicans cruised through CONCACAF qualifying, and if El Tri can scoop up even a point against group favorite Germany, it'll put them well on their way to yet another Round of 16 berth.
There, they most likely will face Brazil, where they will attempt to break their knockout stage curse: Mexico hasn't advanced past the Round of 16 since hosting the tournament back in 1986. Whether or not they pull off the upset, El Tri will play captivating soccer that will do the region proud in a way that seems unlikely for fellow CONCACAF sides Costa Rica and Panama. So put away your nationalistic soccer instincts and embrace Mexico this month — these guys just might be one of the stories of the tournament.
4. The dark horse: Peru
Peru survived the South American gauntlet en route to making its first appearance on the world soccer stage since 1982. La Blanquirroja will be riding high after finishing fifth in regional qualifying and knocking off New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff. The Peruvians play individualistic attacking soccer, with loads of skillful players supporting the controversial Paolo Guerrero at striker.
Guerrero, who was alternately suspended and then unsuspended in the lead-up to the tournament due to a failed drug test, is a blistering goalscorer and Peru's best chance to nick key goals from its group rivals. Behind him, Christian Cueva and Edison Flores will provide speed and directness. On the other side of the ball, Peru's defense isn't as shabby as you might expect from such a top-heavy squad; Luis Advíncula is an underrated gem of a right back, while Alberto Rodríguez will help solidify the center of the defense.
Peru is battle-tested and hungry for success — and it doesn't hurt that they're wearing one of the best kits in the tournament. They're the perfect team to bandwagon early, before they make some noise and everyone tries to say they always followed them.
5. The legend: Argentina
Last but not least, we have Argentina, and the attendant plight of the greatest soccer player of all time. Will Lionel Messi, who has won everything you can win at the club and individual level, finally taste national team gold? This is likely Messi's last chance to really dominate at a World Cup, and fans of the Albiceleste will have to hope that he does just that to have a chance at winning the tournament.
Four years ago, Messi — alongside club teammate Javier Mascherano — put the entire team on his back en route to the final game, notching four goals and an assist. He was also instrumental in even getting Argentina to this year's tournament, scoring a magisterial hat trick against Ecuador in the final game of CONMEBOL qualifying to punch a ticket to Russia.
But while the attacking talent around Messi has been upgraded since 2014 — keep an eye on Juventus wunderkind Paulo Dybala — the defense has taken a step back, exposing Argentina to potential defeat. Still, you could talk yourself into supporting Argentina; maybe the team will unite to avenge its heartbreaking loss four years ago, or maybe the revamped midfield that features young star Giovani Lo Celso of Paris Saint-Germain will provide a spark. But at the end of the day, if Argentina is to win its first World Cup since 1986, it all comes back to the magic man wearing No. 10.