I have no idea what to do about the World Cup this summer. It is probably my favourite sports competition but, for the first time since I began following it, or even knew about it, in 1994, I have no team to support. Neither the United States – where I was born and live – or Ital – —where I’ve spent four years of my life – will be making the trip to Russia. And so my usual anxiety leading up to the tournament has been replaced by a different kind of worry: that I will be indifferent.
Indeed, most people I’ve spoken with have expressed this sentiment. Even if one team’s matches make up only between five (worst case) and 10 (best case) percent of the total played, if that team isn’t there they all risk becoming meaningless.
Yet, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps free of the traditional constraints of collective identity and fandom, here is an opportunity for a connection more personal and, potentially, more interesting. Of course, this approach presents its challenges. Where to start?
Pick a team at random
I could easily follow in the footsteps of many American fans of European football and just choose a team whose jersey or name I particularly like and then concoct an elaborate yet watertight backstory that proves my authenticity even though I’d only ever seen them play on FIFA.
But I’ve already done this, and with national teams it feels a little different, they are far less the global brands that club teams have become, many with far larger fan bases outside their own city or even country. This seems too tenuous and, at 33, I don’t even own a console anymore.
An online quiz I took (there are a few) told me I was a perfect fit for Switzerland. I was neither resistant to nor thrilled by the idea, but maybe that’s the point. As far as jerseys go, it’s hard to take your eyes off of Nigeria, but I couldn’t name more than one player and have never been to Africa.
I would probably go with Denmark were I to take this route, enticing in its minimalism, both stylistically and culturally, although this may not lead to the most entertainment on the field.
The cultural/sociopolitical angle
As I write this, I am surrounded in my apartment by Swedish furniture and music, English novels, tea and cookies, South Korean electronics, a Japanese watch, and Portuguese beer. (Pick your favourite beer would be a very simple way to choose a team, a strategy that in the past has led me both to Newcastle and Liverpool).
Certain Danish toys and Belgian comics also occasionally make appearances, far too infrequently for me and far too often for my girlfriend. Yet it feels like a stretch to draw any connection between this cultural output and these nations’ teams; the English will hardly be wordsmiths, much less the South Koreans IT guys. And how would I possibly decide if it came down to Lego vs. Tintin? Plus isn’t English tea from China or India anyway? Too risky.
It’s incredibly easy and also probably dangerous to bring politics into the conversation. Easy in that there are numerous teams that it would be simple to root against, but dangerous in that I would have to admit that under the same approach, based on recent events, I would not be supporting either Italy or the United States. Still, it’s fun to think that an Iran loss may lead to greater nuclear concessions, or that a global spotlight on Russia may reveal yet more nefarious goings-on.
If there is one team that Americans really should be rooting against it may be Morocco, as any success could well strengthen their competing bid for the 2026 World Cup. But to root against teams is really not to support at all, and if there were ever a time that called for a break from politics now would definitely be it.
For all the issues with the World Cup, it does remain a rare showcase of both inclusion and diversity and intense patriotism, two ideologies often pitted as rivals. So maybe I should just leave it be.
Root for a particular player
This is an easy one as there are plenty of interesting stories to follow and individual performances to keep an eye on. Can Lionel Messi finally win something with Argentina? How far can Mohamed Salah (hopefully) take Egypt? Will Paul Pogba bounce back from a tough year? Can Neymar return from injury to lead Brazil to victory following their debacle at home four years ago? These are only the most obvious.
So where would this lead? As a fan of Fiorentina, I could get behind either Nikola Milenković (Serbia) or Milan Badelj (Croatia) but that’s not a conflict I’m eager to wade into. As someone who follows Serie A closely, no one has been more entertaining in my opinion over the last two years than Belgium’s Dries Mertens. Douglas Costa is up there too, but if there is one national team that doubles as a brand it’s definitely Brazil. and as such, they probably need no extra help on my end.
Commentators here will surely push the individual angle, subtly steering viewers away from the team approach and doing their best to infuse each match with plot and talking points, highlighting the games within the game, the superstar head-to-heads, the storylines. This is what worries me.
American commentators love to tell a good story; the only problem is that it’s often at the expense of actually calling the game. There also seems to be an idea that every second of airtime needs to be filled, rather than letting the game speak for itself. This is likely because American sports have a lot of dead time to fill during huddles, mound visits and free throws, whereas football calls for a more fluid, direct commentary with real-time analysis rather than replay breakdowns.
All this leads to a peripheral barrage – random stats, facts, sidelights – but often very little insight into the action on the field. So maybe this approach. to.o is a dead end. Thankfully there’s Telemundo.
Root for an underdog
This transitions nicely into another angle, which is to cheer for an outlier, because we Americans have three Spanish-speaking regional neighbours competing in Russia who all fall into this category. Mexico, despite being the US’s greatest historic adversary, was recently featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and dubbed “America’s other team”.
Listen | Previewing the CONCACAF nations at the 2018 World Cup
Costa Rica will look to follow up a solid performance in 2014 in which it lost on penalties in the quarter-finals to the Netherlands, while Panama will look to build off the momentum from the national holiday declared by its president upon qualifying for the first time in history. And while some may hesitate to lend their support to these direct rivals, the development and improvement of football in North America should ultimately help the region overall.
I don’t want to discount other underdog stories. Iceland is an appealing choice. in their first World Cup (they were also just officially endorsed by the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport), as are Peru and Egypt, who broke tournament droughts of 36 and 28 years respectively. But, looking ahead, by this logic that would mean supporting Qatar in four years time in the winter, something that I’m not willing to commit to.
Plus, these are already good stories, the culmination of which will be the tournament this summer regardless of how they perform. This won’t be the case for Mexico, however, where a poor showing will likely result in national agony. For as long as I’ve followed the game, Mexico have resided on the cusp of the elite, with a team just not quite at the level of its rabid fan base. Could a good tournament this summer finally see El Tri break through to that next level? It would be fun to find out.
So none of this has really gotten me anywhere and, if anything, I’m more stressed now than I was at the outset. The endless possibilities feel overwhelming and each loaded with implications. In a last-ditch effort I sought to remove the idea of choice that had been at first so appealing and traced my own family lineage back to England, but this did nothing to quell the guilt from the growing realisation that my world was perhaps too Anglo and Eurocentric. By imposing my own narrative on the tournament, aren’t I every bit as bad as those commentators I wish would just stay quiet?
Maybe the best idea is to let go of everything extraneous and go in not with a plan but instead with a void and let the spectacle unfold and tell its own story. And even if that means being undecided until the very end, well, what could be more dramatic than that?
By Sam Griswold