World / World Cup - International

One World Cup fan’s best bets for a rooting interest this summer

Photo by Earl Gardner

In the dark ages of the 80s and early 90s, before the Internet, satellite TV and multiple sports channels — in a country with no club soccer — the World Cup was the only access to the beautiful game.

I played in the park rec league and for my school. But I had no model for how the game should look. There were no matches on TV. No highlight reels. No YouTube videos set to lousy eurodance beats for inspiration.

There was only the World Cup.

The first World Cup I remember well was the 1990 tournament, which took place in Italy. Despite its infamy as one of the most dreadfully played tournaments, that World Cup was a revelation for me. I watched every match I could and was taken in by the Azzurri. I was mesmerized by the breakthrough performance of Salvatore Schillaci, the substitute striker who went on to win that tournament’s Golden Boot with six goals. There was the spectacular play of Diego Maradona. And there was even Jurgen Klinsmann — then a player for Inter Milan — scoring goals for West Germany and drawing a red card foul in the final that reduced Argentina to 10 men.

Today the sport is everywhere you turn — even the most basic of cable subscriptions delivers hours of Premier League and Bundesliga matches, El Classicos a plenty, Champions League legs and FA Cup ties. MLS is on ESPN, FS1 and 2. The Union are on broadcast television.

Still, nothing compares to the World Cup — the single greatest sporting event on the planet. It’s the world’s game. The most sought after prize on Earth.

With no U.S. team (and for me, no Italy) this year, it has been tough to pick a rooting interest. In general, I watch every game I can, just enjoying the competition for what it is. You never know when a classic match will unfold.

I’m excited for this tournament, if for not other reason than to distract us from more poor results for our local club. For those looking for help in picking a side, here are my favorites:

The Sure Thing: Brazil
In group with: Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Odds to win: 5-1

A lot will be made of Germany’s embarrassment of riches — a nation with a depth of talent so vast, head coach Joachim Low can leave his nation’s last World Cup final winner Mario Gotze home. But the smart bet as far as I’m concerned is Brazil.

Head coach Tite’s squad is stacked with talent — Ederson, Alisson, Coutinho, Firmino, Marcelo, Paulinho, Gabriel Jesus and Neymar — every player on the roster is a top flight, world class star. It’s hard to see how they can lose to anyone.

The only thing that could work against Brazil is the same thing that saw them embarrassed by Germany in 2014 — a lack of cohesion that prevented their talents from overcoming a much better organized German side. Brazil has the best talent. But are they the best team?

Win One for Messi: Argentina
In group with Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
Odds to win: 8-1

In the never-ending argument for who is the best player in the world, I’m on team Lionel Messi. He is simply the most complete, dynamic player I have ever seen. The one thing that some hold against him is that he has never secured the World Cup for his homeland, a missing accomplishment that might forever pin him as lesser than his forbear, Maradona. Messi will turn 31 during the tournament, so this is likely last chance to secure immortal status.

Argentina’s squad is not as star studded as Brazil’s but it does have an impressive set of attacking players in Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala and Angel DiMaria. The questions for head coach Jorge Sampaoli’s squad are in defense. His  most talented defender might be Manchester City’s Nicolas Otamendi.

But, where there’s a Messi, there’s a chance.

The Dark Horse: Belgium
In a group with: Panama, Tunisia, England
Odds to win: 12-1

Belgium enters the 2018 World Cup as a stealth contender that, if all goes well, might be able to topple the teams ahead of them in the odds: Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain and France.

Head Coach Roberto Martinez has yet to name his provisional roster — he’ll do so on May 21 — but he has a great deal of talent at his disposal, much of which will be familiar to those who follow the Premier League: Keeper Thibaut Courtois, Spurs defenders Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, midfielders Kevin De Bruyne, Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembele and Eden Hazard, and a striker corps that will likely include Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke, Michy Batshuayi and Divock Origi.

This squad should be incredibly stingy in defense. If it can score goals, it will go far.

Cinderella Story: Egypt
In a group with: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay
Odds to win: 150-1

The fan favorite choice for a long-shot, underdog squad likely remains Iceland. But Sigurdsson and company are so 2016 Euro. The snowball’s chance in hell squad of 2018 is Egypt, a team formerly managed by the United States’ best-ever coach Bob Bradley. 

Interestingly enough, Egypt’s last appearance in the World Cup was 1990.

The story of Egypt is really all about the best player in Europe this year: Mohamed Salah. Coming off a record-breaking goal scoring season for Liverpool (46 goals in 54 matches across all competitions), the Egyptian forward has a steep hill to climb.

Salah is a star in a squad that’s not nearly was well known as the other teams in this list. His best known teammate to PSP readers is likely Arsenal midfielder Mohamed Alneny. Two of Egypt’s defenders play for MLS squads: Amro Tarek of Orlando City and Omar Gaber of LAFC.

Uruguay and Russia are formidable squads, but Egypt has a fair chance of upsetting one of them to make it out of the group stages. It’s been a fairy tale season for Salah so far, perhaps he can extend it in the summer.

I encourage dissent and discussion in the comment selection below. Who are you rooting for? Rooting against? Let us know.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    This is the 4th World Cup for me without the US playing (the first was actually the Copa Mundial in 1978 and only available on the Spanish channel. That’s where I learned team names like Alemania.
    I’ve always rooted for the South American teams (The hardest decision was in ’94. In US-Brazil, heart said US but head said Brazil since they had the better chance to go all the way.) So I am rooting for Brazil and Argentina because I always do. I’m also rooting for Belgium since that’s who I picked in the FIFA fantasy tournament.

    • Not quite true what you wrote. In 1978 all games were transmitted by satellite and somehow the Tower Theater showed many. The atmosphere in the Tower was awesome. I took friends from High School to these games who still talk about that memorable experience.

  2. Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles. I’ll be looking forward to Germany’s newest World Cup. 😉

    • Richie_the_Limey says:

      The first verse of the national anthem which begins “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles” was removed from the German National Anthem post WWII (I think you can perhaps imagine why) and the third verse from that song was officially adopted as the National Anthem of then West Germany in 1955 then, after some controversy, it was reinstated (third verse only) in 1991 for the unified Germany. The vast majority of Germans would be horrified at expressing the sentiment of “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles” so please do not sing that at any games you might be watching unless you are a Nazi sympathizer enacting your Constitutional right to freedom of expression. You will look like a racist tool, but you do you.

    • Can’t wait to see some of their games at Brauhaus Schmitz. I was there 4 years ago when Germany destroyed Brazil and it was something else in their back room.

  3. I’m all aboard the Senegal train. That team has the chance to be explosive offensively. Should be fun to watch and why root for a perennial powerhouse.

    • Your comment compelled me to go look up the best finish in the World Cup by an African nation. No African nation has ever been past the quarter finals. It happened three times: Cameroon in 1990, Ghana in 2010 and Senegal in 2002. Since 1930, African national teams have qualified for the world cup 44 times and made it into the knock out rounds only 10 times.

    • One more crazy thing — the best result of all time for a CONCACAF nation in the world cup was the U.S.’s third place finish in 1930. We were beat by Argentina in the Semifinals and beat Yugaslavia in the consolation/runner-up match. Uruguay beat Argentina in that final. No other CONCACAF nation — even Mexico — ever made it beyond the quarter finals.

      • Those are some crazy stats. Hopefully one of those areas can have a break though this year.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        I don’t think the US beat Yugoslavia but instead were declared 3rd many years later.

  4. msg24365 says:

    Since neither the US nor Scotland found their way through, I have decided to pick teams to root against:

    I will be rooting against Mexico
    I will be rooting against Russia
    I will be rooting against England

    If I had to pick a team to support, I’m pulling for Costa Rica (so that I can justify the spankings they laid down on the US in the hex)

    Oh, and I have already started rooting against Qatar. Getting a big head start.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I’m hoping Mexico lasts long enough so that any LAFC players on their team aren’t available for their game on June 30 (not that it will actually help, but I figure it can’t hurt).

      • Sorry, for me national interest trumps local in this battle. I hope Mexico crash out in the group stage. And I just can’t wait to see what farcical refereeing decisions await to allow Russia to advance. Remember South Korea when they hosted? Home cooking is very tasty.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    Tunisia. Morocco. Egypt.

  6. Colombia!!!!!!!!

  7. The Truth says:

    Gotta support Brazil. I grew up watching [the real] Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Robinho and falling in love with their type of play that brings and keeps a smile on your face. It’s a beautiful game and playing games should make you smile. Joga bonito! I’m hoping Neymar can focus on his game and not whatever the press prints. I’m excited to see Firmino and Coutinho linking up once again. I want nothing more than the Seleção to make us forget about their crushing defeat in 2014. I still get a little emotional thinking about Germany netting their 34d, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th. That shouldn’t have happened to Brazil in Brazil. Hoping for some fun games this summer and no sob stories!

  8. Tim Jones says:

    My memories Go back to PBS and 1982.
    There was a match between west Germany and France, platini for France and Karl-Heinz Rominnege (sp) for Germany. Tied, went 2 30s, 2 sudden death 30s and then PKs. Platini missed his and France lost. All that is unresearched memory.

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