Friday, April 13, 2018


The World Cup starts in 62 days, and I’m having a hard time deciding who to support.

  • Choosing a favorite when your team isn’t playing.
  • Traveling to Russia for the World Cup.
  • What to expect from the tournament host.

If you can’t root for the one you love…

For the first time in 32 years, the United States isn’t playing in the World Cup.

What’s an American soccer fan to do?

“You have one love, and that’s the only one,” said Dan Wiersema of The American Outlaws, a U.S. supporters group. “I would have a hard time rooting for another team in the World Cup.”

Still, Dan says he’s excited to watch the Concacaf teams — the Americans’ regional rivals. 

“Good luck to Costa Rica,” he said. “Less so to Mexico.”

Mexico is the team of choice for many fans in the United States — and at least one talented young midfielder.

When El Tri plays in this country it often outdraws the U.S. men’s team, and  Liga MX regularly gets better TV ratings than Major League Soccer. After the American team failed to qualify, the president of Fox Sports, the World Cup’s U.S. broadcaster, said he’d promote Mexico as the network’s second team.

It’s natural for many American fans to back their ancestral homelands, be they Mexico, England, Nigeria or Japan.

I’m still searching for an object for my affections this summer. A cool app on the 538 website initially told me I should support South Korea, an underdog that relies on teamwork and balanced tactics.

Though I can appreciate South Korea’s workmanlike style of play, I can’t get excited about the team. I like narrative and aesthetics, and there are more seductive underdogs in the tournament.

Tiny Panama and tinier Iceland are competing in their first World Cup, and Peru, a team that dominated South America alongside Brazil and Argentina in the 1970s, is in it for the first time in 36 years. The Peruvians also wear the classiest uniforms: crisp white with a crimson diagonal sash across the chest.

Over beers at our local Brooklyn soccer bar, I asked my friend Anup Kaphle, who is from Nepal, which team he supports since his country has no chance of making the World Cup. He told me he roots for Argentina.

When television first became accessible in Nepal in the mid-1980s, he said the state broadcaster showed few games from abroad. But those that they did broadcast often featured Diego Maradona. 

For others it was Pele and Brazil. In Kolkata, Indian soccer fans have adopted the South American rivalry — and the Pele vs. Maradona argument — as their own. Now, the factions form around Neymar and Lionel Messi.

It’s too easy for an American like me, with no family or personal ties to Argentina or Brazil, to root for one of the best teams with the world’s best player. 

Maybe it was cooler when it was Maradona, a louche antihero. He was the last player I remember to fail a World Cup doping test. Cocaine — big surprise — fueled goals like this one against Greece in 1994 before his expulsion.

I want Argentina to go far because I want to watch Messi play as much as possible. But his appeal is cerebral. I want my heart to race.

Mohamed Salah of Egypt does it for me. He’s such a positive, enthusiastic player, and though Egypt had long dominated African soccer (seven African Cups), this is only the country’s third World Cup. The team, known as the Pharaohs, last qualified in 1990 and played once before, in 1934.

Soccer is a powerful force in Egypt, and it was at the center of a deadly and divisive chapter of the Arab Spring when scores of fans were killed after a game in Port Said.

Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government, the soccer team, like all of Egypt’s national symbols, has become fraught. Last month, a columnist for the state-run newspaper Al-Ahram called on Salah to shave his beard because it makes him look like a terrorist. When Egyptians voted in a farcical presidential election on March 29, many wrote in Salah's name, voiding their ballots.

Egypt is in group A with Uruguay, Saudi Arabia and the host, Russia, and the Egyptians play their first match a day after Ramadan ends. The Pharaohs may not be long for this tournament. 

I want to ride along with a team that will keep me emotionally invested into the knockout stages — quarterfinals at least.

That’s better than the United States usually does.

Which team will you support and why?

Email me, or hit me on Twitter @jeffdmarcus or Facebook at, to tell me who you support and why others should too. I’ll include some of your responses in an upcoming newsletter with advice on how to choose your World Cup team.


RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

1. Destination Russia.

By my estimate, as many as 6 million World Cup tickets have been sold through the second sales phase that ended April 3. It’s difficult to say how many for sure because FIFA spreads the sales over three periods with five separate windows during which fans can buy them. Confusing.

The most popular game, other than the final, appears to be the first-round match between Argentina and Iceland in Group D. It sold out a month ago.

Russians, not surprisingly, have scooped up the bulk of World Cup tickets. Interest from foreign fans has been, well, depressed. Geopolitics, cumbersome logistics, Russian hooligans’ reputation for violence, and the government’s intolerance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have turned some Americans off.

“Still, do not expect to see many empty seats at this year’s World Cup,” Justin Sablich writes for The New York Times. “The fact that there will still be several thousand Americans attending, in addition to many others from around the world, highlights the strong pull this event has, no matter where it is played.”

Read more from The Times’ Travel section.

2. Not what Putin had in mind.

Fans who do make it to Russia this summer will encounter a country very different from the one that was awarded the World Cup eight years ago.

Russia is in open conflict with its neighbor, Ukraine. It’s poisoning spies in Britain and Russian hackers are screwing with American democracy. Relations between Moscow and the West are at their lowest point since the Cold War. “And it doesn’t seem like a successful World Cup can do much to change that,” writes The Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief, Andrew Roth.

President Vladimir V. Putin probably envisioned a different world order in 2010 when, in a rare speech in English, he thanked FIFA “from the bottom of my heart.”

“To a certain degree, the tournament is a relic from a bygone, slightly more innocent past, when Putin might still have believed that Russia could woo the West by successfully putting on prestige sporting events and eventually be accepted into the club of great nations as an equal,” Roth writes. “That clearly no longer interests him.”

Read more about Russia’s image ahead of the World Cup.

3. Underground ultras.

Russia’s violent hooligans say they’ve been forced into hiding before the World Cup for fear they’ll be banned from the tournament.

One of the country’s most notorious hooligans told Al Jazeera that police and Russian security services have been monitoring the ultra groups’ activities and harassing well-known brawlers like him.

"The police are very actively watching football fans, and all violations on the stadium are noted," said Alexander Shprygin, former leader of the All-Russia Union of Supporters. "While before, once you leave the stadium, you could forget about what happened there, now they'd come to your home, they'd find you, they'd search your house, they'd call you for a 'talk'."

Russian “firms” — they adopted the English term in the 1990s — aren’t like the British or European gangs who drink beer, break bottles and occasionally land a few beefy, thick-fingered punches. The Russians train obsessively in martial arts, often without shirts in sub-freezing temperatures. And they fight sober to maintain their edge.

Watch this chilling 2017 Vice News video of Russian hooligans.

In case you missed them.

The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

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