Come Thursday soccer fans across the globe will rejoice as the latest incarnation of the most famous tournament in sports gets underway.
Yet American soccer fans find themselves in the grip of a strange and frustrating sensation -- the Cup usually represents a great excuse to dip out of work, rub elbows with fellow supporters and revel in the tribalism that is soccer fandom.
However, on Wednesday U.S. soccer fans, along with those in Mexico and Canada, learned they will get to rub those elbows for the first time since 1994 when the three North American countries were awarded the 2026 event.
But thanks to an ultimately disastrous qualification campaign, culminating with that awful night in Trinidad in October, United States Men's National Team fans will spend Russia 2018 living only vicariously through a tournament that had become something of a once-every-four-years rite for Americans since gate-crashing Italy 1990 and then hosting the world's most-watched sporting event in 1994.
There's been more than enough hand-wringing, self-examanation, self-loathing, finger pointing and and vitriol spilled about the USMNT missing out on the World Cup party for the first time in eight cups, however. And, while, yes, it will most definitely take some fire out of 2018 to not have a vested rooting interest, there is absolutely no reason American soccer fans should not take the time out to enjoy another spectacle -- though it may be harder to explain to your boss why you're ducking out of work this time.
So, what to do when it all kicks off? How should you go about divining your entertainment of this summer's Cup? Simple: Find a bandwagon, hitch yourself to it and prepare for the ride.
Be warned, however, the size and ability of your bandwagon could determine plenty about how you enjoy Russia 2018.
So for those of you casting about for a team to follow over the next few weeks, here's a crash course on a handful of teams that could prove the most fun, most successful, or at the very least the most unusual at this summer's World Cup.
We'll go in alphabetical order, which brings us to perennial hopeful Argentina. A finalist in 2014, the South American power has two cups to its name (1978 and 1986), plenty of talent and perhaps the greatest player in the world on its roster. If Lionel Messi and company do not find a way to get it done this time around it will leave a gaping hole in the resume of a player many claim to be the best in world history (one of those ridiculous sports arguments no one can win but is plenty of fun until someone has too much beer or can't take a joke). Follow this squad and you're guaranteed a big storyline, entertainment, and likely plenty of success -- though their history post '86 suggests that ultimate glory will elude them.
Belgium: Yeah, yeah, they are not exactly giants in the game. But they did finish fourth in 1986 and are coming off a quarterfinal berth last time around. And if you watch any of the major leagues around the world, you will most likely catch a Belgian player competing for a "big" club. This year's squad has plenty of ability and fairly high expectations, and players like Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard are rare talents that can win games on their own. It's a group that flattered to deceive a little last time around, and, frankly, the USMNT could have eliminated them in '14. Belgium should be hungry and is talented enough to make a run in '18.
Brazil: If you grew up in the 1970s and 80s and are not Argentine, this is likely your first or second favorite team, no matter where you're from. The free-flowing flair they employed in attack not only proved fun to watch but also won trophies, as Brazil claimed Cups in 1958, '62 and '70 and also captivated the world in '82 despite coming up short. Yet while the talk of flair continued amongst fans, things certainly turned more pragmatic on the field in the 90s. And while Brazil also won the 1994 and 2002 cups, it has yet to capture the imagination as it once did -- except perhaps in shock, like last year's 7-1 semifinal destruction at home at the hands of winner Germany. With a light group schedule, Brazil could play its way into form. And the drama is never far away.
Colombia: Talent on par with the best and a perennial underdog attitude (sometimes bordering on defeatism), this Colombia team has some real attacking ability and the steel to help buttress it. It does not have much of a World Cup tradition, getting set for only its fifth Cup, but it still pushed Brazil to the edge in the 2014 quarterfinals and has the feel of a sleeping giant. Expectations outside Colombia itself run fairly low, so why not hop on and give this bandwagon a push?
France: Undoubtedly one of the most talented teams in the world, players like Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Paul Pogba (a soap opera in himself) have the skills to make most nations drool. They also have a self-destruct streak that includes some of the most high-profile blow-ups in World Cup history, including their 2010 intra-squad Royal Rumble that derailed any chance of success and the head-butt heard round the world in 2006 when Zinedine Zidane sullied an otherwise spotless reputation as one of the greatest in history by planting his shining cranium into an Italian defender's chest -- in the middle of a World Cup championship match (that France went on to lose). Also winners in 1998 on home soil and quarterfinalists in 2014 (losing 1-0 to eventual winner Germany), this team has major headline potential, as well as the odd chance of an extraordinary roller coaster ride.
Germany: OK, if you love winners with no real drama these guys are for you. Equal parts skillful and ruthless, the Germans are set for a legit shot at defending their 2014 title. The Germans are also the closest things you'll find to robots. Where's the fun in that?
Iceland: Sorry, this bandwagon is full. Move on. In all seriousness, one of the smallest nations to ever qualify for the World Cup is perhaps the most fashionable second team in the world, and why not? They revel in their underdog status and actually have a the team spirit and just enough skill to pull an upset or two. Plus, there's that amazing Reykjavik Grapevine twitter feed. Smite on!
Mexico: Ohhhhh... here's the tough one for United States fans. There are plenty of US pundits who are going whole hog on Mexico (Alexi Lalas, et al), but there are also plenty of US fans that can never pull for El Tri because of the deep-seeded rivalry and dislike the neighboring teams harbor. This is one of the more talented Mexican teams in some time, and there are plenty of US fans who now share a heritage with El Tri. But there are also plenty of US fans still washed in the acrimony and nastiness that surrounds this rivalry and cannot let that go. I'm not going to try and convince you either way -- that's up to you. But as a USMNT fan that grew up in the cauldron of the 90s US-Mexico rivalry, the first thing that comes to mind when Mexico is mentioned is 2-0. Maybe you can be the bigger person.
Spain: Another team with bags of talent and legitimate winner's aspirations, Spain has completely shed the lovable loser's mantle that once hung round their necks after claiming the 2010 title. That said, the Spanish also spectacularly crashed out of the 2014 Cup in the group stage and will have a chip on their collective shoulders entering 2018. A group that includes arch-rival Portugal (defending European champions) should provide fireworks, and players like Sergio Ramos (the villain or hero of the champions league final -- depedning on who you ask) and Diego Costa will certainly give fans -- and referees -- their money's worth. UPDATE: And just one day removed from the World Cup starting, Spain has fired its coach due to his announcement that he's taking over at Real Madrid post-Cup. This could be the best soap opera of the tournament.
Uruguay: A nation of about 3 million people that won two of the first four World Cups, Uruguay might not be a sexy pick but they are quite often in the mix. And they have real talent in players like Diego Godin, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. They will also fight like crazy for everything they can get, sometimes pushing the limit of the law. And Suarez has been a downright anti-hero, whether it be biting foes or preventing a sure goal by handball in 2010. And thanks to a weak group, they will be a team that bears watching in 2018.
This is far from an in-depth look, and there are plenty of other nations that could and will entertain: Croatia is loaded with midfield talent; England is still looking to erase 52 years of hurt; some African nation (for so many are loaded with talent) could finally break through to the semifinals or beyond; one also suspects host Russia could find some "miraculous" way past the group stage (I'm not saying; I'm just saying).
Whatever happens it will be sure to raise eyebrows and, most hopefully, entertain. And that means you should watch, United States or not.