Entering this year’s FIFA World Cup, I was apathetic — as were many Americans. Without the United States to root for, I had no dog in the fight. Even worse, I had no strong ties to any other country competing.
But I’ve found myself exhilarated by the action so far in Russia, even without a clearcut team to support. The quality of offensive play is down from Brazil’s goal-fest four years ago, but the suspense and drama of each match has more than compensated for it.
There’s an aura of unpredictability in this year’s tournament unseen in years past. The quadrennial favorites — Germany, France and Brazil — have all looked feeble in the group stage. Meanwhile, international soccer’s middle class has risen to the occasion.
2014 was defined by the combined dominance and eventual clash of giants Brazil and Germany. Die Mannschaft ended up crushing the host nation 7-1 in the semifinals (because the soccer gods are soulless), before defeating Argentina to take home its fourth World Cup.
In contrast, 2018 has been defined by parity. As of Monday, only three squads hold a goal differential of two or higher. Of the top five teams in FIFA’s current world rankings, only one — Belgium — has managed to grab three points in its first game. The other four have combined for zero wins, three ties and one loss. Not exactly inspiring stuff from the world’s supposed best.
Instead of the usual contenders running roughshod against the field, underdogs have taken over in the early group stage.
First, there was Iceland’s shocking 1-1 draw with Lionel Messi’s Argentina. The World Cup’s equivalent of a 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament, Iceland was the darling of European qualifiers. The national team earned its first ever berth in the World Cup by going toe-to-toe with European stalwarts like Portugal and England.
But the nation, which is roughly the size of Ohio, isn’t content with just being in Russia. Its unapologetically defensive game plan stifled the world’s greatest scorer in Messi to the tune of 0 goals on 11 shot attempts (there’s parking the bus and then there’s leaving the bus in the garage, which Iceland did). Late penalty and free kick misses by the Barcelona superstar punctuated a frustrating day at the office. Now Iceland and Argentina are tied behind Croatia in Group D, just as all the experts predicted it (exactly no one predicted it).
Humble pie stayed on the menu Sunday, when America’s neighbor, Mexico, handed No. 1 ranked Germany (Germany!) a 1-0 defeat, triggering an artificial earthquake in Mexico City. Germany is now in danger of becoming the third-straight defending champion to get bounced out after group play. It marked its first opening loss in the World Cup since 1982. The Germans appear to be handling the loss super well, except for the fact that they cancelled media activities on Monday to avoid criticism, per ESPN. Yikes.
Mexico still has a long way to go before reaching their ultimate goal — navigating its way past the Round of 16 for the first time since 1986. Still, El Tri has every right to bask in its historic victory.
American soccer legend Landon Donovan caught flak for appearing in a commercial urging U.S. fans to support arch-rival Mexico. His former teammates and fans of the men’s national team responded with a mix of bewilderment and anger. I’m not sure why, to be quite honest. This Mexico team is everything an American fan could ask for — they’re gusty, they’re not defined by any one superstar and they are clearly equipped to take down giants. I’ll go back to rooting against the USMNT’s bitter rivals to the south when the U.S. is actually playing in the same tournament.
Iceland and Mexico are the most prominent Cinderella stories of the World Cup so far, but they’re not alone. Switzerland used aggressive defense (and lots of fouls on Neymar) to contain Brazil in a 1-1 draw on Sunday. Meanwhile Russia stunned Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the Cup’s opening match, to the delight of their home crowd (including Vladimir Putin, who managed to keep his shirt on in the celebration). They entered the World Cup as the tournament’s lowest ranked team.
In the early stages of group play, it’s impossible to tell where the World Cup goes from here. Even the top-flight Iberian matchup between Spain and Portugal failed to produce any clarity. The two traded blows back and forth like two heavyweight boxers in a prizefight. Ultimately, it ended with a 3-3 draw, and an early contender for match of the tournament.
Regardless of what happens next, I now know I was wrong for thinking I needed the U.S. to be in the World Cup, in order for it to be interesting. The World Cup doesn’t need the U.S., just like it doesn’t need Italy, the Netherlands or even Germany. The soccer gods don’t play favorites.
Trevor Denton is a junior majoring in journalism. He was also the sports editor of Summer Trojan. His column, “T-Time,” ran every other week.