The biggest stage in sports has returned. The United States failed to qualify, but there are plenty of storylines to watch in the 2018 edition of the FIFA World Cup.
Host Country – Russia
If you’ve never watched the host country play in a World Cup match, I HIGHLY recommend you do. Whether you accept this as fact or not, soccer is overwhelmingly the most popular sport in the world, and the environment that surrounds the opening game featuring the host country is as “Must See TV” as it gets. Russia will be attempting to win their first ever World Cup, and be the first host nation to win since France did it in 1998. Expect sold out crowds and deafening chants every time the Russian’s take the pitch during this tournament, and be sure to have your hand on the “Volume Down” button when they net their first goal.
Iceland qualified for the World Cup for the first time in their national team history in the fall of 2017 making them the smallest nation to ever qualify for the prestigious tournament with a population of approximately just 335,000 people… which would be the 57th largest city in the United States according the U.S Census Bureau. They probably don’t have any chance of winning, or even making it out of their group stage, right? Don’t judge them too quickly.
Iceland burst onto the scene when they shocked the world in the UEFA Euro 2016 Championship (Also their first time qualifying for that) by advancing all the way to the Quarter-Finals. They finished 2nd in their group, tying with powerhouse Portugal and Hungry, before netting a 90+4’ goal to beat Austria to advance.
That goal had the entire sports world writing articles, retweeting videos, buying Icelandic kits, and sprinting to their Sports Books to place their bets on the mighty underdogs. They defeated Euro powerhouse England in the Semi-Finals to gain even more International excitement as the UEFA Cinderella’s all before falling short to France, who eventually made it to the Finals.
They were so influential, their Viking Chant has taken off and has been used all over the sports world to celebrate a hard fought battle in game, but even more specifically with the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL who coined the chant “Skol”.
Egypt and Mohamed Salah
Egypt qualified for its first FIFA World Cup in 28 years in the fall of 2017. For the first time in quite some time, the country has a star player who is not only known for his tremendous skills on the pitch as he quickly climbs the ranks of international soccer, but also known as being a figure of hope in his country. Trying to avoid all of the political talk, Mohamed Salah has been a unifying and glorified figure in Egypt bringing joy to a region that has their fare share of issues going on in today’s world. You can walk through the streets and see kids wearing his jersey, see murals of his face on the side of buildings, and people who generally wouldn’t get along, can get along to watch him lead their country on the pitch.
Just weeks before the World Cup, Salah dislocated his shoulder playing for his club team of Liverpool. It was devastating to the Egyptian fans, as they feared he may not be able to go through his first ever World Cup and lead the national team to what they hope to be their best showing since the 1934 World Cup in which they lost in the Round of 16, before there were group stages.
Mohamed Salah will be playing in this tournament. Salah has the entire nation on his shoulders (maybe just the right one?), and wants nothing more than to represent them well.
Belgium – The Golden Generation
The Red Devils of Belgium are one of the heavily favored teams to take home the cup during these World Cup games. The number 3 ranked team in the world, according to FIFA rankings, and their highly praised “Golden Generation” have a lot to live up to in Russia. After a less than stellar showing in the 2014 World Cup and a disappointing Euro 2016 run, this Belgium squad has a lot of pressure on them to perform.
Led by there captain Eden Hazard, super-star Kevin De Bruyne, and new manager Roberto Martinez the Red Devils are primed to make a deep run in Russia.
Much of Belgium’s success in this tournament will depend on how well their striker, Romelu Lukaku, performs. When he’s at his best he is one of the best pure scorers in the world. When he is not at his best he is very average. His play and goal scoring ability will determine how far Belgium goes. I feel that if Belgium performs as they should they will be lifting their first ever World Cup in Russia.
Lionel Messi (Argentina), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), and Neymar (Brazil) have about as many accolades as any athlete on the planet. They are A list celebrities just about anywhere in the world they go, they have enough money to buy just about anything they could possibly want, they can play for any team in the entire world and that club would welcome them with open arms and maybe even give them the key to the city, if they don’t have it already. The one thing that none of these superstars has is the joy of having their entire nation celebrate as they raise the World Cup.
Messi made it to the Final game in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and had an opportunity in the final minutes with a free kick from optimal Messi scoring range, but could not connect. At 30 years of age, his opportunities are limited to win Argentina their third cup, but are considered one of the favorites to do so.
I love the World Cup. There is no sporting event quite like it. So many different cultures, so much passion, so much history. I stated at the beginning of the article about the pure joy behind the host nation’s first goal in the first game. A goal that an entire nation has been waiting on since the announcement of their nation hosting the World Cup, which is generally 8-10 years before?
I’ll never forget the goal that South Africa’s Siphiwe Tshabalala scored in their opener against Mexico. The crowd erupts almost to the point where most cannot even contain their excitement. The amount of children in South Africa that this single goal inspired to chase their dreams of playing for their national team is probably uncountable. Probably my favorite sports moment of my lifetime. Volume up!