Good news and bad news. The bad: Last fall, the United States men’s national soccer team failed to qualify for the every-four-years World Cup for the first time since the 1980s, a demoralizing setback in the sport’s American evolution. The good news: That means you’re free to choose any of the 32 countries actually competing to root for in the every-four-years event, which kicks off in Russia June 14. Which one? Here’s some help to find your new favorite, and scroll down for a little more info on each team.
Click here for a high-resolution flow chart.
Are you watching?
The last two weeks of June see three or four games per day, most starting at 5, 8, or 11 a.m. Pacific time (schedule at fifa.com/worldcup). Then there are fewer games but higher stakes as July 15’s final in Moscow approaches. Watch for early opening hours and fun at places like Kells, Toffee Club, Bazi Bierbrasserie, and 4-4-2.
Who's playing? Let's break down the competitors.
Phenom Mohamed Salah promises great hair and (maybe) great goals.
The Lions of the Atlas return to the Cup after 20 years, with nickname (and win streak) on point.
Soccer nerds often expect the Super Eagles to be amazing. Maybe this time it will happen!
Made an upset run to the 2002 quarterfinals. Haven’t been seen since.
The Eagles of Carthage! The Eagles of Carthage! THE EAGLES OF CARTHAGE!
Hard-tackling randos repping a country that prefers other sports: consider the Socceroos 2018’s America stand-in.
We don’t have any jokes about Iran. The Iranian people love football and deserve nice things, just like anyone.
Panicked and replaced their coach just two months before the tournament. Should be fun!
This is the “good” Korea, if you’re keeping track. Son Heung-min is a star to watch.
Zany, lighthearted, charismatic fan favorite. Kidding.
The slick, creative Red Devils are a hipster choice for title contender.
A first-round match against Argentina could be an early tournament highlight.
Organized, stingy in defense, and ridiculously blonde, watch for the Danes’ star and playmaker Christian Eriksen to try to create some magic.
Overwrought tabloid insanity guaranteed, tragicomic exit in a penalty shootout probable.
The likes of Paul Pogba promise some tutti-frutti football from Les Bleus.
It’s anyone’s guess whether the defending champs will become only the third country to ever win back-to-back World Cups, but one thing is guaranteed: mid-game cuts to Angela Merkel awkwardly drinking beer.
RIYL: indie bands no one else likes, hard-core grain liquor, boutique vacations, Westeros.
With players drawn from many top European leagues (and plenty of historical motivation to make some noise in Russia), the boys in red and white could be a sleeper hit of summer.
One reason to watch Portugal: chiseled Adonis Cristiano Ronaldo, a.k.a. the best player in the world, may do something amazing.
A great nation—a very strong nation—that will do a fantastic, just outstanding job.
Known for their friendly, hard-partying fans and the occasional upset run.
The Iberian powerhouse put on shameful performance in Brazil in 2014, bowing out in the group stage. But … it’s 4 years later! La Furia Roja returns!
Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired from international play, so…right, there’s not much to say.
Kinda the Hamilton cast of international soccer: a strong corps of players with immigrant roots.
Los Ticos made a miracle quarterfinal run in 2014, and feature debonair Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
Ordinarily USA’s top soccer rival, but screw it: maybe El Tri can redeem the whole continent.
Last-minute heroics doomed the USA’s bid, so here’s your punk rock antihero pick.
This could be genius player/adorable Muppet Lionel Messi’s last chance at the Cup. Tango!
Last seen losing 7–1 to Germany + having a nervous breakdown. Not as fun at parties as you expect.
Featured some of the coolest goals and (easily) the best celebration dances of 2014. When they catch fire, fun ensues.
Currently embroiled in a coca-tea scandal featuring a ban for one top player. It’s a little on the nose, but it’s true.
Sometimes, they bite people!