The World Cup begins on Thursday, and for casual soccer fans in the United States, that means it’s time to sit back and enjoy the U.S. Open.
Indeed, if you live in one of the 50 states and follow “The Beautiful Game” only when the U.S. is in the quadrennial competition, there’s nothing to see here. The Americans famously flopped in qualifying and didn’t make the 32-nation field.
This is the first time the team in red, white and blue has missed the cut since 1986 and it’s pretty damn embarrassing.
Thus, there’s some really good golf to watch over the next four days at Shinnecock Hills.
But there are many people who are going to watch the World Cup no matter what, and I’m one of them. Regardless of who’s in or who’s out, I see it as the premiere sporting event in the world and want to catch as many matches as I can.
Of course it’s hard to fully enjoy sportsball unless you have a team to root for, so I had to jump on a bandwagon.
And I’m riding with Nigeria.
I became a fan of the Super Eagles in 1996 when Atlanta hosted the Olympic Games. Birmingham’s Legion Field was one of the venues used for soccer, and I covered all the matches played at the facility.
One of those contests came on July 28 when Nigeria faced Mexico in the quarterfinals and won, 2-0. I loved the team’s grittiness – how it gutted its way through group play and then, when reaching the knockout stage, started playing with great confidence and tremendous flair.
It started out the tournament as longshots but won the gold medal, outscoring Brazil 4-3 in the semifinals and stunning Argentina, 3-2, in the final.
Ever since then the Eagles have been one of my favorite squads, and they’ll be at the top of my cheering table as long as they last in Russia. It’ll be a tough task, though; they’re placed in Group D with Argentina, Croatia and Iceland.
Still, with great attackers like Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses, they’ll have a puncher’s chance in every match.
From an ancestral standpoint, I’ll also have some rooting interest in England and Spain.
My paternal lineage goes from Scotland to Wales to England, while my mother’s people trekked from Spain to England to the U.S.
Considering I watch the English Premier League religiously throughout its season and Manchester United is my favorite EPL club, it makes sense to follow The Three Lions.
The 23-man roster features four Man U players and all are culled from the English league.
Harry Kane is the top player on a talented roster, although England has a tendency to, uh, soil the sheets in this particular competition.
As for Spain, they might be the most technically sound team in the field. Plus it’s always fun to watch Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos play (although Gerard Piqué has had some knee issues during training).
But there is also some major off the field drama since gaffer Julen Lopetegui – who recently re-upped as national team coach through 2020 – announced he will instead take over managerial duties at Real Madrid after the World Cup and was fired by Spain this morning. Fernando Hierro is now in charge of La Roja.
Finally, I want to see Mexico do well.
Yes, El Tri are the main association football rivals of the U.S. but, as I mentioned earlier, the U.S. ain’t playing and I’m not much into that whole hate thing. Plus, Liga MX is one of my favorite professional leagues and I’ve seen many of Mexico’s players in action, so there’s a sense of familiarity when the squad takes the field. I’ll be neighborly and pull for Javier Hernandez and his teammates in all of their Group F matches.
At any rate, the World Cup is here and I’m here for all of it.
If you are, too, then pick a team – any team – and enjoy the show.
And if you hear me chanting “Sa Ma Sin Wa Lo” over the next couple of weeks, don’t be alarmed.
It’s just something we fans of the Super Eagles like to do.