Around the time of the NBA lockout in 2011, Nike began a marketing campaign with the slogan “Basketball Never Stops.” It was intended to sell fans on the idea that, from Chile to China, basketball doesn’t stop revolving worldwide.
That phenomenon is not quite on the level of soccer, which can make it difficult to identify a jumping-on point.
Every four years, though, the World Cup offers a perfect window for new supporters. And that’s largely why it’s more than just FOX Sports who has something to lose by the United States missing the World Cup -- it’s a chance at new fans. Still, the U.S. is producing more notable talent than teen prodigy Christian Pulisic, and it would be even more unfathomable to miss out when the competition expands from 32 to 48 nations when Qatar 2022 rolls around.
For fans in Sedalia searching for an angle, here’s a Best XI primer to prepare for the action in Russia for new and old supporters.
- Any conversation begins with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who’ve combined to win the award for Best FIFA Men's Player each of the past 10 years. Both have won countless club competitions and will go down as all-time greats, but while Messi has an Olympic gold medal (2008) to his name and Ronaldo a European Championship (2016), each are now north of age 30. If Argentina and Portugal each win its group -- tougher for Portugal, paired with Spain -- the two could feasibly meet in the quarterfinals in what’d almost surely be the most anticipated match outside of the final. Winning the tournament for either Messi or Ronaldo would be enough to put them in the G.O.A.T. conversation with the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona.
- As with the Olympics, it can be tough to separate politics with the World Cup, particularly in regards to the bidding process and the spending that comes with being awarded a host nation. With that, Russia’s actual performance might be under a microscope as much as anything. Unlikely to have qualified were they not automatically, Russia enters the tournament ranked 70th by FIFA, and a seven-match winless streak led to comments by Vladimir Putin that the hosts “have not achieved big results in recent times.” Anything short of a win against lowly Saudi Arabia will be unsatisfying in the opener Wednesday, and is potentially necessary in a group including Uruguay and Egypt.
- Speaking of hosts, Brazil serve as the betting favorite. On home soil in 2014, “the Seleção” were embarrassed 7-1 in the semifinals in Belo Horizonte by the Germans. Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar, who became the world’s most expensive player when he moved from Barcelona last summer for over $264 million, has been recovering from a fractured bone in his foot the past four months, but is the biggest reason why experts feel Brazil will improve on an already record-best five World Cup titles. Goalkeeper Ederson and forward Gabriel Jesus (both of Manchester City) are other major figures in the side.
- Egypt seems like the inevitable roadblock to Russia, exclusively attributed to the rise of Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, who broke the English Premier League record with 32 goals this season. Unfortunately, Salah was injured in a challenge during the Champions League final last month, casting doubt on his status. If he’s able to return fit and lead Egypt out of the group stage, he could be favored to win FIFA Player of the Year.
- Ronaldo and Messi are unlikely to play internationally past 2020, making this summer’s event a step stool for a select group to earn a place at the top. Alongside Neymar, Belgium winger Eden Hazard, England striker Harry Kane and France midfielder Paul Pogba are among those who could advance their current status.
- With the announcement of a new manager at Real Madrid, and the rumored departure of Ronaldo, one of the world’s greatest spenders appear primed to add a marquee name. Hazard, currently at an in-flux Chelsea, has been rumored. In 2014, Columbia’s James Rodriguez parlayed a breakout performance in Brazil into a move to Real. Inevitably, a another player will elevate and command a larger fee.
- Three of the past four World Cup winners have failed to make it out of the group stage. It’s a big ask of Mexico or South Korea to keep Germany, winner in 2014, from advancing into the knockout stages. Manager Joachim Löw is fortunate to have a robust pool of talent that’s allowed him to transition.
- Second place is for the taking for Mexico. “El Tri” have gone to the Round of 16 any not any further at the past six World Cups, which seems another likely outcome. Many of the goalscorers aren’t finding the net consistently for their club teams, arguably a warning sign for Mexico.
- Can England break the cycle of exiting in major tournaments at the quarterfinal stage? A nation that puts its players on magazine covers like Hollywood stars may be feeling less pressure due to the approach of manager Gareth Southgate. Tottenham’s Kane will be expected to replicate his club form, and he could have as many as three teammates in the XI for the Three Lions. The focus will be on how they perform and the spine of the side.
- Another European side will disappoint, but who? Sixth-ranked Switzerland play a bit boring, so any defensive gaffes could be costly. A golden generation of Belgians disappointed at Euro 2016 and questions exist about their defense.
- Which manager’s strategy will help get the most out of their side? France manager Didier Deschamps will have some of the toughest decisions to make. Does he play the strong, reliable Olivier Giroud at striker, or deputize Antoine Griezmann, the top scorer at Euros? Decisions, decisions.