Joey Gulino: Welcome back to the Mixer everyone! Today the FC Yahoo crew will help you figure out who to root for with the United States missing the World Cup for the first time in 32 years.
I know Mexico is an obvious answer, whether some of you USMNT loyalists choose to admit it or not, and I would like to see a fellow CONCACAF side do well. The other guys will make their arguments in that regard. But I’m gonna start us off with a swerve.
I’m rooting for Belgium.
I’ve never been there, and no family member of mine is Belgian. But as a neutral (which the stupid freaking $#@*%!& U.S. national team has forced me to be), very few things have given me the rush that a new nation winning the World Cup has. I’m fortunate, as I’ve witnessed two such occurrences in my lifetime (France in 1998, Spain in 2010), and it’s been a thrill. The citizens are so happy. The nationalism is out in full force, in the best possible way. Zinedine Zidane’s two-goal spearheading of the ‘98 final, and Andres Iniesta’s immortalized moment of composure, technique and exuberance in ‘10, have always stuck with me, both as a soccer fan and as a sports fan.
Belgium has never won the World Cup, and indeed, only eight countries have. It’s an ultra-exclusive group, at least over the first nine decades or so of the competition’s existence, and to see Belgium join it would be enthralling. Moreover, they have a realistic shot to do so, which you simply can’t say for 80 percent of the field. Belgium fields an eminently likeable squad, too. Kevin de Bruyne, Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, these are all great players to watch, regardless of your club affiliation. I don’t care that Belgium knocked the USMNT out of the last World Cup. I want them to win this one. Sue me.
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Joey, I like the Belgium shout. I grew up there. I love a lot of the players. I want Belgium to do well. I would just caution against rooting for them too hard. Charles de Gaulle once called Belgium an “aberration of history.” It’s basically made up of scraps that were once the Netherlands, France and Germany, which in turn were once a bunch of other empires.
The Belgians don’t offend anybody, ever. They’re a quiet people, who have beef with absolutely nobody. But that’s also why I suspect their team will underperform relative to its absurd talent — which is all the more impressive when you consider that its population is only 11 million, which is New York City plus Chicago.
When Belgium reached the quarterfinals in Brazil by beating, well, you know, in extra time, head coach Marc Wilmots declared himself pleased because the Red Devils, so nicknamed, had reached their objective.
This, too, is very Belgian: an overarching modesty that I don’t think serves you well at the World Cup. Frank de Boer once told me that the difference between the 1998 Dutch World Cup team, which he’d captained, and the 2010 one, on which he was an assistant coach, was that in ‘98, they were “just happy to have made the semifinals” before losing to Brazil. A dozen years later, however, they expected to reach the final. And so they did.
I don’t know that Belgium is programmed psychologically to expect enough of itself. This team should be competing to win the World Cup, but I don’t think the players, coaches or fans are actually putting that demand on them.
On the field, they players are skillful. But are they too nice as a collective? Are they hungry enough? Or are they already sated by the mountain of silverware their players have won at the club level?
Doug McIntyre: Enough about Belgium. I know what many diehard U.S. national team fans are thinking right now. El Tri is the USMNT’s blood enemy. The fact that they’re in Russia and the USMNT isn’t is difficult to stomach, especially after San Zusi saved their chorizo and allowed them to qualify for 2014. Root for them? You’ve got to be kidding.
If you’ve read this far, though, let me also try to convince you why a red, white and blue backer might consider it. Not only is manager Juan Carlos Osorio familiar to MLS fans, he’s also highly unlikely to return to Mexico’s sideline after the World Cup is over.
In addition to his stints coaching the Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls a decade ago, Osorio also attended college stateside. The native Colombian adores the U.S., loved living here, and he still has plenty of of ties to the country in the form of family and friends. The roots there run deep.
And unless people aren’t doing their jobs, Osorio will be on U.S. Soccer’s shortlist of candidates for the wide-open U.S. coaching job, which most folks expect to be filled before the summer is out. You wouldn’t be doing your duty as a U.S. supporter if you can’t bring yourself to at least hate-watch Mexico this summer, if only to see how Osorio performs on the biggest stage there is. Who knows? Maybe that grudging respect will turn to genuine admiration. Besides, are you really going to root for Germany instead?
Leander Schaerlaeckens: I’ve argued it in this space before: root for Mexico this summer.
Choose love; not hate. What do you care? The U.S. isn’t in this thing anyway. And let’s be honest, this isn’t exactly a rivalry right now. So it’s not like cheering for Mexico is somehow at the expense of the Yanks.
There are plenty of fun countries to get behind. But England will only bore you with its predictable disappointment; Iceland is a hipster cliché; France and Argentina will break your heart; and supporting Spain, Germany or Brazil is too easy for a sophisticated fan like you.
So why not Mexico? They’re our neighbors, and this is a good time for some fence-mending. Because, well, you know.
Besides, Mexico attempting to finally get through to the quarterfinals after six consecutive round of 16 eliminations will provide great theater. And if it succeeds, it would be good for the region, just as Costa Rica’s surprise run in 2014 improved CONCACAF’s image.
Mexico is a fun team capable of pretty soccer that’s largely in its prime and has plenty of connections to the U.S. Stars like Carlos Vela and brothers Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos now star for the two Los Angeles teams. More, like talismanic striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and El Tri captain Andres Guardado, might follow after the tournament.
Joey Gulino: Good points all around. Allow me to wrap up by saying that not only will Mexico have my backing, but Costa Rica and Panama will, too. Costa Rica shocked everyone and won a supposed “Group of Death” in 2014, and goalkeeper Keylor Navas is fresh off his third straight Champions League title with Real Madrid, so Los Ticos won’t be lacking for confidence.
Panama … well, Panama might be the worst team in Russia. No offense guys, but I feel like my support for you this month won’t last longer than three matches.
World Cup coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• 2018 World Cup preview hub
• Top 25 players who aren’t going to Russia
• Group previews: A | B | C | D | E
• 9 surprises as all 32 World Cup squads are confirmed
• Schaerlaeckens: This is Putin’s World Cup, with FIFA’s permission