The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off June 14. The contest, which happens every four years, is the world's most widely viewed sporting event. The question is, will Americans tune in without a dog in the fight? The U.S. failed to qualify for the first time since 1986.
American sports fans have long held the game of soccer at arm's length. If "soccer is life," as they say in other countries, here it's more of a head-scratcher. As a country that relates to sports through scoring, soccer's appeal carries a handicap due to its low-scoring nature. The anticlimactic prospect of a draw, where neither team leaves the field victorious, seems downright un-American. And it's not really in the DNA of Americans to admit they just don't understand a sport. Many Americans presume they do know soccer and remain dismissive — after all, they played it in high school gym class and have been to a few of their nephew's youth games.
For those wishing to understand what diehard "football" fans around the globe feel for the game, a World Cup without the United States may not be the worst thing. Patriotism can have a blinding effect, keeping us from appreciating things foreign. Besides 19-year-old wonderkid Christian Pulisic, our men's national team is devoid of world-class players. So, if we're interested in the goods, we must look elsewhere. This year's World Cup should not disappoint.
While club soccer is the primary vehicle by which soccer fans usually enjoy the sport, every four years the World Cup sees players return to their home countries to compete. The drama surrounding World Cup soccer is rich and storied. And even though it's a team competition, the tournament's folklore unfailingly gravitates towards individual players.
This year will be no different, as Argentina's Lionel Messi and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo are central to the debate of who is the greatest player of all time, alongside retired legends Pelé (Brazil) and Diego Maradona (Argentina). Many assert any player deserving the G.O.A.T title must win a World Cup for his country. Pele and Maradona both did it, Messi and Ronaldo have not. The spotlight will tighten on them this year since Ronaldo (age 33) and Messi (30) are likely entering their last World Cup in top form.
This year's World Cup reminds us that we live in a world, not merely a country. If the American sports fan isn't too bitter about having been told to take our ball and go home, we may find our attention drawn by the enduring beauty and excitement that surrounds the World Cup. ♦