By Michael Battista
The U.S. men’s national soccer team’s elimination from World Cup qualification was monumentally embarrassing. Not only did the U.S. fail to qualify in a easy group, but it left its own fate against Trinidad and Tobago teams that had nothing at stake for them.
With that said, I still think sports fans should give their attention to the upcoming 2018 World Cup in Russia — even if the U.S. isn’t playing.
Starting on Thursday, Nov. 9, the final round of qualifications will determine who is heading to Russia from a few confederations. The final four teams from Europe, a select few from Africa and teams from separate confederations will battle in two-leg playoffs to see who advances.
I’m still annoyed that the U.S. won’t be there, but my family heritage is Irish and Italian, two nations whose teams need to win this weekend to join soccer’s biggest event.
Italy has been really subpar lately and now they need to face off against a challenging Sweden. Italy was placed in a group with Spain and lower tier teams such as Albania, meaning one of those two teams would win and the other would go to the playoffs.
Italy nearly lost to Macedonia twice, a side that came second to last in the qualification group and one that Spain beat, 4-0. Gianluigi Buffon, a legendary goalkeeper and Italy’s team captain, is going to be 40 years old when the World Cup starts next summer. If he’s going to retire, he needs to do it in the best way possible.
On the other hand, Ireland shouldn’t have really gotten this far but now has a chance to appear in its fourth World Cup. Heading into the last day of group play, Ireland needed a win over a star-studded Wales side, while the latter only needed a draw or better to advance.
The nail biting match was only won for Ireland by winger James McClean after his goal set the fans into songs serine. Now they need to play against Switzerland, a team that is only in the playoffs after losing its first qualification match to Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal on the last day of group play.
The teams that have already qualified are also fascinating to watch. Iceland is making its World Cup debut this year after winning its qualification group. Iceland was one of the best parts of the 2016 UEFA European Championship. Its shocking win over England during the Round of 16 was a monumental accomplishment.
Then there’s Panama, a country which helped eliminate the U.S. with it’s win over Costa Rica — and scored a goal that should not have counted since it never crossed the line — is also making its World Cup debut.
Fans should not forget the powerhouse favorites that will be the 21st edition of the competition. Portugal, the reigning UEFA champions, Argentina, featuring world-class star Lionel Messi and Germany, the reigning World Cup Champions are only a few of the big names that enter this pitch in Russia.
So while the U.S. can’t play in Russia, why not take a look and adopt a new team? Even if it makes you a bandwagoner for a few weeks, the players and teams themselves are more than worthy of your attention. Maybe you’ll find a new appreciation for a place you never expected to be good, or gain newfound respect for a group of people.
In the end, the World Cup is more about unifying the world with soccer, and we can still take part in that.