The U.S. men’s national team will not be at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. If that hasn’t set in just yet, it will on Friday, when the World Cup Draw unfolds in Moscow (10 a.m. ET, Fox Sports 1, Telemundo).
So what, exactly, do you root for during a draw if your team isn’t involved?
It’s a difficult question. The obvious answer is good matchups. But for neutrals, the draw poses dilemmas. For example: Everybody loves a good “Group of Death.” At the same time, don’t we want to see a strong, fun team from Pot 4 like Nigeria make it to the knockout rounds? If Nigeria draws, say, Brazil and Spain, that’s unlikely.
At the other end of the spectrum, on paper, the least entertaining group would comprise a giant, a good but dull second team, and two woefully overmatched ones. But eight such groups would virtually guarantee mouth-watering knockout-round matchups. Wouldn’t we rather have Spain-Germany in the quarterfinals than in the second or third game of the group stage?
These are the questions to consider when constructing the ideal draw.
Fortunately, not all intriguing possibilities involve superpowers. We can get the best of both worlds. To begin, we’ll take a look at the 11 most enticing matchups that the group stage could offer up. Then we’ll list some fun honorable mentions. And finally, we’ll put together two iterations of our dream draw.
First, a reminder: the lists of potential matchups take into account geographical restrictions and seeding. Brazil-Germany would be great, but it can’t happen in the group stage because both teams are in Pot 1. And we can’t have Argentina-Uruguay, or Japan-South Korea, because, with the exception of Europe, teams from the same confederation are separated.
OK, let’s get to the top 11:
11. Germany-England — There’s a lot of history here. But the real reason we want Germany-England is that we’d get to watch the Brits – one by one, gradually, over six months – convince themselves they really can beat the reigning world champs, and that they really are contenders. Brazil-England would serve a similar purpose.
10. England-Iceland — In fact, the better option might be Brazil-England, because then we could also fit Iceland in the group as an ironic contrast to all the inevitable England hype. The smallest nation to ever qualify knocked the Three Lions out of Euro 2016, one of the bigger upsets in major tournament history.
9. Spain-Portugal — It’s the Iberian Derby. It would be Cristiano Ronaldo (and some other La Liga-based Portuguese players) vs. club teammates, but also club enemies. It honestly might not be the greatest soccer match, but there would be storylines aplenty.
8. Argentina-Mexico — What is the most enticing matchup for Mexico? Argentina? Brazil? Germany? I’m genuinely curious. We’ll go with Argentina, in part because there’s a bit of history there. Remember Maxi Rodriguez in 2006? And the Carlos Tevez offside goal in 2010? Plus, if Mexico draws a South American team from Pot 1, they’re guaranteed to get at least one decent European team from Pots 3 and 4. That’d make for a fun group.
7. England-Nigeria — We don’t want Nigeria, the most exciting team from Pot 4, in a boring group. But we don’t want it overwhelmed by a Brazil-Spain duo or anything like that. England is the perfect middle-ground – especially because there’d be subplots. Many prominent members of the Nigerian squad, such as John Obi Mikel, spent significant chunks of their careers in the Premier League. Some are currently playing there (Wilfried Ndidi). Some signed with English clubs immediately after their 18th birthdays (Kelechi Iheanacho). Some moved to England as young children (Alex Iwobi). Some were born in England (Ola Aina). Iwobi and Aina both played for England youth teams. So if you had to choose one Pot 2-Pot 4 matchup, this would probably it. Or maybe it’d be second to …
6. Serbia-Croatia — The Yugoslav Derby. Not much more needs to be said. They clashed for the first time ever in World Cup qualifiers in 2013, but haven’t played since. Oh, and if they’re drawn together, that would mean either Argentina or Brazil were also in the group.
5. Spain-France — They’re neighbors. And they’re both really good.
4. Russia-England — Of all the Pot 1 possibilities for England, why Russia? Just imagine that this is the opening game. Imagine all the hoopla. The last time they met on a football pitch, Russian hooligans attacked Three Lions supporters right after the final whistle. The two groups clashed on the streets of France as well. The countries generally don’t seem overly fond of each other, to put things nicely. The English FA has already beefed up its cybersecurity team because it fears Russia will hack into its systems to steal information on tactics. Just think what the dynamic would be if the two were set to face off. With six months of buildup, there would surely be many other wild stories of that ilk.
3. France-Senegal — Beyond the fact that this game would feature more attacking talent than any other Pot 1 v Pot 3 possibility, there’s the history. There’s the ancient, non-footballing history, of course – Senegal was a French colony from 1783 to 1960 – but more importantly, there’s 2002. Debutant Senegal shocked reigning World Cup and European champion France in the teams’ opening match. It was Senegal’s first triumph of a stunning run to the quarters. The French crashed out without a win. The teams haven’t met since. A 16-year reunion would be excellent.
2. Brazil-Spain — Does it belong in the semifinals rather than the group stage? Yeah. But nobody is going to pass on the possibility of an early-tournament showdown. The last time these two played was the 2013 Confederations Cup final, when they were the two best teams in the world. Brazil romped to a memorable 3-0 win that shot expectations for the following summer through the roof. Those expectations weren’t met, but four years later, the Selecao are even better. And Spain has recovered from a brief rebuild in style. If our sole interest is cramming as much quality as possible onto a single Russian field during the group stage, this is the matchup we want.
1. Argentina-Spain — Lionel Messi has been a strangely divisive figure among some Argentinean fans throughout his career. One of the reasons for the odd relationship between the G.O.A.T. and his native land is that many of those fans feel he’s more Spanish than Argentine. He moved to Barcelona as a 13-year-old, and has spent more than half his life in Catalonia. He’s never played against Spain in a competitive match, and only once in a meaningless post-World Cup friendly in 2010. There would be no better blend of narrative and talent than an Argentina-Spain group stage pairing.
HONORABLE MENTION, CATEGORY 1: GEOGRAPHY
Despite restrictions on some intra-confederation matchups, there are several possible pairings of nations that border each other, or that are separated by a strait or relatively small body of water:
Morocco-Spain — Strait of Gibraltar Derby
Egypt-Saudi Arabia — Red Sea Derby
Iran-Russia — Caspian Sea Derby
England-France — English Channel Derby
England-Belgium — English Channel Derby Lite. Also, Tottenham attack v Tottenham defense.
Switzerland-France — Blatter-Platini FIFA Executive Corruption Derby
Switzerland-Germany — A large portion of the Swiss squad plays in the Bundesliga.
Russia-Sweden — One of those two matchups can be the Baltic Sea Derby.
Russia-Japan — Sea of Japan Derby
Russia-South Korea — The Wow, Russia Is Huge Derby (OK, this might be a bit of a stretch)
HONORABLE MENTION, CATEGORY 2: COLONIZATION
England-Argentina — The Falklands Derby
England-Australia — The Commonwealth Derby
HONORABLE MENTION, CATEGORY 3: SOCCER (MISCELLANEOUS)
Germany-Spain — The last two World Cup winners.
Portugal-England — The Wayne Rooney Stomp Derby
Brazil-England — Mentioned above.
Brazil-Senegal — The Liverpool Attack Derby
Uruguay-Australia — The 2000s Intercontinental Playoffs Derby
Uruguay-Costa Rica — A 2014 rematch.
Belgium-Spain — The Roberto Martinez Derby
Portugal-Iran — The Carlos Queiroz Derby
Argentina-Saudi Arabia — The Edgardo Bauza – er, Juan Antonio Pizzi Derby
THE DREAM DRAW 1.0
Group A: Russia, England, Iran, Nigeria
Group B: Poland, Mexico, Iceland, Japan
Group C: Argentina, Switzerland, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
Group D: Portugal, Spain, Costa Rica, Morocco
Group E: Germany, Peru, Denmark, Panama
Group F: Brazil, Croatia, Tunisia, Serbia
Group G: Belgium, Colombia, Sweden, South Korea
Group H: France, Uruguay, Senegal, Australia
THE DREAM DRAW 2.0
Group A: Russia, Mexico, Iran, Morocco
Group B: Argentina, Spain, Iceland, South Korea
Group C: Poland, Peru, Egypt, Japan
Group D: France, Switzerland, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia
Group E: Germany, England, Costa Rica, Nigeria
Group F: Belgium, Uruguay, Sweden, Australia
Group G: Portugal, Colombia, Denmark, Panama
Group H: Brazil, Croatia, Senegal, Serbia
More FC Yahoo coverage of the 2018 World Cup Draw:
- How the World Cup Draw works
- Matchup probabilities, and what to watch for on Friday
- Why FIFA’s new seeding system will prevent a Group of Death
- Gaming the FIFA Rankings: Why Poland is in Pot 1 ahead of Spain
- The toughest groups in World Cup history
- World Cup Power Rankings: Brazil, Germany lead the way
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.