With devastation still fresh in the American air, even 48 hours later, it is difficult to find consolation in any aspect of the biggest failure in U.S. soccer history. The men’s national team will not be going to the 2018 World Cup. The irreparable damage has been done. This has not been a dream.
But the World Cup will go on. And it will still be the greatest sporting event on earth. It will still be worth every ounce of your emotional investment, every second of your time, and every bit of your interest. Especially if the last week of qualifiers were any indication …
Imagine not liking the greatest sport on Earth. pic.twitter.com/mB9T3jieAa
— Joe Barbieri (@JoeBarbieri_) October 11, 2017
Nothing you are about to read is an argument that the World Cup will be better off without the U.S.; that it will be more fun; that the Americans’ absence will be a blessing in disguise. It won’t be.
But next summer, in a strange sense, will be a unique opportunity. The vast majority of American soccer fans have never experienced a World Cup without the United States. That means the vast majority of diehard USMNT fans are also general soccer fans who have never truly gotten a chance to savor the full flavor of the beautiful game’s quadrennial spectacle, without U.S. excitement and angst consuming their emotions.
[More World Cup coverage: Everything we know about the 32-team field]
In eight months, that chance will present itself. And it won’t disappoint. Here are 10 of the many reasons why.
The greatest player on the planet, and the greatest the sport has ever seen, has never lifted a World Cup trophy. Heck, he’s never lifted a trophy of any kind while wearing the blue and white of Argentina. He’ll turn 31 during next summer’s tournament, meaning it will likely mark his last run at global glory.
It will be the preeminent storyline of an event chock full of them, and it added a thrilling foreword on Tuesday. For months, we were unsure if Argentina would even be in Russia. And when the South American giants went 1-0 down at Ecuador 40 second into their final qualifier, they were pushed to the bring of elimination. But Messi’s brilliance is unrivaled. He scored a hat trick to spare his nation gut-wrenching embarrassment. Newspapers hailed him as the Messiah. Commentators told him they loved him. He will grace our TV screens next summer after all, and it would be sinful to not appreciate each and every one of his touches.
2. Germany’s title defense; Brazil’s quest for revenge
Germany’s dominance of international soccer is ongoing, and extends beyond its 2014 triumph. It didn’t drop a single point in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Only a few months ago, the Germans took a B-team of fringe squad players and youngsters to Russia for the Confederations Cup, and still won with relative ease. Meanwhile, an under-21 side that was effectively also a B-team, because talented young players were off with the senior team, won the U-21 European Championships, beating England and Spain along the way.
So the Germans are the favorites, especially with the tournament in Europe. But Brazil might just be the best team. It is certainly better than it was three-plus years ago, when it ground its way to the semis only to be humiliated by Die Mannschaft. It is certainly a more fun team now than it was back then. Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho are fantastic. The midfield is robust and energetic. The Brazilians have re-injected beauty into their game, and they’ll be the top watch in Russia.
3. Can France contend despite itself?
France has the most entertaining group of players in the world. It also, unfortunately, has a soccer scrooge for a coach, Didier Deschamps. He’s been in charge since 2012, and doesn’t quite have any clue what he’s doing.
But he does have Paul Pogba. And N’Golo Kante. And Antoine Griezmann. And two players worth a combined 325 million euros who might not even crack his starting lineup. And countless other world-class attackers. The talent is endless. But Deschamps has never been able to get the best out of it. Watching France try to figure it out – and perhaps battle to win despite its boss – could be frustrating. But it could also be all kinds of thrilling.
4. Is it Belgium’s time?
The Belgians had a similar dilemma to the French in 2014 with Marc Wilmots in charge. Now they’re a little less restricted by Roberto Martinez. And they, like the French, have top quality players in endless supply. Romelu Lukaku. Eden Hazard. Dries Mertens. Kevin De Bruyne. The list goes on.
But Belgium’s golden generation has never been beyond the quarterfinals of a major tournament. This might be its last chance to make its mark at a World Cup. And our last chance to enjoy them on the world’s biggest stage.
The Belgians won’t fall off the footballing map after Russia 2018. But by the time 2022 rolls around, Mertens will be 35, Hazard 31, De Bruyne 31 and Lukaku 29, not to mention others approaching their 30s. The time for that group, which has put Belgium back on that map, is now.
5. England schadenfreude
With Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Dele Alli, England should actually be fun. But taking joy in England’s inevitable implosions at major tournaments is a biennial rite of passage for soccer fans. Don’t miss out.
6. The Iceland story
It’s an incredible one. It’ll be told countless times between now and July, and every time, it will still be just as remarkable, just as heartwarming, just as inspiring. This will be your underdog to root for. And it won’t just be a cute, but short, cameo; the smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup has every chance of advancing and wreaking some havoc.
7. Other underdogs and first-timers
One of the great joys of every World Cup is watching debutants and other nations who have had extended absences embrace the tournament. They collectively halt everyday life to revel in sport. This time around, we’ll have Panama, which went bonkers after booking its first-ever World Cup trip on Tuesday. We’ll have Egypt, which went wild after securing its first berth since 1990. And we could have Peru for the first time since 1982 if it can win a playoff against New Zealand.
8. Other debutants – players edition
We’ll get to the breakout youngsters in a sec. But there are plenty of established players who’ll be making their first, and perhaps only, World Cup experiences. Robert Lewandowski and Poland have finally made it. Mohamed Salah will be in Russia. Liverpool teammate Sadio Mane will probably join him. Guys like Nemanja Matic and Dusan Tadic aren’t quite as exciting as those other three, but there are plenty of players to whom the world will be introduced who could light up the tournament.
9. The stars who’ll explode
Christian Pulisic would have headlined this list. But it won’t be lacking without him. Some stars, like Kane, have already exploded on the club scene over the past cycle, but the World Cup offers them the opportunity to announce themselves to casual sports fans around the globe. So watch out for that expensive French duo, 18-year-old Kylian Mbappe and 20-year-old Ousmane Dembele. Watch out for Jesus, Rashord and Alli. For Spain’s Marco Asensio and Saul Niguez. For Germany’s Leroy Sane. And for a dozen players not on this list who will blow up as prospects before our eyes.
10. El Tri
Goal’s Jon Arnold put together a USMNT fan guide to jumping on the Mexico bandwagon next summer. I’m on board. When you remove the emotion of the rivalry – which you should be able to do with the U.S. not involved – El Tri are really fun to watch.
11. VAR debates
If you’re the argumentative type, FIFA is planning to use video review at next summer’s World Cup. It’s already been implemented in various leagues around the world, including MLS, and was given its first true test at the 2017 Confederations Cup. It’s a positive step, but it was and is a work in progress. It sparked outrage for many this past summer, and will surely be a controversial subject in Russia.
12. What will the American World Cup experience be like?
I’ll be watching the games. But I’m excited to see how American fans engage with the tournament in the USMNT’s absence. I’m excited because, with patriotism stripped out of the equation, I think there’s a chance some casual sports fans engage with the sport even more, rather than just with their national teams.
And that’s not to mention the many Americans who don’t root for the U.S., or at least not as their primary team. Or the ones who do support the Yanks first and foremost, but already have a secondary rooting interest. With the U.S. out, the vast spectrum of cultures and heritages in America should be better reflected by the media’s coverage of the World Cup, and that’s a major positive. American sports fans will have freedom to explore, to taste-test different players and teams and stories. There’s a chance our collective World Cup experience will be better because of that.
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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.