19. The drama has actually already started.
The World Cup is eight months off and it already has mad drama going: Portugal and Sweden failed to advance out of their regional qualifying groups and now must face one another in a playoff; the winning team goes to the World Cup and the losing team GETS NOTHING AND LIKES IT. This is a really big deal because it means that one of the top players in the world, either Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimović, will not be participating in the tournament. So to say the stakes are high for this matchup is an understatement.
18. And then there’s Mexico.
The current Mexican national team has been ridiculed everywhere for their terrible performance. They’re now in the same situation as Portugal and Sweden — having failed to qualify in their group, they’re in a playoff for a Cup slot with New Zealand. Now, if Portugal or Sweden doesn’t make the World Cup against stiff European competition, it’s a disappointment. But if Mexico, the country with by far the greatest soccer tradition and largest fan base in North America, doesn’t make it…well, let’s not even imagine the consequences. (Though they won the first game of their two-game playoff 5-1 yesterday — whoever scores the most goals in the two games wins — and are probably safe.)
17. Can Team USA make a run?
The USMNT is finally performing at a level befitting the fact that soccer has been a fairly popular sport in this country for going on four decades. During a stellar summer, they won their qualifying group and put together a 12-game win streak on their way to becoming CONCACAF Gold Cup champions. Nobody really knows how well this team will play in Brazil against world powerhouses, but with players like Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey having proven themselves in top overseas leagues, a lack of talent is no longer an excuse for the American squad. The Yanks aren’t the underdogs anymore, which is fine, because everyone always hated us anyway.
16. Will England once again make the world LOL?
Despite winning their qualifying group this year and reaching the quarterfinals in 2002 and 2006, England is not among the top eight seeds for the 2014 Cup. They have talented strikers and defensemen, but they’re weak in other areas and are historically…unpredictable. But given the ardency of England’s fans, it really doesn’t matter if they SHOULD win. Everyone’s going to hilariously freak the hell out if they lose no matter what.
15. Can Spain become possibly the greatest team of all time?
The Spanish national team has won back-to-back Euro Championships and are reigning World Cup champs. They’re one of the favorites next summer in Brazil and they are arguably the most talented all-around team. But defending the Cup is never easy, and it hasn’t happened in 50 years. In fact, the last team to do it was Brazil. So there you go.
14. Lionel Messi’s best chance.
Lionel Messi is an absurdly, obscenely athletic human being. There is literally no one else in the world with his combination of speed and coordination. He’s been declared Diego Maradona’s successor by the man himself, and he’ll be a force in the World Cup if he can stay healthy (he’s out right now with a hamstring injury). Plus, the Argentina team is just ridiculously good. Messi will be 27 next summer, so while this probably isn’t his last Cup, it comes at what is likely the peak of his ability. The best player in the world at his best, on the biggest possible stage? Sí! (That’s Spanish for “yes, Lionel Messi is the man.”)
13. Who will become the World Cup Cinderella story?
There’s always one team that all fans root for after their national team, and it’s usually the same team for everyone — the underdog of the tournament. Who will pull off the big upsets? Who indeed…
12. Team Colombia?
After 16 years, the Colombian national team is finally back in the World Cup, and will no doubt surprise a few casual fans — they’re not a deep team, but they’ve got talent.
11. Team Belgium?
Belgium used to be a staple in the World Cup in the ’80s and ’90s, and this new squad is attempting to get the Flemish mojo back after the country failed to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 Cups. Their rise back in the football world was quick, fueled by a young group of stars. They’re inexperienced, but if they can put it all together at the right time, it’ll be Belgiumsanity all over the place.
10. Team Japan?
Another dark horse. The Japanese national team has high expectations for their fifth consecutive World Cup appearance. Even though they have never made it past the Round of 16, many believe this is the best squad Japan has ever had, featuring forward Shinji Okazaki, who could be a breakout star of the tournament. Japan tends to struggle for goals in the Cup, so he’ll need to be at his best for them to succeed.
9. Team Bosnia and Herzegovina?
The darkest horse. More like a pony. In 1995, Bosnia & Herzegovina played their first FIFA-recognized match, and now they’re in the World Cup for the first time ever after winning their group. That’s cool. Way to go, guys!
8. Goal-line technology, finally, for the love of God.
After a successful trial run at the 2013 Confederations Cup, the World Cup will now feature goal-line installations which will confirm goals automatically within one second by a vibration and visual signal sent to the match official’s watch. Man, technology be crazy, y’all.
7. Soccer WAGs (wives and girlfriends).
Professional soccer players consistently have the hottest girlfriends and wives. You can debate that, but you’d be wrong and it’s not worth your time. And because humans love like-minded people, the WAGs usually hang out together. Bless them.
6. Good-looking players.
Soccer is one of the few sports in the world where every athlete maintains full-body fitness. Players need to have great endurance to last a full match, in addition to upper body strength to fight for position, and powerful legs because of how the game is played by kicking the ball and whatnot. And when you combine a six-pack and toned legs with a good-looking face, which many players do, well, people seem to enjoy that.
5. Good-looking fans.
Brazil literally has the most attractive population in the world. And even if you disagree with that fact, you can’t place them outside the Top 3. If you need some evidence, just open up a Victoria’s Secret catalog or Google these names: Gisele Bündchen, Alessandra Ambrosio, and Adriana Lima.
4. Penalty-kick shootouts.
A lot of people hate on penalty shootouts, but they’re the most nerve-wrecking and intensely spectacular moments in sports. Every shot is its own miniature game of chess, and in the World Cup, it’s a dramatic way to end a match filled with insane pressure.
3. Team Brazil.
It’s one thing to have home-field advantage, but it’s quite another to have the best soccer country on earth playing the most important tournament in front of arguably the most passionate football fans on the globe. Brazil comes into the tournament as heavy favorites, having defeated Spain in the 2013 Confederations Cup. Neymar will get the most attention, coming off of an award-winning Confed Cup, but there’s obviously a lot more to the team. Brazil making the final and scoring the first goal in Rio would pretty much be peak sports euphoria.
2. It’s the World Cup.
This tournament is like the Olympics mixed with college March Madness, only it’s for the most popular sport on Earth. And best of all…
1. There won’t be any more annoying ubiquitous noise-makers.
Vuvuzelas took over the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and were unfortunately the soundtrack of the tournament. So Brazil, looking to capitalize for some reason on that phenomenon, announced their own percussion instrument for fans: the caxirola (pictured above). BUT. The maraca-like instrument has since been banned from stadiums for safety reasons. Hallelujah!