By CHRISTIAN MORTENSEN
When the eyes of the world shift their collective attention to Russia next summer for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, there is no doubt they will behold the grandest of sporting spectacles. As always, some of the best athletes on the planet will be on display as the different cultures of the world come clashing together on the largest possible stage.
Many of the qualities of the tournament that make it special for so many people will be the same. Around the world, interest in the world’s greatest soccer tournament will be as high as ever. There is no doubt it will remain the most watched sporting event of the year worldwide.
But for those in America, where the beautiful game isn’t nearly as popular as it is pretty much everywhere else, this edition of the every four-year event certainly will be a different one.
Cristiano Ronaldo will be there, as will Lionel Messi and Neymar. But for the young American soccer fan, some of the biggest mainstays in the tournament won’t be.
To get things started, the 2006 World Champions and one of the most recognized national teams in the world, Italy will miss the World Cup for the first time since 1958, after a Sweden side without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, eliminated them 1-0 in a European Playoff Qualifier on Nov. 13. And even though the quality of the Italian side has dropped considerably since its 2006 glory in Germany, it still will feel weird to not have the Italians around in Russia.
And how about the Netherlands? The 2010 runners-up and 2014 third-place finishers, who boast some of the best players in the world, didn’t even play well enough during European Qualification to make it into a playoff. This means we all will miss seeing those orange jerseys, the majestic left foot of Arjen Robben and the in-air acrobatics of Robin van Persie next summer. (Google “Robin van Persie Spain World Cup Goal” if you are bored sometime, trust me.)
Or what about Chile? The current South American champions, with all the star power of Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez and Bayern Munich workhorse Arturo Vidal, will be at home watching with the rest of us, while little old Peru claimed the final spot in a loaded South American Qualifying Campaign.
And then, of course, is the beloved U.S. men’s national team. The underdog team that Americans seem to fall in love with every four years won’t be going to Russia either, and it has nothing to do interference from Donald Trump. This absence, of course, will be the biggest difference for Americans from prior World Cups.
Popularity in soccer has been growing exponentially in the three decades since the United States last missed the World Cup, and the U.S. matches in the last couple tournaments have provided some of the most unforgettable moments in recent memory. Who could forget Landon Donovan’s injury time goal that won the group against Algeria in 2010? Or Clint Dempsey’s go ahead goal against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in the Brazilian jungle in 2014?
It will be the lack of moments like this, the ones that made all Americans come together as something we are not used to being (underdogs), that will make next summer feel just a little bit weird.
So even though it will be great to see if Cristiano and Messi can add that elusive World Cup to their trophy cases, or watching Brazil and England try to bounce back after national embarrassments in 2014, Russia 2018 will be as much about who isn’t there as about who is.