2018 World Cup will be great, albeit different

By CHRISTIAN MORTENSEN

When the world shift its attention to Russia next summer for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, it 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.

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.

But for those in America, where the game isn’t nearly as popular as it is pretty much everywhere else, this edition of the every four-year event 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 names 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 strange not to 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 play well enough during European Qualification to make it into a playoff. This means we 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 fall in love with every four years won’t be going to Russia either. 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 World Cups have provided some unforgettable moments. Who could forget Landon Donovan’s injury time goal that won against Algeria in 2010? Or Clint Dempsey’s go-ahead goal against Ronaldo and Portugal in Brazil 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.

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