World Cup 101
The group stages of the World Cup are wrapping up with some of the strangest events I've witnessed in my experience with this event. And yes, I get it, the US Men's National Team (as well as Italy and Holland) didn't qualify, so naturally the entire nation doesn't really care about the sport that creates waves across the world, but hey, it's nice to be informed, right?
Well, if you're down to learn about the biggest sporting event in the world, here's a rundown of what you should know:
It's hosted in Russia... and Russia is kind of killing it.
With 12 stadiums carrying around 50,000 people each, Russia's soccer team seems to be benefitting from playing on their home turf. Opening the tournament up with a stellar 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia, Russia qualified for the knockout stages with the highest number of goals scored. The hosts may have placed second in their group, but they're formidable and scheduled to play Spain in the Round of 16. Luckily for them, Spain has been struggling a little bit so they might make it to the quarter-finals.
So yeah, what's going on with Spain?
An international favorite team since their 2008 Euros win, the Spaniards buckled their way to clinch the top spot in Group B, with Portugal trailing them with almost identical stats throughout the group stages. Spain's team consists of star players that essentially make up the greater part of El Clasico, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid (sans Argentinian Messi and Portuguese Ronaldo). Perhaps because of the lack of their respective team anchors, Spain suffered an awkward rise to the top of their group with a draw to Portugal and Morocco, as well as a shaky win over Iran. Star goalkeeper David de Gea (of Manchester United) has been pretty disappointing in all three games, conceding 5 goals in the group stages. Meanwhile, I think the stars have aligned to haunt Sergio Ramos–the man that breathes red cards–for injuring Mo Salah during the Champions League final. They're the team I'm rooting for to win the title, so hopefully de Gea picks it up and makes a few more blocks.
Things are Messy for Messi
Argentina sat at the bottom of Group D, a sad reality for world-class and GOAT Lionel Messi. After a draw with Iceland and a massive loss to Croatia, it's hard to watch the genius of Barcelona face another bitter World Cup. Only four years ago, Messi watched his team fall to Germany in the World Cup finals and not long after, lost another title to Chile for the Copa America. The tense game with Nigeria for the remaining spot for the knockout round showed to be a nail-biter–an 87th minute goal was a glimmer of hope for the Argentinians. It helped them advance to the group stages, and everyone's hoping Messi shines with his team in the knockouts.
You Get an Own Goal! EVERYONE GETS AN OWN GOAL!
The 2018 World Cup has already tied the 1998 World Cup's record of own goals (an inadvertently scored goal by the defensive team). Six own goals have plagued a sad reality for the teams; early own goals in the group stages crushed Morocco's hopes of progressing. We love breaking World Cup records, but maybe this isn't the one we want here.
Players to Watch in the Round of 16:
1. Kevin de Bruyne of Belgium
The Manchester City midfielder is what I imagine the lovechild of Prince Harry and Ron Weasley would look like. He fittingly is a royal wizard on the pitch, in my eyes. His ability to maneuver through unseen spaces around the goal is incredible; de Bruyne's playing style is clinical yet entertaining. While he hasn't put any goals up on the board yet, I expect big things from him. Add Chelsea's Eden Hazard into the mix and Belgium starts looking like a likely contender for the World Cup.
2. Toni Kroos of Germany
Toni Kroos has been one of my favorite players since he just a youngin' on Bayern Munich. Kroos currently plays for Real Madrid as one of their anchor midfielders. He has killer aim and an awareness for space that makes him a pretty scary force for opponents. Kroos' last minute winning goal against Sweden in the group stages is just one of his many moments that leave people floored.
3. Luis Suarez of Uruguay
If you know me, you know I'm not at all a fan of Luis Suarez (post-2010 2-1 match with South Korea that made him impossible to like, of course... World Cup grudges never end for me). However, there's something about his skill and crazy antics that make him exciting to watch. Who knows what Suarez is going to do? A laughable handball? Bite someone? He keeps me on my feet.
Players to Watch in the Round of 16 (if you don't like soccer but you like watching soccer)
Okay yeah, most of my friends watch the World Cup to find a younger version of David Beckham. I get it. While my one-true-love Javi Martinez didn't even make the cut for Spain this year, I promise you, there are plenty of fish in the sea. Sometimes, watching sports is much more enjoyable with a nice view. Here are three players that have made group stages enjoyable for me. (Yes, I left out Ronaldo. I'm not sorry.)
1. Neymar Jr. of Brazil
2. Ousmane Dembele of France
3. Luka Milivojević of Serbia
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