Millions of Americans will spend this Thanksgiving weekend watching football. If they instead tune into the soccer World Cup, they’ll discover something infinitely more enthralling.
The World Cup is not soccer at its best, but it might be soccer at its finest. With 32 national teams converging in one place, the sheer spectacle is unmatched by anything except the Olympics. It has the quality of an all-star game, as each team has its country’s finest players, who are brought together only for brief interludes each year. And the short-term competition makes for stunning upsets, just as college basketball’s March Madness does. Japan’s 2-1 upset over perennial power Germany this week is the global equivalent of a 16 seed knocking off a No. 1.
If that doesn’t whet your appetite, consider the winner plays, loser stays element. All 32 teams are currently in the group stage, where four teams play one another once each to determine which two advance. After that, it’s like the NFL playoffs. It doesn’t matter where you’re seeded in the FIFA rankings: You either win or go home. Each game has the intensity that makes college bowl games so exciting.
The final itself is an event that easily dwarfs the Super Bowl. It won’t have a halftime show, but it doesn’t need one. More than 1.1 billion people worldwide tuned in to part of the 2018 final — roughly 1 in 7 on the planet. The Super Bowl dominates American viewership but attracts little attention elsewhere, with a total global viewership of less than 200 million. Outside the United States, the exploits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappé, not Tom Brady, are on everyone’s lips.
American interest will probably increase as the U.S. team improves. Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna and other stars play with some of the best teams in Europe, giving them the experience that makes champions. This year’s men’s national team is also the second youngest in the tournament — so the athletes will spend years playing together after this World Cup to improve as individuals and as a squad.
That experience will come in handy at the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which is to be played in North America. The United States, Canada and Mexico will jointly host an expanded 48-nation extravaganza, with 11 U.S. cities staging most of the games. Teams that host the cup typically do better than expected; even tiny South Korea finished fourth when it played co-host in 2002.
This alone is reason to join the fun now. It takes time to pick up the game’s intricacies, but even novices can appreciate the sheer individual brilliance that can make or break a game. You might see something akin to Gareth Bale’s famous bicycle kick or Son Heung-min dribble the length of the pitch to score. Or perhaps you’ll watch a historically controversial play, such as Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal against England in 1986. It’s like watching the NBA’s greats put on a show — once you see jazz in sporting form, you’re hooked.
There’s also the national pathos inevitably on display. I was in London during the 2018 World Cup when England, the game’s inventor, put on a stirring run to the quarterfinals. Watching that match in a pub with hundreds of fans desperately rooting for it to “come home” but accustomed to heart-wrenching defeats was an experience, as once again England found a way to lose a game it should have won. Rooting for the Three Lions is like being a Boston Red Sox fan during the 86 years they went without a World Series title. If England does win, the long-repressed hope unleashed will make the celebrations alone worth watching.
The Liverpool great Bill Shankly famously remarked that, to him, soccer wasn’t a matter of life and death: It was more important. Most fans would instead agree with Dani Rojas, the Mexican striker for the fictional Richmond Greyhounds on the TV show “Ted Lasso”: “Football is life.”