Our nation has never endured a defeat so heartbreaking or, at least, so recent, as yesterday’s loss to Belgium. In overtime. By one goal. Our collective hearts are shattered, our dreams deferred, our hopes dashed. Not even Tim Howard, U.S. Secretary of Defense, could keep America in the World Cup. (This is possibly because he could not both score and defend us from goals at the same time; one man, even Howard, can only do so much.) Today, we grieve for opportunities lost. But come this weekend, the games must go on. What do you do now, with all your spirit and excitement and soccer-love? How can you best channel this energy for the remaining games of the tournament?
Fret not, readers! With the help of in-house sports genius Travis Waldron, we’ve got the guide you need to figure out who you should root for now. (Click to enlarge.)
BRAZIL: Brazil hasn’t been its best, but the Selecao are still the favorite to win this thing, if only because they’re the host and haven’t lost a competitive match on home soil in some 40 years. When Brazil is on fire — as they were when they defeated Spain in the Confederations Cup final a year ago — they are relentless and fun to watch, attacking the goal without stopping and bumrushing opponents to win the ball back with little abandon. They boast one of the tournament’s most exciting players in Neymar, and they come here with the burden of avenging a loss in the World Cup finals the last time they hosted in 1950: a moment that still haunts the entire nation. If you want to see a host nation go absolutely mad for a World Cup winner, cheer for the Brazilians.
COLOMBIA: Colombia is the most sentimental of the South American teams remaining, a team whose World Cup history is filled more with despair than with celebration. They crashed out infamously in 1994, and their Golden Generation went out mostly with a whimper. Colombia is back now, and even without star striker Radamel Falcao, they play an exciting brand of creative, attacking, relentless soccer that is fun to watch. James Rodriguez has given Los Cafeteros a star in Falcao’s absense (as he showed with a stunning goal against Uruguay), and they have already put together the first trip to a quarterfinal in the country’s history. Now they get Brazil in what could be one of the tournament’s most exciting matches, and a chance for Colombia to keep this run going.
FRANCE: Les Bleus are always one of the most mercurial teams at the World Cup, capable of crashing out early or winning the whole thing, but this team has taken the form of the latter. If you’re riding the hot hand, France is the team, as no side has looked as consistently impressive at this World Cup. The Bleus are also playing exciting soccer and they’re led by one of the world’s hottest strikers in Karim Benzema, who has scored nine times in his last nine games for country. And now they’re entering a match-up with Germany that is heavy with storylines: these two countries have no shortage of political history, of course, and in the 1982 World Cup semifinal, the French lost to Germany after a devastating (and dirty) injury to one of their players that has marked this rivalry since.
GERMANY: Germany entered this World Cup as one of the favorites and looked it in drubbing Portugal in its first match, but since then Die Mannschaft has been less impressive. They drew Ghana and scraped by both the U.S. and Algeria, but don’t sleep on them: Germany isn’t going to excite fans like many other teams, but they’re a disciplined, tactical giant that will use what might be the world’s best midfield to surgically pick apart opponents. Striker Miroslav Klose is just one goal away from setting the career World Cup scoring record, and after a runner-up in 2002 and two consecutive third-place finishes, the Germans are trying to win their first World Cup as a unified nation.
ARGENTINA: Need a reason to root for Argentina? Here are two. First, they have Lionel Messi, who might be the world’s best player and is certainly its most dynamic scorer. Argentina hasn’t looked its best in any match, and yet Messi has bailed them out with late goals and assists on multiple occasions. Second, can you imagine the fun and chaos that would result from a Brazil-Argentina final on South American soil? These two teams played two years ago in New York City and gave us a thrilling 4-3 match. Now picture that in the World Cup final, with Argentina and Messi carrying the weight of expectations and past disappointments. It won’t get much better than that.
BELGIUM: It’d be understandable if American fans don’t want to cheer for Belgium after yesterday, but give it a try. Belgium is the tournament’s dark horse, and the Red Devils are merciless in the attack when they get chances, as they showed American goalie Tim Howard on Tuesday. Of the European teams, Belgium is easily the sentimental favorite, one of the two remaining that has never won a World Cup. This is their shot, and it resumes against an Argentinian team that hasn’t looked its best yet.
NETHERLANDS: The Dutch are the other European side that hasn’t won a Cup, though they finished second in 2010, so they make for another sentimental favorite from the continent that gave us soccer if that’s your style. The Netherlands are a solid team with strong attacking players in Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, and they have no aversion to goals: they put up five against Spain in the opening match and lead the tournament in scoring. The Dutch have reached the final three times but have never won the World Cup.
COSTA RICA: Los Ticos are the obvious underdog choice, a team that emerged improbably from one of the Cup’s toughest groups and held off Greece in the first knockout round. This is the deepest run Costa Rica has ever made — before this year, they had won just four World Cup matches total — and they’re doing it largely on the back of one of the Cup’s biggest breakout players: Joel Campbell, who has both scored and been a general terror for opposing defenses. He’s also responsible for one of the best celebrations in this World Cup. Every team left looks like a traditional soccer power next to Costa Rica, and yet here they are with a chance to land in the semifinals.