The FIFA World Cup has now been winnowed down to just eight teams. There are just seven matches left that count for anything (there is also a third place consolation match, which is both quaint and strange) and by July 15, people won't have to hear anything about Russia again for a while I'm sure.
But with the USA not even making the tournament and Mexico getting eliminated in the Round of 16 for the seventh straight tournament, just who should local fans root for? The tournament is definitely wide open and it wouldn't be too hard to believe that any of the eight teams left could win it all, with the exception of Russia.
The quarterfinals take place on Friday and Saturday, the last two days of doubleheaders in the tournament. Uruguay will place France in Nizhny Novgorod at 7 am Friday with Brazil playing Belgium in Kazan at 11 am. Saturday's matches are Sweden versus England in Samara at 7 am and Russia versus Croatia in Sochi at 11 am. Friday's winners will meet in a semifinal on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. Saturday's winners will play Wednesday in Moscow.
None of the eight countries are exactly close to us in Los Angeles (the closest one technically is France, whose overseas department of Guadeloupe, is about 3500 miles from Los Angeles). However, it's not that hard to find people from any of these countries in Southern California. Although in the 2010 Census, only 694 people in Los Angeles identified themselves as natives of Uruguay.
But here's my cheat sheet of sorts for casual fans who want a rooting interest.
France - The French looked pretty bad in the warm up matches before the World Cup started, but have started to play very well. They won an electrifying Round of 16 match over Argentina 4-3, thanks to two goals by 19-year old Kylian Mbappé. If the French can shore up the defense a little better or get more production from its more established stars, Antoine Griezmann or Olivier Giroud, they could be headed to the final. France won the championship in 1998 and finished second in 2006.
Note: France has played Uruguay three times in the World Cup and has lost once and played two scoreless draws.
Uruguay - Uruguay has won all four of its matches so far in Russia and has never trailed in any match. La Celeste has never trailed at any time in the tournament. Uruguay's attacking pair, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, were born just about a month apart in 1987 in the city of Salto. Cavani scored twice in Uruguay's 2-1 win over Portugal, but did leave early with an injury. If Cavani is healthy (and it's looking like he's not), Uruguay would be a formidable foe for France. Uruguay has given up just one goal in four matches. If you want to root for a small country, Uruguay is your pick. Note: There are more people in Los Angeles than all of Uruguay, 3.9 million people in Los Angeles to just 3.4 million in Uruguay.
Brazil - If you want a safe and always popular pick, Brazil is the team to back. The five-time champions looked a little shaky in a draw against Switzerland and a win against Costa Rica, but they rolled past Serbia and Mexico. Brazil's star, Neymar, can be forgiven for his somewhat theatrical dives and rolls on the field because he is producing on the field. Brazil was humiliated in the 2014 World Cup, losing in the semifinals at home to Germany by a 7-1 margin. But, they have some injury problems in the back. However, they are still Brazil and there is no shortage of talent.
Note: None of the six teams that have eliminated Mexico in the Round of 16 since 1994 went on to win that year's World Cup, or even finished second.
Belgium - Brazil's quarterfinal opponent is the popular dark horse candidate to win, even though Belgium is far from an underdog. The Belgians are ranked #3 in the world, and they haven't lost in 23 matches dating back to 2016. Belgium fell behind Japan 2-0 in the second half of its second round match, but then came back to win it with three goals in a 20 minute span. The Belgians have great players at every position. Since it's hard to compare teams at this level, reputation counts for a lot, so Brazil's expansive trophy shelf counts for a lot more than Belgium's talent. Belgium has made the semifinals just once, back in 1986.
Note: Belgium's only major tournament win was in the 1920 Olympics, held in Antwerp. And their opponent in the final, Czechoslovakia, gave up in the middle of the match to protest unfair officiating.
England - After losing three times previously in the World Cup on penalties, the English finally won a tiebreaker, beating Colombia 4-3 from the spot after a 1-1 draw. The English have scored a lot of goals (9), three of them on penalties, which has helped Harry Kane to the scoring lead in the tournament (to earn a trophy called the Golden Boot) with six goals. Kieran Trippier, a teammate of Kane at Tottenham, could be England's most valuable player in the tournament, controlling the ball both on offense and defense.
Note: Every player on the English team plays in England. No other team left in the tournament has all of its players playing in its own domestic league.
Sweden - The Swedes are unlikely going to convince someone who is not a soccer fan to embrace the sport. They are a well-organized defensive group. Their only goal in the 1-0 win over Switzerland came on a deflection. Sweden is not likely to have any defensive breakdowns against England. Sweden is looking for its first semifinal appearance since 1994, when they lost 1-0 to Brazil at the Rose Bowl. (I was there. It was hot. Very hot. Very very hot.) The most famous Swedish soccer player is on the LA Galaxy (Zlatan Ibrahimović, of course), but this far less well known team may just make it to the final.
Note: Sweden may end up facing Brazil in the final. If so, it would be their eighth meeting. Sweden has not won any of them, but did manage two draws. An eighth meeting would also be a record for most frequent meeting in the World Cup.
Croatia - The smallest European country (4.6 million people) left in the World Cup is loaded with talent. Croatia's stars play in the top leagues of Europe and often on the best teams. Midfielder Luka Modric plays for Real Madrid. Defender Dejan Lovren plays for Liverpool. Striker Mario Mandzukic plays for Juventus. Croatia won all three of its group matches, including a 3-0 demolition of Argentina. The Croats advanced 3-2 on penalties after drawing with Denmark 1-1. Despite having a national federation that is in turmoil, Croatia should have more than enough talent to move on to its first semifinal since 1998.
Note: Croatia has only two players on its roster who play for Croatian clubs.
Russia - The home team, the lowest rated team in the World Cup, is still around, much to the surprise of many people, such as me. Since it's Russia, people are attributing their presence in the quarterfinals to some sort of shenanigans, either doping or bribery, or maybe both. It's more likely that the Russians have just been fortunate. They're playing at home. They had two fairly weak opponents in group play in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They looked totally outclassed in a 3-0 loss to Uruguay. Russia moved on 4-3 in penalties after drawing 1-1 with Spain. Spain dominated possession, but Russia just sat back and never let Spain get much in the way of scoring opportunities. Russia will probably need the same approach against Croatia, but it's not easy to pull that off multiple times. In a normal, logical, fair world, Croatia would mop the floor with Russia. (Note, I make no guarantees about the state of the world.)
Note: Russia's only semifinal appearance came in 1966 playing as the USSR. 2018 is the first time a Russian Federation team has made it out of group play.
So, your choices are the dynasty (Brazil), the young star (France), the experienced Slavs (Croatia), the talented, but untested team (Belgium), the team whose fans always expect to lose (England), the somewhat dull, but well-organized Scandinavians (Sweden), the tiny soccer powerhouse (Uruguay), or ... Russia.