Forget for a moment about the one big story line hanging over the FIFA World Cup – you know, the irksome fact that when the tournament begins on June 14 the United States won’t be in it.
The world’s biggest sporting event still offers plenty of appeal, with a collection of the greatest names in the sport dueling it out.
Fox Sports commentator John Strong and former U.S. national team star and Fox analyst Alexi Lalas break down the top talking points heading into the World Cup.
1. Messi's last chance
Lionel Messi is already one of soccer’s greats, but he has never led Argentina to a major title. He was devastated to lose in the final last time, and at 31 this month, this figures to be his final chance.
Lalas: “It is his last realistic shot. He is battling the past, he’s battling himself, battling not just his home nation but the perception and judgment of the world. It wears on him, but that’s the challenge. Whether Messi wins a World Cup plays a role in where he will be seen in that pantheon of greats.”
Strong: “It is hard to imagine he will be back in four years. The question is if Messi doesn’t win the World Cup, will he always be a rung lower than Pele or Maradona on the all-time list, despite everything he has achieved in club soccer?”
2. Eye on Putin
Russia is never far from the top of the news cycle these days and Vladimir Putin’s government is getting ready to stage soccer’s grandest tournament. How much will Russia itself be part of the narrative this summer?
Strong: “I don’t know if we are going to have a global sporting event any time in the near future where there aren’t some kind of concerns. Not to whitewash some of the darker realities, but I do think there is a value in tuning into a sporting event and just enjoying the game and maybe forgetting about what else is going on for a little while.”
Lalas: “Russia has a vested interest in the world having a good time there during the World Cup. It is a great advertisement for the county. I am looking forward to going there and having my preconceived notions examined and tested.”
3. Ronaldo reigns
Cristiano Ronaldo led Portugal to a European Championships title in 2016 and is gearing up for what might be his final World Cup. How does he stack up on the list of international sporting megastars?
Strong: “Ronaldo is a global brand on a scale far surpassing that of any American athlete. Any corner of the world you go to, he is a monumental superstar. There is only one way he can get even bigger. Win the World Cup.”
4. Ice cool?
Everyone loves a Cinderella story and Iceland is many people’s adopted team. What makes their tale so special?
Lalas: “You want to put your arms around them and sing and celebrate this incredible accomplishment of a tiny country flexing its muscles. In America, we have 300 million people and we are trying to figure things out. Iceland is doing it with 330,000. Brave, hard-working players, passionate fans and a giant-killing mentality. … it’s all there.”
5. Mexico move on?
Mexico has reached the last 16 in six straight World Cups, but gone no further each time. Can they reach the elusive “Game 5” here?
Lalas: “Based on ability, this is the most under-performing national team in history. It is a mental thing. I don’t worry about Mexico against superior opponents, but I do worry about them getting complacent against what they perceive against inferior opponents.”
6. Who knocks off Germany?
Germany took the title four years ago with a stunning and ruthless display and it is hard to see them getting beaten. Could it be they are now even stronger?
Strong: “It is mind-blowing to think of the players they have left out. Leroy Sane was one of the very best in the English Premier League last season, yet there is no spot for him. The strength in depth is off the charts.”
7. Super Salah
Mohamed Salah has blossomed into one of the world’s most exciting players and for that reason, Egypt is desperately hoping he recovers from the shoulder injury he sustained in the Champions League final last month.
Lalas: “This is sacrilege to some but a few weeks ago I suggested that Salah in that moment was the No. 2 player in the world behind Ronaldo, which obviously meant Messi is not.”
Strong: “During a difficult period for his country he has become a star for world soccer and an icon for the Arabic world. For fans who haven’t seen him play much before, well, you’re in for a treat.”
8. Brazil's brawn
Neymar is still the undisputed star of the Brazil team, but the pieces around him seem to be stronger now.
Lalas: “He is coming into a team that is better balanced and more capable of dealing with adversity. Neymar is the main man, but they would have a chance to win even without him. They don’t want to necessarily try, but it shows that it can’t be all on his shoulders anymore.”
9. Return of Rodriguez
After shining for Colombia, James Rodriguez left the last World Cup seemingly poised to become one of the very best players in the world. The intervening years have seen him fall short of that potential. What does this tournament hold in store for him?
Strong: “The World Cup is a snapshot and we draw broad conclusions out of it. Sometimes a guy can have an incredible few weeks and our perception of him is distorted a little bit. A couple of great games can make you an icon. James has the chance for a great redemption story after a tough couple of years.”
10. Sneaky England
England always flatters to deceive. Any chance they are the real deal this time?
Lalas: “I am cautiously optimistic. I like the manager (Gareth Southgate) and finally the English public seems to have more realistic expectations. If Harry Kane fires, there is no reason why they can have a good run.”
11. American anguish
It is painful to think about, but how much does the USA’s failure to qualify take some shine off the tournament?
Lalas: “It is disingenuous to say that it doesn’t matter. It does matter. It was an incredible failure. But there isn’t a country in the world more capable of coping with a World Cup without its team than this one, because of our incredible diversity. There will be a discovery process for fans about who to root for. Whether it is because you like their uniforms. Or their chants, or you think they’re good looking, something is going to speak to you.”