Argentina's Lionel Messi, left, and Brazil's Neymar, right, gun for glory as they lead their squads into the World Cup quarterfinals.
There is a cruel paradox to the World Cup. The better it gets — the higher the quality rises, the closer we get the World Cup final (this year on July 13) — the more fans are left on the outside looking in.
The United States learned heartbreak the hard way on Thursday when, despite the valiant efforts of new American hero Tim Howard, it lost a gut-wrenching 2-1 elimination match to Belgium. Millions of American fans are now left directionless while the tournament progresses toward what's sure to be an extremely dramatic denouement.
But this is no place for American exceptionalism — the USA is but one of 24 nations who entered the World Cup with a dream that's now but a memory. Collectively, those 24 countries represent nearly 1.4 billion people — plus all the fans whose nations didn't even qualify for the World Cup to begin with and have seen their adopted favorites knocked out as well.
So, with just eight teams left and the World Cup quarterfinals about to kick the drama into overdrive on Friday and Saturday, most of us need to pick a new squad to support. The only question: Who?
Fear not — we've got you covered. Read on for our handy guide on just which World Cup team is your new perfect match.
If you pull for perfect endings ...
Everything is set up for a storybook ending for the host country, right down to the World Cup final, which will take place at the legendary Estádio Maracanã, where Brazil suffered a huge upset in the 1950 World Cup final. That loss that still haunts its national psyche. The 2014 tournament — Brazil's first turn hosting since 1950 — is seen as a must-win quest to atone for the sins of the past.
There's just one problem, however: the Seleção has not looked great so far. Wunderkind striker Neymar has been his usual spectacular self and veteran goalkeeper Julio Cesar came up huge in a round-of-16 shootout against Chile, but the squad as a whole has looked decidedly average.
If Brazil bows out early — a distinct possibility, given their next opponent — the team will be seen as a failure. Heck, anything less than a championship would be a let down; players and coaches have admitted as much. The pressure on Brazil is tremendous, but if Neymar and company can pull through to win it all, we'd have nothing less than a perfect, storybook ending to what's been a thrilling World Cup.
Brazil takes on Colombia on Friday at 4 p.m. ET.
If you believe in demigods ...
Get behind Argentina.
Why? Lionel Messi, Lionel Messi and Lionel Messi. The "little genius," as he's called by some, is the closest thing we have to a deity walking this green Earth. He scored four of Argentina's six goals as Messi — er, Argentina — won Group F easily. Here they are, for your viewing pleasure.
Soccer legend Diego Maradona single-handedly carried Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title. It looks like Messi will have to do the same if La Albiceleste is to reach the finals this year. If he can lead Argentina to a title — on top of his otherworldly club career with FC Barcelona — Messi will shoot past Pelé in many people's minds for the title of Best Soccer Player in Human History.
Argentina could certainly use some help from its supporting cast to become a more serious contender. But for fans of epic performances, Messi's one-man show will do just fine.
If you think youth must be served ...
Root for Belgium.
The Red Devils are currently riding the wave of a "golden generation," the term for when a stunningly talented group of domestic talent all comes of age at just the same time. That prompted many to label Belgium a dark-horse contender for the title in Brazil.
Realistically, however, Belgium is likely four years away. In 2018, most of its core will still be in their primes, but they'll all be older, wiser, tougher and more experienced.
But maybe you don't think talent should wait its turn. Maybe you like the idea of this group from the land of beer, chocolate and waffles jumping ahead in line and saying, "Nope, we're talking what we want now." If so, Belgium is the squad for you. They're certainly talented and fun to watch, featuring a deep cast of English Premier League stars including Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini and Thibaut Courtois.
Belgium takes on Argentina on Saturday at 12 p.m. ET.
If you know that hips don't lie ...
Pull for Colombia.
Los Cafeteros perform by far the best goal celebration in the World Cup, but the routines are more than just goof-offs — they reflect the looseness of the team's open, exciting and just plain fun brand of soccer.
James Rodriguez, just 22 years old, has burst into the international consciousness with a downright thrilling World Cup performance to date. If the tournament ended today, he'd be named its best player. Here's but a small sample, from Los Cafeteros' group-stage matchup with Japan.
So yes, if you want to get behind the funnest team to watch so far, Los Cafeteros are the group for you.
Colombia takes on Brazil on Friday at 4 p.m. ET.
If you can't resist the bad boys ...
Pull for the Netherlands.
Dutch soccer is best known for a style called Total Football, a free-flowing, attacking mode of play in which players are virtually interchangeable by position and end up producing something beautiful to watch.
In the past two World Cups, however, the Netherlands have made some of their biggest splashes with controversial moments. In the 2010 final, Nigel de Jong delivered this brutal cheap shot to Spain's Xabi Alonso.
Then, in this year's round of 16 against Mexico, offensive star Arjen Robben took a massive dive in the penalty box that led to the Netherlands' game-winning penalty kick and sent El Tri home in one of the most devastating ways possible. Many other players would have pulled the same stunt, but Robben's long-standing reputation for diving gave it a more odious tinge. Were it not for serial biter Luis Suarez, Robben might have become this tournament's biggest villain to date.
But for all the things that are so easy to hate, the Netherlands offers an irresistibly appealing counter: a handful of world-class stars, led by Robben and Robin van Persie, who are capable of putting together breathtaking soccer displays. So if you like some yin with your yang, the Dutch are the ones for you.
The Netherlands takes on Costa Rica on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET.
If you root for redemption ....
Les Bleus embarrassed themselves at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when an underage prostitution scandal rocked the squad just before the tournament began, a star was kicked off the team, players staged a miniature revolt and they didn't win a single match.
In May, just before Les Bleus left for Brazil, Adidas staged a public demolition of the squad's bus from 2010 to dispel the bad juju as fans cheered on in Paris.
The ritual — or more likely, a more cohesive group of players — has paid off. France looks great entering the quarterfinals, playing some of the World Cup's best football overall. From Karin Benzema up front to precocious young midfielder Paul Pogba, this is a squad that plays an entertaining, attacking brand of soccer and has already put to rest the ghosts of 2010.
Winning the entire tournament, which would be the second in French history, would be the ultimate redemption.
France takes on Germany on Friday at 12 p.m. PT.
If you love underdogs ...
Pull for Costa Rica.
For the first time in World Cup history, all eight group winners have advanced to the quarterfinals. But make no mistake: Costa Rica is the underdog in this remaining field, and it's not even close.
Costa Rica was actually the distinct underdog in its own Group D, which it then won handily. Many scribes (this one included, I regret to say) labeled Costa Rica as the only weak link in what would have otherwise been a true "Group of Death" with Italy, England and Uruguay. Los Ticos have not lost yet, stunning Uruguay 3-1 to open group play, beating Italy 1-0 and drawing with England 0-0 before taking Greece down 5-3 on penalties in a thrilling round-of-16 marathon.
The folks back home, meanwhile, are loving it.
Led by Arsenal forward Joel Campbell, Costa Rica faces a staunch test in the quarterfinals. But they've proven by now that anything is possible, so it's hard not to get behind this underdog upstart.
Costa Rica takes on the Netherlands on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET.
If you believe in waiting your turn ...
Root for Germany.
Remember what we said about Belgium up above? That was Germany back in 2010, chock-full of young talent that still needed some time to mature and ultimately bowed out in the semifinals to take third place. Now here they are in the 2014 tournament, which they entered as a favorite to take it all.
This team is stacked with top-young talent: Thomas Müller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Özil ... the list goes on. But they haven't quite been able to put it all together since drubbing Portugal 4-0 to start the World Cup. After that they had to settle for drawing with Ghana 1-1, beating the USA 1-0 and needing extra time to take down Algeria by one goal in the round of 16.
Nonetheless, there have been flashes. Even when it's not producing a full performance, this German team is fun to watch and capable of playing beautiful technical football on offense. It's not hard to imagine them finding their footing in the quarterfinals to fulfill what seemed to be written in the stars back in 2010.
Germany takes on France on Friday at 12 p.m. ET.
Tags: ENTERTAINMENT, SOCCER, SPORTS, World Cup