The 2018 World Cup kicks off Thursday, June 14 in Russia, and plenty of excitement and intrigue surround this year’s tournament. The world’s largest international sporting event, held once every four years, attracts fans from all walks of life, and BYU students are no exception. This year’s competition will be a little different for the majority of students, however, as the United States did not qualify for the trip to Russia.
This is the first time the U.S. has failed to reach the World Cup since 1984, and it was seen as a huge disappointment to many. With their home country not in the mix, many American BYU students have expressed their intention to cheer for the countries where they served missions for the LDS Church.
For those who serve missions in areas such as South America and Europe, a mission is likely their first and most intense exposure to soccer. Such was the case for Calvin Westfall, a junior at BYU who served in Barcelona, Spain.
“Since I lived in Spain for two and half years, and most of my soccer involvement has been there, I can definitely associate with them a lot more than the U.S. team,” Westfall said. “I have a lot of friends who definitely root for their mission country, even if the U.S. was in the World Cup.”
In 2016, 65 percent of BYU students were returned missionaries, according to BYU Magazine, and 70 percent of the church’s missions lie outside the United States, creating numerous connections between students and foreign countries.
According to BYU Magazine, three of the most well-represented countries among BYU returned missionaries are France, Germany and Japan, all three of which are featured in this year’s tournament.
For Westfall, soccer is synonymous with his mission in Spain. As a missionary, he played twice a week and witnessed firsthand the deep passion fans have for the sport there.
“My very first night in the mission, the (Barcelona) stadium was pretty close, and you could hear the cheers from the stadium,” Westfall said. “Every person we contacted was going to the game.”
Westfall returned to Spain in fall 2016 for a study abroad in Madrid following his mission and said he intended to cheer for Spain in the World Cup even before the U.S. was eliminated.
“I don’t have a problem with latching on to teams. Spain has my favorite player of all time, Andrés Iniesta, and this will probably be his last World Cup,” Westfall said. “I think Spain has a legitimate chance of winning it.”
Sam Heywood and Ben Marker, two students currently on the BYU Spain study abroad in Madrid, echoed Westfall’s experience and connection to the Spain team, having attended a Real Madrid game and witnessed the fans’ excitement and involvement.
“After the game, it’s all (the locals) talk about for the rest of the week,” Heywood said. Marker added that when he picked up a newspaper in Madrid, every story was about soccer and the current status of players and teams.
With soccer making up such an integral part of the culture in countries such as Spain, it becomes difficult for missionaries and study abroad students to avoid becoming involved in following and cheering for the teams and players.
Trevor McKenzie, another Spain study abroad student, said he will be cheering for Sweden in this year’s World Cup.
“I have family that live in Stockholm, so I feel it’s appropriate to root for Sweden,” McKenzie said. “(Zlatan) Ibrahimovic is an amazing player, and I think he’s going to be playing this World Cup. He isn’t done.”
Heywood said he will be cheering for Mexico.
“I’m obviously disheartened about the U.S. not being in the World Cup, but the next closest place I can call home is Mexico where I served my mission,” Heywood said.
For other students, their family’s country of origin presents another option for whom to cheer on.
BYU graduate Sebastian Romero, whose family emigrated from Mexico to Dallas during his early childhood, expressed his intention to root for his birth country in the absence of the U.S.
Mexico, the only North American country to qualify, becomes an attractive and popular option for many soccer fans, especially since Mexican immigrants make up 11 percent of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau 2016).
For international students who make up four percent of the BYU student body, the absence of the United States in the World Cup will make no difference for them. South Korea is the third-most represented country at BYU and is also featured in this year’s World Cup.
“I will be rooting for Korea because it’s my home,” BYU student Josh Lee said. “But I don’t expect much, so I’m mainly going to watch for the fun of it!”
Only one country will remain at the end of the tournament, meaning the majority of the world — and BYU students — will be disappointed at some moment. As Lee said, however, the worldwide competition is entertaining and exciting at every stage, even if one’s home country is no longer in the running.
The tournament begins with the group stage from June 14–28, followed by the Round of 16 featuring the top two teams from each group. The final will be played in Moscow on July 15.