Author Kevin Alexander Illustration Daniel Nyari
It’s here again: that beautiful time when countries cast aside their political differences and attempt to symbolically slaughter each other on the soccer field. We refer, of course, to the FIFA World Cup.
Between June 12 and July 13, the competition, held in Brazil this year, will dominate conversations around the world, and it’s important to know what people are talking about.
If, for instance, someone asks you how you rate Sweden’s chances, you must respond: “Duh. Sweden didn’t qualify.” Don’t worry if you don’t know what this means. Memorize it. Use it.
In order to avoid looking like a numbskull in such situations, you’ll need to study up. Or you can read our guide, which contains everything (well, mostly everything) you need to know about the teams in competition.
Nicknames: Canarinho (Little Canary), Seleção (The Selection)
Marquee player: Neymar, forward; famed for fancy footwork, intuitive finishing, farcical hairdos.
Best finish: Winners (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
Known for: Slick sophistication; cultivating best-evers (Pelé, Ronaldo, etc.); being the only team whose jerseys identify players by their nicknames (Hulk, Kaká and, um, Fred).
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Brazil’s yellow-blue-and-green kit was introduced after the team’s catastrophic 1950 World Cup loss to Uruguay, having been deemed more patriotic than the original white and blue.”
How to toast World Cup victory: The Caipirinha, a concoction of cachaça, sugar and lime; add Brazilian tears if they lose.
Nickname: Vatreni (The Blazers)
Marquee player: Luka Modrić, midfielder; play-maker, visionary passer, known as “the Croatian Cruyff.”
Best finish: Third (1998)
Known for: Coming out of nowhere to finish in the top three in 1998 and having jerseys that resemble checkerboards.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Croatia looked shaky in the qualifying stages, but with Modrić and Kranjčar in the middle and Mandžukić up front, they’re in with a shout.”
Place in Croatia to watch the Cup where it’ll feel like everyone knows your name: With 23 citizens, Hum is said to be the smallest town in the world. Tough dating scene, though.
Nicknames: El Tricolor (The Three Colors), La Verde (The Green)
Marquee player: Javier Hernández, forward; nicknamed “Chicharito”; bit of a dud at club level but weirdly prolific for his national team (35 goals in 57 games).
Best finish: Quarterfinals (1970, 1986)
Known for: Dominating the North/Central America and Caribbean Confederation; playing in a crazily inhospitable home stadium.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Mexico did everything they could not to qualify this year but still limped into a playoff with New Zealand, winning that game because, well, New Zealand.”
What not to say to a Mexico fan: “Dos a cero,” which is chanted by American crowds during Mexico games. The U.S. has beaten Mexico 2-0 four times since 2001.
Nickname: The Indomitable Lions
Marquee player: Samuel Eto’o, forward; once a masterful striker, now on the wrong side of 30, seeking a last hurrah.
Best finish: Quarterfinal (1990)
Known for: Easily qualifying for the World Cup every tournament; consistently looking (but not being) dangerous; having cool uniforms with lions on them.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “If Eto’o keeps up the dance routines every time his team scores, Lions legend Roger Milla just may have to be coaxed out
Link to Michael Jackson: The Cameroonian music Makossa was used by Michael Jackson in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”—specifically, that whole “mamasay, mamasah, mamakossa” bit.
Nickname: La Furia Roja (The Red Fury)
Marquee player: Xavi, midfielder; immaculate technique, unearthly positional awareness, visionary passing.
Best finish: Winner (2010)
Known for: Winning the last World Cup; using a short pass-and-move style known as “tiki-taka”; fielding a team made up of lots of guys whose names start with X.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “If Spain wins this World Cup, they will have cemented their status as masters of the modern game. Also, let us not forget that center back Gerard Piqué has a kid with Shakira.”
Most relevant Shakira song: The one about her hips, and honesty.
Nicknames: Flying Dutchmen, Clockwork Orange, Oranje
Marquee player: Robin van Persie, forward; deadly with his left foot, reputed to have a right foot, too.
Best finish: Runners-up (1974, 1978, 2010)
Known for: Favoring tactics over individual excellence; pioneering the fluid, technically complex movements of “Total Football”; underachieving.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Arjen Robben may have pace and technical ability, but he goes to ground too easily, and he looks like Christopher Robin from Winnie the Pooh.”
When visiting a Dutch home to watch a game: It is customary to bring an odd number of flowers, but not 13, as that is unlucky and will ruin everyone’s day.
Nickname: La Roja (The Red One)
Marquee player: Alexis Sánchez, forward; super-skilled winger, short in stature.
Best finish: Third place (1962)
Known for: Being the “under-the-radar” South American team; barely changing the style of their uniforms since 1947; not much else.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Did La Roja peak too soon? Only Argentina scored more goals in South American qualifying. Also, doesn’t Chile’s land-mass kind of look like the Serpent of Slytherin from Harry Potter?”
Other things Chile looks like: A slightly bent pipe cleaner; part of a candy cane; an eight-year-old’s drawing of a leg and foot.
Marquee player: Tim Cahill, midfielder; a legend in Australia, scores huge goals, on his last legs.
Best finish: Round of 16 (2006)
Known for: Always qualifying from their weak confederation; being athletic, cheerful and not great; using “soccer” in their nickname.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Mile Jedinak has been playing well lately. If he can link up with Brett Holman and Cahill, the Aussies could … well, their fans have great chants!”
Relevant Aussie slang: “Too easy,” meaning “no problem,” as in: “What do you say we go to the bar after the Socceroos are eliminated in the early rounds?” “Too easy!”
Overly literal nickname: Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers)
Marquee player: Radamel Falcao, forward; one of the most dangerous strikers in the world, nicknamed El Tigre, good in the air, handsome.
Best finish: Round of 16 (1990)
Known for: Flashy narco-soccer of the ’80s and early ’90s; a dramatic fall from grace; a recent resurgence.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Remember Carlos Valderrama? What a player! Well, Falcao is just as good, except in pass distribution and the ability to look like he plays in a hair-metal cover band.”
Requisite coffee facts: The region that grows the coffee in Colombia is a World Heritage Site; also, Juan Valdez is not a real person.
Nicknames: Galanolefki (The Blue and White), Piratiko (The Pirate Ship)
Marquee player: Giorgos Samaras, forward; tall, lanky, good in the air, surprisingly tricky dribbler.
Best finish: First round (1994, 2010)
Known for: A gritty, pragmatic, “park the bus” style of play; shocking everyone by winning the 2004 Euro Cup; fielding players whose names are made up almost entirely of o’s and u’s.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Under Fernando Santos, Greece seems to be scoring more freely, especially Samaras and Kostas, that German-Greek who plays for Olympiacos.”
How to toast a Greek victory: “Stin ygeia sou!” pronounced “Steen-ee-ghee-a sue,” meaning “to your health.”
Nickname: Les Éléphants
Marquee player: Yaya Touré, midfielder; strong, skillful, fast, one of the best players in the world (unlike his older brother Kolo).
Best finish: First round (2006, 2010)
Known for: Having the strongest African squad; fielding a who’s who of European stars; failing to do well in the Cup.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Ivory Coast has such a good mix of young and old talent—Touré, Didier Drogba, Gervinho, Wilfried Bony—you have to figure this is the year. Or not.”
Actually, please call it Côte d’Ivoire: In 1986, the Ivory Coast government officially refused to sanction any translations of the French name—for example, Ivory Coast.
Nickname: Samurai Blue
Marquee player: Shinji Kagawa, midfielder; plays for Manchester United, skilled passer, good finisher, except not so much for Manchester United.
Best finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
Known for: Easily qualifying for the Cup because their region is weak; playing smart, quick, pretty soccer; being universally ignored.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Everyone talks about Shinji Kagawa, but remember that Shinji Okazaki scored eight times in 14 qualifiers for Samurai Blue. Also, how cool is that nickname?”
It’s a kind of hotpot: The only Japanese song to ever top the American Billboard Hot 100 was the culinarily titled “Sukiyaki,” in 1963.
Nickname: The Three Lions
Marquee player: Wayne Rooney, forward; talented, possibly not as talented as the English think, looks (and acts) like a 19th-century pugilist.
Best finish: Winners (1966)
Known for: Getting people’s hopes up that this could be the year they do it again, then not doing it again, thus prompting bouts of national soul searching (repeat).
In-the-know-sounding observation: “England are like the victims in those BBC murder mysteries—you take one look at them and you know they’re going to come to a terrible end.”
Things not to bring up around English fans: Penalty shoot-outs against the Germans; penalty shoot-outs against the Portuguese; savory pies served in the U.S.
Nickname: La Celeste (The Sky Blue One)
Marquee player: Luis Suárez, forward; arguably the best striker in the world, inarguably the most hated player in the world.
Best finish: Winners (1930, 1950)
Known for: Producing an extraordinarily talented soccer team from a population only slightly larger than Chicago’s.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Look at this lineup: Suárez, Diego Forlán, Edinson Cavani. No one has better strikers than Uruguay. NO ONE!” (Pound your fist on the table for emphasis).
Number of people Suárez has bitten (on the field): Two
Nickname: Los Ticos (um, The Costa Ricans)
Marquee player: Bryan Ruiz, midfielder; playmaker, good striker of the ball, has an unfortunate nickname (“La Comadreja” or “The Weasel”).
Best finish: Round of 16 (1990)
Known for: Being hard to score against, due to fielding five defenders; having Bryan Ruiz.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “No one expects Costa Rica to do much, but, you know, Bryan Ruiz. Bryan Ruiz, Bryan Ruiz, Bryan Ruiz.”
What to say to any Ticos you see watching the games: “Pura vida.” It means “pure life” and can be used in a variety of contexts. Bryan Ruiz probably says it all the time.
Nickname: Gli Azzurri (The Blues)
Marquee player: Mario Balotelli, forward; supremely talented, kind of nuts, equally apt to score a beautiful goal or rip off his shirt and start tweeting about Drake songs that reference him.
Best finish: Winners (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)
Known for: Employing an infuriating style with a strong focus on defense known as “Catenaccio,” or “the Door Bolt,” then looking to counterattack.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Don’t you feel that Italy are looking more adventurous this year? Don’t you also feel that Mario Balotelli should have a reality show on Bravo?”
Balotelli quote: “When I score, I don’t celebrate, because I’m only doing my job. When a postman delivers letters, does he celebrate?”
Nickname: Schweizer Nati (Swiss National Team)
Marquee player: Xherdan Shaqiri, midfielder; speedy, both on and off the ball, built like a fire hydrant.
Best finish: Quarterfinals (1934, 1938, 1954)
Known for: Fielding a team with many players who’ve played together since they were in their teens, leading to a peculiarly Swiss degree of efficiency, technical ability and predictability.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “There’s nothing neutral about this talented young Swiss side, led by the not-very-Swiss-sounding midfield trio of Shaqiri, Gökhan Inler and Granit Xhaka.”
If not soccer: Stone-throwing, or Steinstossen, is a highly popular, highly competitive sport among the Swiss. Really.
Nickname: La Tri (The Three)
Marquee player: Felipe Caicedo, forward; muscular striker, scored seven times in nine qualifying games, has spoken at length about the movie Rocky and “loving all of its parts.”
Best finish: Round of 16 (2006)
Known for: Playing their home matches in Quito, at 9,350 feet above sea level, so their opponents run out of air before they’ve finished tying their laces.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Do you think this will be the year La Tri finally make their move out of the second tier of South American soccer? Me neither.”
How to toast an Ecuadorian victory: Order a hot Canelazo, made with aguardiente (firewater), cinnamon sticks, brown sugar, fruit juice and (crucially) water.
Nickname: Les Bleus (The Blues)
Marquee player: Franck Ribéry, midfielder; fleet of foot, crazy dribbling skills, the anti-Beckham.
Best finish: Winners, 1998
Known for: Struggling to find their legs after legend Zinedine Zidane retired and Thierry Henry got old; fielding highly talented players who consistently underperform; occasionally going on strike.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “They didn’t have to hand-ball their way into this World Cup, so maybe they have a chance.”
Song often played on the team bus: “Alors On Danse” (“So We Dance”) by Stromae.
Nicknames: Los Catrachos (The Hondurans), La Bicolor (The Two Tone)
Marquee player: Roger Espinoza, midfielder; fantastic passer, strong defender; played soccer at Ohio State, likely has purchased a neon beer mug at the Out-r-Inn
Best finish: First round (1982, 2010)
Known for: Having a striker with the amusing name Carlo Costly who has his own signature move called the Costlina.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Honduras used to be called Spanish Honduras to distinguish it from Belize, which was called British Honduras; but neither Honduras has a chance.”
Comfort food for the disappointed fan: Baleada (flour tortilla filled with refried beans, cheese, plantains and sour cream).
Nickname: La Albiceleste (The White and Sky Blue)
Marquee player: Lionel Messi, forward; best player in the world, uncanny finisher, unreal vision, runs through defenses as if they weren’t there, diminutive.
Best finish: Winners (1978, 1986)
Known for: Consistently being one of the most thrilling, skillful teams in the world; fierce rivals of Brazil; making commentators shout “Gooooaaaalllll!”
In-the-know-sounding observation: “If Messi, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín perform, Argentina could go all the way this year. If they don’t, it’ll be fun watching them try.”
What the players will drink if they win: Fernet and cola (the country consumes 2.3 million gallons of the Italian digestif a year).
Nicknames: Zmajevi (The Dragons), Zlatni Ljiljani (The Golden Lilies)
Marquee player: Edin Džeko, forward; known as “The Bosnian Diamond,” strong guy, classic finisher, excessively multilingual.
Best finish: Never been in the World Cup before
Known for: Never being in the World Cup before.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “With Asmir Begović in goal and the Bosnian Diamond up top alongside Vedad Ibišević, they could get out of this group and cause some trouble, bless their souls.”
Best way to build your soccer legs in B and H: Rent a bike; National Geographic says it’s one of the best mountain-biking destinations in the world.
Nicknames: The Iranian Lions, The Princes of Persia, The Persian Stars
Marquee player: Reza Ghoochannedjhad, forward; part Dutch, uncanny nose for the goal, has the obvious (and pronounceable) nickname “Gucci.”
Best finish: First round (1978, 1998, 2006)
Known for: Emerging as an Asian powerhouse; having an experienced coach; potentially being a dark horse in their group.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Don’t rule them out. Javad Nekounam is a midfield legend; plus, Gucci scores at will.”
What you won’t see at an Iranian soccer match: Women, who are barred from stadiums (there have, however, been documented cases of die-hard female fans dressing as men
Nickname: Super Eagles
Marquee player: John Obi Mikel; workaday defensive midfielder known for making backward passes and committing fouls in bad areas, but he’s solid. (Keep telling yourself that, Eagles
Best finish: Round of 16 (1994, 1998)
Known for: An aggressive, powerful attacking style; trying to regain their 1990s glory years.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “It’ll be interesting to see if coach Stephen Keshi’s gamble in remaking the team without some of the old guard will pay off. OK, maybe not that interesting.”
Best head-of-state name for a country competing in this or any other competition: Goodluck Jonathan (president of Nigeria).
Nickname: Nationalelf (National Eleven)
Marquee player: Mesut Özil, midfielder; owl-esque vision, unselfish, once put a hilariously poor video of himself rapping on YouTube.
Best finish: Winners (1954, 1974, 1990)
Known for: Fast, efficient, technically sound, very German style of play; devastating up front and imperious at the back; frightening.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Mesut Özil is such an assured passer of the ball; I’d watch him pass anything, including a bowl of sauerkraut.”
Get over it already: The German word for a dodgy goal, “Wembley-Tor,” refers to a hotly contested goal scored by victors England in the 1966 World Cup Final, at Wembley Stadium.
Nickname: Os Navegadores (The Navigators)
Marquee player: Cristiano Ronaldo, forward; the second-best player in the world (after Messi, though some would argue otherwise), ethereal striker, spooky dead ball finisher and preternaturally smug.
Best finish: Third place (1966)
Known for: Not being very prominent historically but currently in a golden era, thanks to talent like Ronaldo, Nani and others.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Ronaldo is fantastic, but the best Portuguese player ever has to be Eusébio, who averaged a goal a game and never once posed in his underwear on the cover of Vanity Fair.”
What the players will be wearing under their shorts: Ronaldo’s own line of branded CR7 underwear, naturally.
Nickname: The Black Stars
Marquee player: Asamoah Gyan, forward; adept finisher, though perhaps not as sharp since going to play in the languid United Arab Emirates.
Best finish: Quarterfinals (2010)
Known for: Knocking the U.S. out of the competition in two consecutive World Cups; not having as many big-name players as some of their African counterparts but playing better as a team.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Why do the soccer gods keep putting the U.S. with Ghana? Why?!?”
Two hundred and fifty ways to rub it in: Although English is widely spoken, more than 250 different languages and dialects are used throughout the country.
Nickname: The Stars and Stripes, The Yanks
Marquee player: Michael Bradley, midfielder; underrated, great all-rounder; fantastic passer, defender and finisher, has a very shiny bald head.
Best finish: Third place (1930)
Known for: Getting Americans excited about soccer every four years, then either heroically overachieving or depressingly underachieving before being forgotten for another four years.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “If the U.S. can beat Ghana and get some sort of result against Portugal, and the Germans end up locked in their hotel, they have a chance of getting out of their group, nearly.”
Why Americans call football “soccer”: It’s an elongation of an abbreviation for “Association Football,” derived from the soc in association. Duh!
Nickname: Diables Rouges (Red Devils)
Marquee player: Eden Hazard, forward; doesn’t so much run at defenses as run through them at will, also has a good nose for the goal and a great name for headline puns.
Best finish: Fourth place (1986)
Known for: Having a roster that reads like a who’s who of the English Premier League (Hazard, Kompany, Mirallas, Benteke, Lukaku); being the hipster pick to win the Cup.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Hey, I’ve been saying for ages that Belgium are the dark horses this year. Ages and ages and ages.”
Potential source of locker room discord: Depending on where they’re from, players could prefer their waffles to be either Brussels, Liege, Flemish, or the stuffed Stroopwafel.
Nickname: Les Fennecs (The Desert Foxes)
Marquee player: Islam Slimani, forward; scoring machine poised for greatness, or at least very-goodness; Facebook page has 34,000-plus Likes.
Best finish: First round (1982, 1986, 2010)
Known for: Beating powerhouse West Germany in the 1982 World Cup, which endeared the Foxes to everybody except the Germans.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “They barely edged out Burkina Faso to qualify this year. Also, just to clear things up, Burkina Faso is a country.”
The stuff that gets on your shoe outside Algerian soccer stadiums: The drippings of Mahjouba, a popular street food consisting of a flaky crepe filled with tomato jam.
Nickname (of sorts): Sbornaya (The National Team)
Marquee player: Aleksandr Kerzhakov, forward; veteran, sure-footed goal-scorer; has gloriously blue eyes.
Best finish: Fourth place (as USSR, 1966)
Known for: Being a solid, steady, somewhat uninspiring team in search of a superstar to take it to the next level.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “Every Russian World Cup player, bar one, plays professionally only in Russia. Tear down this wall, Mr. Putin. Tear down this wall!”
Most humorous awkward pic of a head of state juggling a soccer ball: Vladimir Putin showing members of the CSKA Moscow team his ball-handling skills.
Nickname: Taeguk Warriors
Marquee player: Park Chu-Young, forward; great with free kicks, signs “Jesus Christ” next to his name in autographs.
Best finish: Fourth place (2002)
Known for: A magical run while co-hosting the World Cup in 2002; having lots of old legs running about this year.
In-the-know-sounding observation: “If Son Heung-Min plays up to his potential, and Park Chu-Young gets a couple of deadball opportunities, could be 2002 all over again.”
What they’ll be listening to on the team bus: K-Pop girl group 2NE1, featuring CL, Bom, Dara and the incomparable Minzy.