Soccer nirvana awaits us next week. The group stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia begins this Thursday, commencing a run of 48 matches in 14 days. I already feel lightheaded.
Unfortunately, life always finds a way to impede our enjoyment of this quadrennial spectacular. We all have jobs and responsibilities that make it impossible to sit on the couch or at the bar for two weeks straight and mainline soccer. So we have to pick our spots and make sure that when the best games are being played, our eyes are glued to a TV.
To help with that, I’ve compiled a list of the five must-watch matches from the World Cup group stage. You should, of course, try to watch every match and savor every possible moment of this spectacular occasion. But whether you stream from your desk, take a long lunch or just play hooky, make sure you find a way to watch these five matches.
Portugal vs. Spain, Group B, June 15, 2 p.m. ET
We only have to wait a day after the first kick to get an international derby. Any match between these two Iberian rivals is a big deal, doubly so since it’s in the World Cup. This will be the 37th meeting on the pitch between these nations, and this could be one of the most hotly contested matchups in that series. There are bragging rights at stake and so much more.
Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese are the reigning champions of Europe. Spain has a new look and a new attitude after busting out of the last World Cup in the group stage. If a winner can emerge from this contest, the loser will be in a major hole and staring down at least one must-win situation over the next two mentioned. The winner, meanwhile, will stake its claim as the dominant side on the peninsula.
Argentina vs. Iceland, Group D, June 16, 9 a.m. ET
These are two wildly different nations entering the World Cup with wildly different expectations, but they’re both out to prove the same thing: that they belong. Lionel Messi has won everything there is to win at the club level, but he’s never propelled Argentina to win a senior international competition. He’s already retired from international soccer once in brief (and bizarre) fashion, and rumors are rampant that he could do it again if Argentina flame out. If he can lift the Jules Remet with Argentina, the arguments against him as the G.O.A.T. will dwindle to almost none
Iceland, an island nation of 330,000 inhabitants, stunned the world with a run to the quarterfinals of Euro 2016. Simply qualifying for the World Cup did a lot to silence anyone who called that run a fluke. Iceland can silence any doubters remaining as a result against Argentina and strong showing beyond. And if you think that’s impossible, ask England or Croatia or Turkey what happens when you underestimate Iceland. Even a player as good as Messi could be intimidated by the Viking Clap.
Germany vs. Mexico, Group F, June 17, 11 a.m. ET
Mexico is in the middle of what many have called a “golden generation.” There is talent in this squad unlike we’ve never seen from Mexico, and it’s spent the last few years dominating CONCACAF. But Germany is a test unlike any other. Every generation is golden for Germany these days, and the reigning World Cup champions look primed to defend their title.
You may have noticed that each of the first three entries on this list all take place on the opening weekend of the Cup — don’t plan on moving from your couch next weekend unless it’s to a bar — which goes to show how important the opening matchday is. The winner of this match, if there is one, will have a tremendous advantage and likely emerge from Group F in first place. If Mexico can even manage a draw, there will be a renewed belief that El Tri can snap its round-of-16 curse. If it can beat Germany. If.
Poland vs. Colombia, Group H, June 24, 2 p.m. ET
If you’re not a diehard international soccer fan, chances are you don’t spend much time thinking about Poland or Colombia. You should! These are two fantastic teams with fantastic players. And although they aren’t the best teams in the World Cup, they are incredibly evenly-matched. Most World Cup matches have a clear favorite and underdog, but this game is a tossup.
Set aside that this figures to be one of the closest games of the group stage and this is still a match you’ll want to watch because of the unbelievable individual talent on display. Poland’s Robert Lewandowski is one of the most gifted and efficient strikes in the game. Colombia’s James Rodriguez is a magician with a ball at his feet and one of the most creative players in the game. Add in the fact that the winner of this match could book their ticket to the knockout round and the loser may be forced into a must-win contest on the final matchday, and you’ve got a recipe for the low-key best match of the group stage.
England vs. Belgium, Group G, June 28, 2 p.m. ET
The showdown between England and Belgium is on the last day of the group stage between the two heavy favorites from Group G, which makes it difficult to forecast. If both sides have their tickets to the knockout round booked after the second matchday, this match will be the most pointless of the round. But if either or — heaven help us — both sides need a win to advance, this will likely be the single most important game of the group stage.
Either way, it will be a treat for English Premier League fans, of which there are surely many amongst you. Harry Kane, Eden Hazard, Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Dele Alli, Romelu Lukaku, the names go on. These teams feature a veritable “Who’s Who” of top Premier League players. There’s a lot of familiarity between these two squads, and we all know what familiarity breeds. If advancement is on the line and tensions are high, things could get awfully chippy in Kaliningrad.