Postcards from Russia: What U.S. sport could learn from international football
Editor's note: This is the latest of Sam Borden's Postcards from Russia, in which he shares his observations, fears, joys and travel stories from the 2018 World Cup.
MOSCOW -- American sports does plenty of things right -- no one can argue with NFL Red Zone or the ice cream sundae helmet, for example -- but one of the areas in which the United States could really use some serious improvement is in team nicknames.
Think I'm kidding? Let's compare: In America, we have names like Nets, Mets, Jets and roughly 500 teams named the Eagles. In college football, you basically can't turn around without bumping into someone who plays for a team called the Tigers. Even when you look at CONCACAF, the best nickname by far is -- sorry to bring it up, USMNT supporters -- the Soca Warriors from Trinidad & Tobago.
At this World Cup, we've got the Champion Killers (Costa Rica), the Coffee Growers (Colombia) and the Princes of Persia (Iran). Sure, there are some boring ones -- Brazil, Germany and Russia are awarded no points for creativity because their nicknames just translate to "The Team" -- but in so many cases, we see a World Cup team's nickname stand out as colorfully as its fans.
The dominant region in nicknames, by any measure, is Africa. For instance, in Monday's anticipated England vs. Tunisia game, England will clearly be favored from a talent perspective, but the match is a blowout from an originality standpoint: the Three Lions (boring, sorry England) against the Eagles of Carthage (Tunisia, which is quite strong despite competing in a very deep continent when it comes to nicknames).
Some teams opt to mesh intimidation and geography to produce a nickname (Morocco's Lions of the Atlas) while others rely on history (the Pharaohs of Egypt). Another set goes for a more abstract vibe, like the Nation's Thunder (Equatorial Guinea) or the King's Shield (Swaziland).
All of it, frankly, is better than the disappointingly large number of teams that simply go with a color theme, like France (The Blues) or Sweden (the Blue and Yellows). At least Japan (the Samurai Blue) injects a little excitement into its color cop-out. Australia, meanwhile, goes a different route altogether, and seems to have a lock on the kid-friendly, vaguely-sounds-like-a-line-of-underpants genre: they're the Socceroos.
While the field here in Russia is certainly quite strong when it comes to nicknames, I think those of us who follow this sort of thing also are mindful that the best in the world don't always reach the biggest stage. The Elephants (Ivory Coast) have frequently been World Cup participants but fell short this time, while Zambia's Copper Bullets and the Brave Gentlemen of Jordan will have to try again as well.
Some potential nickname combinations raise more existential questions: I have always wondered, for instance, whether there is any awkwardness when Eritrea (the Red Sea Boys) faces Djibouti (the Shoremen of the Red Sea) or if South Sudan (the Bright Stars) and Ghana (the Black Stars) have issues agreeing on a lighting situation for their game. But these sorts of concerns, I suppose, will have to wait until 2022.
For now, we may as well enjoy what we've got. My next few assignments are decent: on Tuesday, I'll be watching Poland (the White-and-Reds, meh) against Senegal (the Lions of Teranga) while on Thursday I'm headed to a showdown in Nizhny Novgorod: Argentina vs. Croatia.
Or, as I know it: the White-and-Blues against the Fiery Ones.