The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicked off yesterday, and we’re struggling to find a team to support. So we decided to turn to some of the street food and market vendors that we work with to find a substitute for the disappointing USMNT. Of the 32 squads playing in Russia, we’ve whittled it down to these 10 – notice none of them are favorites or powerhouses, just respectable teams with sizable NYC diasporas and delicious food.
One of the highlights of the 2014 World Cup was US goalkeeper Tim Howard’s performance in the first knockout game against Belgium, when he made a World Cup-record 15 saves. The US still lost, and this staggering achievement overshadowed just how spectacularly the Belgians outplayed the Americans. They are a very, very good team in a weak group that seem to have an easy path to at least the quarterfinals (sorry, England). Kevin de Bruyne absolutely smoked the US as a 22-year-old, and now he’s developed into one of the world’s best midfielders.
You know what else is good about Belgium? Waffles. Excuse me – wafels. Nobody waves the Belgian flag prouder or louder in New York City than Wafels & Dinges, and they have a whole network or food trucks, carts, kiosks, and a cafe where you can shoot the breeze on the latest match while you enjoy a wafel with some signature toppings and ice cream. And you can also join us at de Royal Dinges Factory for a tour of their commercial kitchen and commissary operation every Friday morning.
Egypt is certainly a dark horse of the tournament, as they drew a very weak group with Saudia Arabia, Russia, and strong performer Uruguay. Plus, they have national treasure and Premier League goals leader Mohamed Salah. It’s always fun to root for a one-man team at the World Cup. Plus, if they make it out of the group stage, there’s a good chance that Egypt will face Spain in the playoff, and hopefully we will get to see Salah torch Spain captain Sergio Ramos, who sucks.
Perhaps the national side can follow in the footsteps of Adel’s #1 Halal, which won the World Cup, of sorts, by capturing the 2017 Vendys People’s Choice Award. Adel’s has been a fixture of our Financial District Food Cart Tour for eight years, so stop by the corner of Front St and Maiden Lane to pick up the best falafel in the city, and be sure to ask for extra eggplant.
Full disclosure, I have been a casual Sweden fan since their surprise run in 1994 netted them third place, and I had the pleasure of watching their 2002 group stage matchup with Nigeria on a portable television on a sailboat while docked in some Swedish seaside village I have since forgotten the name of. I can’t imagine the Swedes going far, as they find themselves in the “Group of Death” with Germany, South Korea, and Mexico, and their greatest player ever, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has semi-retired to the MLS, where he pretty much just scores at will.
For a great selection of Swedish cuisine, stop by the Essex Street Market and Nordic Preserves, where John Lavelle will serve you fantastic lox, meatballs, and potato salad. While the food is Swedish, John is English – his wife and partner Annika hails from Sweden.
South Korea’s surprising fourth-place finish in front of their home crowd in 2002 showed the world their relentless attacking style, something they’ve tried to keep up, but with less success in recent years. They are also probably on the outside looking in at the other qualifiers in Group F, so it will be a short tournament. But at least they got the Olympics and no nuclear war.
Nevertheless, go chat with John and Jenny Lee, the owners of Bapcha Cart on 49th St and 6th Ave in Midtown, which serves amazing Korean barbecue out of their little cart. Their marinated bulgogi and galbi are incredible, but ask if they have any squid.
Okay, I said I wasn’t going to support England, but Nigeria is basically the England of Africa when it comes to soccer. A big nation with immense talent and high aspirations, but goes nowhere at the World Cup. Even so, they have an awesome nickname: the Super Eagles.
Like at last year’s Vendy Awards, maybe 2018 will be a breakout year for African teams at the World Cup. African competitors were 2-for-2, with Adel’s grabbing the People’s Choice, while DF Nigerian food truck took home the Vendy Cup. You can find them every weekday parked in front of the Nigerian Consulate on 2nd Ave and 44th St, where Godshelter and Bisola Oluwalogbon dish out jollof rice, stewed goat, and so much more.
If Mo Salah can carry a team with his foot, Robert Lewandowski can match him goal-for-goal. Poland’s striker is one of the most prolific scorers in the world, and hitching your wagon to this squad will at least be very, very fun. Like Egypt, Poland is in a pretty weak group, but unlike Salah, Lewandowski has a much stronger supporting cast, and they have emerged as one of the best teams in the world. Of all the teams on this list, Poland may challenge Belgium for the best result.
Get your fix of Polish cuisine at the Old Traditional Polish food truck, which parks in Midtown, the Financial District, and Long Island City.
If you support US Soccer, this is the hardest switch to stomach, as we have had a brutal soccer rivalry with Mexico for decades. This might not be the year to jump on the El Tri bandwagon, as they sit in the Group of Death, with a round-of-16 matchup with Brazil likely if they survive. But if you want to root for the long shot of all long shots – that juggernaut Germany will falter in the opening round – then Mexico could be the squad to do it.
You don’t have to go far to find Mexico supporters or great Mexican food in this town, but we’ll plug two of our favorites. Puebla Mexican Food in the Essex Street Market delivers fantastic tacos, and El Rey del Sabor has three food carts around Manhattan. Their cart on 43rd St and 6th Ave is a long-time staple of our Midtown Food Cart Tour, but you can also find them on 3rd Ave and 60th St, and on Greenwich St in Tribeca.
If you’re really into underdogs, Japan may be your team, as they boast the third-worst FIFA ranking of the tournament, behind hosts Russia and abysmal Saudia Arabia. And to make things harder for themselves, they fired their coach two months ago. Then again, Spain did that two days ago, so maybe there’s something to it?
There are a couple places you can enjoy authentic Japanese food in the Essex Street Market. Osaka Grub serves okinomiyaki, a street food pancake make from cabbage, yams, and other ingredients (the name literally means “as you like it,” so it’s adaptable). Ni Japanese Deli also serves a wide array of Japanese foods, including bento boxes, noodles, salads, and traditional snacks.
Morocco is a stingy defensive side, cruising through their qualification without conceding a goal. But lined up against Spain, Portugal, and Iran, their path looks nearly impossible, and they lack a transcendent superstar like they had at their last World Cup appearance 20 years ago, Mustapha Hadji.
Regardless of the quality of Moroccan soccer, the quality of their olive oil is unparalleled. Visit Saad Bourkadi at his stall in the Essex Street Market, Essex Olive and Spice House, and he will explain the unique terroir of his family’s plantation that produces some of the best olive oil you have ever tasted. A tasting of a selection of his high-quality oils and vinegars is a highlight of our Essex Street Market Tour.
I not only used to live in Russia, I also briefly covered Russian soccer as a reporter for the country’s national sports network. I’ve seen a few matches at the home grounds, Luzhniki Stadium (though pre-World Cup reconstruction), I’ve met quite a few Russian soccer hooligans, and I am not particularly excited about supporting the host team. Like many hosts, Russia will likely get a psychological boost playing at home, plus they are in a relatively easy group, so a knockout appearance seems likely, but nothing more. This team is quite bad – a far cry from the explosive squad that lit up Euro 2008.
Another reason I find it hard to root for Russia has been the sustained campaign against street vendors in Moscow over the past several years, as the city has demolished thousands of carts and kiosks. Thanks in part to our own antiquated vending laws, New York City lost a great street vendor last year who served fantastic Russian food, Vendy nominee Anton’s Dumplings, who had to close down when he could no longer secure a permit.
Bonus Team: Iceland
Everyone loves an underdog, though Iceland is going to have a hard time catching anyone by surprise after their miraculous run at the 2016 European Championships. But their Viking thunder clap celebration is bone-chilling, and it will drown out any infuriating vuvzelas, or rather, “spoons of victory.” But yeah, they’re likely in the second-toughest group, facing Nigeria, Argentina, and Croatia.
Unfortunately, we can’t recommend any Icelandic eateries in New York City, but a flight to Reykjavik will only cost you about $400.