Today is exactly the kind of Friday that you should relax, finish up work a little early, and slip out the side door and head home. Maybe by around-oh I don't know-quarter to three or so you could find yourself at home on the couch with a beer in hand and nothing to do. Coincidentally, three of the four matches that matter kick off at that exact time, and you're going to want to watch at least one of them (the early game, Iceland v Croatia, starts at 2 on the dot, so you can watch the second half if it's heating up). These matches decide who goes to Soccer Mecca aka the World Cup (Finals), and who goes home sad and thinks about that time they dropped points to Hungary and oh god how did they drop points to Hungary that was horrible and embarrassing. The pairings have Iceland hosting Croatia (I told you that already), Greece hosting Romania (this is a waste, but we'll talk about that later), Ukraine hosting France (upset alert), and Portugal hosting Sweden(!).
Admittedly, these are the first legs of home-and-homes (with the second legs to come Tuesday), but even if nothing gets decided today it will all be worth it just to watch Cristiano and Zlatan confound their opposing defenses. Yes, it's sad that one of the top three players in the world won't be showcased in Rio, but, theatrics aside, this is almost a better way for this to go. As much as I would have loved to see one of these sides flip-flop with Romania, there is no guarantee that once the World Cup comes we would be treated to such a star battle. Hell, last time Sweden made it to the big stage, they were drawn with England, Paraguay, and Trinidad and Tobago, which is a horribly boring group when it comes to having the Best Players In The World. This is also potentially Zlatan's last World Cup, and he's in the form of a lifetime (10 goals in his past 5 games), so my rooting interest lies with the Swedes today on the chance that we could witness Big Z put a country on his back one last time.
The other matches are also special too, I swear! With a population slightly larger than Chicago, Iceland has a chance to become the smallest country to ever qualify for the Finals. Gylfi Sigurdsson is the man to watch for the tiny island nation, as he will be the creative linchpin feeding leading scorer Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. The Croats are also really good, having risen to 10th in the FIFA rankings before a recent loss, and boast Real Madrid's Luca Modric and Bayern's Mario Mandzukic as their match-winners. Ukraine also are looking to pull an upset over heavily favored France, and with the first leg taking place in Kiev there is a chance of staking an early lead and trying to hold off the French in the return leg. Ukraine will be hoping for magic from Andriy Yarmolenko, while Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery will be hoping to add to France's superior pedigree with an away victory. The last match features Romania and Greece, and I can't really make you care about this game because it's just not that great. Expect more clearances than passes, and probably only one or two goals total between the two legs. You're better off watching any of the other games.
All in all, this is an awesome afternoon for soccer, and we didn't even mention any of the friendlies happening all day (USA-Scotland is on ESPN at 3). With all of these countries, and it being a Friday, I suggest you look at a couple beers for your afternoon festivities. Something like a Narke Stout or an Etienne Cider might put you in a local mood (disclaimer: I have no idea what those are, but they're from Sweden and France and have positive reviews). I will be hanging out with a Whale's Tale Pale Ale from Cisco Brewing. With a smell of apricots and a beautiful golden brown color, this English Style Pale Ale is a great choice to casually drink away a Friday afternoon. Good luck to everyone's favorite country (USA), and let's pray that Zlatan and Cristiano do something wonderful today.