Beginners Guide to the World Cup
To a soccer newbie, the World Cup can be pretty intimidating.
It’s the most famous and celebrated sporting event on the planet, dwarfing the Olympics and the Super Bowl in terms of global exposure and TV ratings.
But it can be a little complicated if you’re new to the game.
Fear not. The next few paragraphs will have you holding up your end of an intelligent World Cup discussion in no time.
What is it?
Quite simply, the World Cup is a tournament to crown the world champion in what we call soccer. Everyone else calls it football, just so you don’t get confused.
Way back in 2007, 204 nations entered the competition for the 2010 World Cup. It’s played every four years, and believe it or not, it takes almost three of those years in between to whittle the field down from 199 (five teams withdrew without playing a match) to the group of 32 that earned a spot in the finals down in South Africa later this summer.
FIFA, the world organization that runs the World Cup and soccer in general, has divided the world into groups or zones for World Cup qualifying. They are CONCACAF (North American, Central America and the Caribbean), CONMEBOL (South America), CAF (Africa), AFC (Asia and Australia), Oceania (New Zealand and other island Pacific nations) and UEFA (Europe).
Not all of these groups, or confederations, is considered equal in terms of qualifying. UEFA got 13 spots for the World Cup, followed by CAF (6, including an automatic bid for the host nation), CONMEBOL (5), AFC (4), CONCACAF (3) and Oceania (1).
Some zones have better teams than others. It’s just that simple.
This year’s tournament
The 32 teams were randomly placed into eight four-team groups back in December, and starting on June 11, each team will play the other three teams in their group.
A win is worth three points, a draw is worth 1 and you get no points for a loss.
The two teams in each group with the most points after the three matches advance. The other two are eliminated.
In the event of a tie, goal difference (goals scored vs. goals allowed) is the first tiebreaker, followed by total goals, results against the teams in the tie, goal difference between the teams in the tie, goals scored in matches between teams in the tie and finally, drawing of lots.
After narrowing the field down to 16, the tournament switches to a knockout format.
The eight group winners play the runners-up from another group and teams keep playing until there is one winner. There can’t be any ties here, so if the match is knotted up after 90 minutes, they’ll play two periods of extra time. If the teams are still tied, they’ll move on to penalty kicks.
Only seven nations have ever won the World Cup. They are Brazil (5), Italy (4, including the last one in 2006), Germany (3), Argentina (2), Uruguay (2), France (1) and England (1).
If someone mentions “The Hand of God,” they’re talking about Diego Maradona’s missed handball that lead to a goal in the 1986 World Cup that helped Argentina beat England. In that same game, he scored what most call the goal of the century by dribbling through five English defenders before slamming the ball into the net.
Two World Cups have been decided on penalty kicks, with Brazil beating Italy in 1994 and Italy beating France in 2006. That game was also noteworthy for the headbutt from France’s Zinedine Zidane on Italy’s Marco Materazzi in extra time. Zidane, widely regarded as one of the best players in French history, was sent off for the act.
Since the announcers aren’t going to stop and tell you what stuff means, here are a few soccer-specific terms to know:
Pitch – Place where the game is played. You might call it a field
Box – The rectangle 18 yards from the goal line where the goalie stands, and the area in which he’s allowed to use his hands
Yellow card – A warning from the referee to a player for misconduct
Red card – An act of violent conduct – or a second yellow card – that results in the offending player being sent off the field. He can not be replaced, and thus his team must play with 10 men, better known as being “a man down.”
Flop or dive – When a player falls to the ground as if he’s been horribly injured when, in fact, he was just trying to get a free kick from the referee.
Offside rule - OK, it’s like this. In order to receive a pass in the opponent’s half of the field, there must be two players between the guy receiving the pass and the goal. One of those is almost always going to be the goal keeper. This rule does not apply on passes to players running behind the ball.
Own goal - When a player kicks or heads the ball into his own net
Corner kick – If a team kicks or heads the ball over the line behind their own goal, the opposing team gets to put the ball down at the corner flag and knock it into the box.
If someone asks you for a favorite, you can safely say Brazil. As a highly successful side that plays an entertaining brand of soccer, they’re pretty much everyone’s second-favorite team. … That buzzing sound you’ll hear on the TV broadcasts are vuvuzelas. You’ll either love them or hate them. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. … Be sure that, at least once, you flip over to Univision right after a goal to hear the Spanish call. It’s a good excuse to yell along with the announcers, stretching out the word goal to the limits of any language.