A guide to the World Cup for beginners

Published on Wed, Jun 18, 2014 by Ian Ferguson

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With dedicated live coverage of every World Cup match on ESPN’s main channel, American fans have embraced this year’s global soccer tournament like never before.

Ian Darke, the man who narrates each match on ESPN, has said he won’t be explaining the rules of soccer mid-match as he has in years past, which is a sure sign that the number of knowledgeable soccer fans in America has reached a critical mass.

So, for the uninitiated, here is a short guide to help you follow the World Cup action in Brazil.

The U.S. World Cup team

The first thing to know is that the opening round of the World Cup, known as the “group stage,” is played in round-robin format, with eight groups of four teams each. Two teams from each group will make it through the group stage to enter a single-elimination tournament between 16 teams. That stage begins June 28, and the final match is scheduled for July 13.

The U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) got a tough draw for the group stage; No. 2-ranked Germany and No. 4-ranked Portugal are both in the Americans’ group, along with 37-ranked Ghana. The U.S. team got past Ghana 2–1 in their first game of the tournament on June 16, but just barely – Ghana controlled most of the match and two Americans suffered hamstring injuries. America is currently ranked 13th in the world.

America will face Portugal on Sunday, June 22 as major underdogs. We have two things going for us: Portugal’s Christiano Ronaldo, who is on the three-person list for best player in the world at the moment (along with Lionel Messi, Argentina, and Luis Suarez, Uruguay), has struggled with a left-knee injury, and although he said he was ready to play in the World Cup, his performance against Germany on June 16 was not his best. Portugal lost 4–0. In addition, Portuguese defender Pepe will sit out the match against the U.S. because he was dealt a straight red card in the match against Germany, which brings up something mildly important to know if you want to become a soccer fan: the rules.

Rules of the Game

Each team has 11 players on the field, one of which is the goalkeeper. The goalkeepers are the only players allowed to touch the ball with their hands or arms. A game is played for 90 minutes with one break at halftime, and the referee will often add a couple of minutes to the end of each match to make up for injuries and penalties that cause a delay in the action while the clock is ticking. This extra time is called stoppage time.

When the ball goes out of bounds, the team that didn’t touch it last throws it back in play. When it goes in the opponent’s net, the scorer’s team scores a point and the announcer says, GOOOOOOOOAL!”

The referee gives players a yellow or red card if they commit a serious foul, such as flagrantly kicking, punching or grabbing another player. A yellow card is a warning, and two of them in one game are equivalent to a red card, which ejects the player from the game and suspends him or her from the next match. Every foul, whether it results in a card or not, causes a free kick for the opposing team.

With only one referee on the field (there are two line referees as well), many fouls are missed at the World Cup level, which has given rise in recent years to a culture of “diving” or “flopping,” – falling to the ground to make it look like a foul was committed against the flopper. The flopper will often grimace and writhe in a performance worthy of a soap opera to sell the foul to the referee. These performances are most common in the area in front of the goal, called the box, where a foul results in a one-on-one penalty kick with the goalkeeper. Scoring opportunities don’t get any better than that. Compared to veteran soccer countries (Italy stands out), American teams have been hesitant to flop, a point of pride for many American fans who view the practice as the worst part of an otherwise great sport.

Now that you know the rules, who should you bet on to win the cup? Patriotism says America, of course, but the teams most likely to make it to the final four are Brazil, Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands, since they upset Spain in the first round. In the world of sports, however, anything can happen.

Cultural Significance

There is a lot more to soccer, of course, and many books have been written on the sport’s relationship to global culture. In most other countries, soccer is called football (spelled fútbol in Spanish and futebol in Portuguese). The World Cup is played every four years in a different host nation. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which has an evil-empire reputation among many soccer fans because of its complete and autonomous authority over the sport, governs the World Cup. 

This year’s World Cup is being played in Brazil, a soccer-crazed nation that nonetheless has seen massive protests of the World Cup because its arrival has overshadowed societal shortcomings including corruption, poverty and inequality. Eight workers died building the 12 stadiums for the World Cup, and many Brazilians think the millions of dollars spent on preparations for the tournament would have been better spent fixing the country’s problems.

Of course, many Brazilians are excited about the games. Brazil is a favorite to win, and national pride for the Brazilian team is without equal.

America is a relative newcomer to the sport, but more American professionals have been recruited to clubs (teams) in Europe in recent years, while the American league known as Major League Soccer (MLS) has gained prominence. The Seattle Sounders have one of the biggest stadiums in soccer, CenturyLink Field, which they share with the Seahawks, and Sounder Clint Dempsey is one of the best players on the USMNT. Dempsey scored the U.S.’s first goal in this year’s tournament 32 seconds into the game against Ghana.