13 Things Non-Soccer Fans Need to Know About the World Cup
To paraphrase the great Gary Lineker, football (soccer) is a game that lasts 90 minutes, and at the end, Germany wins. Well, there’s a bit more to it than that, but if you’re not a regular down at your local Fox & Hound/Cock & Bull/Rose & Thorn/British Noun & Other British Noun Pub, or if you don’t own more scarves than Karl Lagerfeld, fear not amigos.
Here are a few things - 13 things - you should know about the upcoming World Cup, for the kinda-initiated-but-not-yet-card-carrying-member-of-your-local-hooligan-outfit.
1. There Are Basic Rules to the Game
You can’t use your hands. Most goals wins. Wins are worth three points in group stage games, draws are worth one, and you don’t get a thing for a loss. Top two-point tallies advance to the knockout round, with goal differential (goals scored minus goals conceded) as the first tie-breaker, followed by total goals scored, followed by head-to-head results, followed by a coin flip.
Here’s to hoping for the first coin flip tiebreaker in World Cup history. That would be neat. That would be fun.
2. Silver Is Not Better Than Gold
Starting at the 2004 European Championship, Golden Goal (sudden death) was given the heave-ho in favor of “Silver Goal”, which is exactly as dumb as it sounds: knockout round games that tied after 90 minutes go to two 15-minute periods of extra time. If the game is still tied after those 30 minutes, the game goes to penalty shootouts.
It’s a vastly inferior way to settle a match than the Golden Goal, as a mandatory 30 extra minutes encourages teams to play even more conservatively rather than going for the jugular. The required additional half hour is usually sluggish, as players are gassed, sometimes unable to even jog. Given the hellish conditions expected in Brazil, Silver Goal means that teams who advance will have their energy levels will be zapped for their next match.
Why the change from the brilliant, exciting sudden death of Golden Goal to Silver Goal? Considering the money grubbers running FIFA, the only possible answer is additional ad revenue. It has absolutely nothing to do with more exciting gameplay, that’s for sure.
3. Players Flop
They also fall over from legitimate fouls, as even the slightest bit of contact can trip you up running at full speed. And while it’s technically flopping, players will often jump (and subsequently dive) to avoid contact and potentially serious injury.
Just because someone makes the most of a little contact doesn't mean it isn’t a foul. Is it a little irritating seeing a player writhe around on the ground, feigning agony as if he’s been struck with Styr's battle axe? Yes. But instead of letting it compromise your enjoyment of the game, just realize it’s all part of the theatrics and have a laugh. It also gives the other team a chance to catch a water break.
4. Tim Howard is Not a World Class Keeper
And neither was Casey Keller. Howard is a decent-to-good keeper, probably in the top 10 in the English Premier League, but it’s debatable if he should even be the starting goalie on the USMNT. He has lots of experience for club and country, having played many seasons on a good Everton team and being the U.S number one for years. But he’s nowhere near world class, despite what the American soccer media has espoused for the last eight years.
5. Goals Are Hard to Come By
Yeah, yeah, you know this because talking heads have screamed at you for the better part of a lifetime about how soccer sucks because there aren’t any goals. The beauty in that, of course, is the importance of each goal. Near misses, fingertip saves, thundering shots off the woodwork - those are exciting. It also means that almost every match is on a knife’s edge, with the result hanging in the balance. Leads are fragile and can change in the blink of an eye, which means nail-biting, heart-pounding drama.
6. Games Are Boring
The excitement of the World Cup stems not from the high-quality play or free-flowing attacking football. For that, you need to watch the professional leagues around the world, where the players spend the vast majority of their careers, training with the same coaches day in and day out.
The fact is, teams get very little preparation with their national team, amounting to a few weeks a year. Throw in the fact that the bigger the tournament, the more conservative teams tend to play and you have a recipe for rather lukewarm displays on the field.
Of course, the sometimes tepid gameplay is far outweighed by the sheer enormity of the tournament and the stakes involved. The unparalleled passion and intensity of billions of people watching and praying for their teams is what makes the World Cup so damn fun, so who cares if the games are a little disjointed.
7. The Best Team Doesn’t Always Win
This is true in every sport, to a degree, but it’s rare to see an NBA or NFL team get dominated in a game and win. In soccer, it’s not uncommon to see a team barely touch the ball yet still get a result because they capitalized on a set piece or counter attack. Depending on what side of the result you land, this can be infuriating or euphoric.
8. Minnows Are Fun
This year in particular, there should be some very entertaining matches between the lesser-known countries. Though their chances are bleak, teams like Australia and Algeria have managers (and fans) who subscribe to the belief that it’s better to go down swinging than to play it safe. David didn’t beat Goliath by playing defense and trying to counterpunch and neither will the World Cup longshots. So while some games may not be marquee matchups, they could make for the most popcorn-worthy games to tune in for.
9. Ties Are Interesting
Ties are decidedly anti-American. We demand a winner and a loser. But that point of view is a bit myopic, because depending on your team’s expectations, a tie game can be the cause for unabashed joy or stomach-turning misery. Would Cameroon like to beat Brazil? C’mon, does Sepp Blatter like a bribe? At the same time, there would be dancing in the streets in Yaounde if the Indomitable Lions so much as took a point from Los Canaries. Sometimes a tie feels like a win, sometimes it feels like a loss, and sometimes a tie feels like, well, a tie.
10. There Are Cliches of Varying Truth
You’re likely to hear some Europhile soccer know-it-all running his mouth about the following.
“You don’t want to score too early!”
Maybe not, but you definitely want to score at some point.
“Two-nil is the most dangerous lead in soccer.”
A two-goal lead can instill a false sense of complacency, but it’s a lot better than a two-goal deficit.
“Luis Suarez is a diving, cheating racist.”
His handball in 2010 was something even Asamoah Gyan said he would have done, the “racial abuse” he was charged with doesn’t really hold much water, and while he dives a bit, so does everyone, including Brazil/Barcelona golden boy, Neymar. But he’s far from the villain he’s made out to be. (Even if he’s bitten a player once or twice.)
“Leo Messi will never be great until he wins a World Cup.”
The chance to win a World Cup comes every four years. He was 18 years old in 2006, and his coach in 2010 was Diego Maradona, who prioritized his choice of toilet over his team’s tactics. It’s hardly fair to judge Messi based on those two tournaments, particularly when he’s among the most decorated players in club football history.
“A European team cannot win it on South American soil.”
It used to be “...can’t win it away from Europe”, then Spain won in South Africa. Now it’s “...in South America.” Spain, Germany, and France might have something to say about it this year.
“England is incapable of winning on penalties.”
Okay, that one’s true.
“The Netherlands are always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”
Also true. Blame Johann Cruyff.
11. There Are No Commercials
Okay, there are commercials. Tons of them. Everywhere you look you will likely see that FIFA has commercialized some aspect of the game. But in better news, there are no commercial breaks, a far cry from the onslaught of TV timeouts in American sports. It can be a little tough to get used watching a game go uninterrupted for 45 minutes at a time, but trust me, you will get used to it.
12. Host Nations Have an Advantage
The host nation has made it out of their group an incredible 19 out of 20 times (South Africa being the lone exception), and of the eight nations to win the whole shebang, six of them did it while hosting the tournament. The home field advantage at the World Cup is unlike almost any other in sports, and for that reason and that reason alone, Brazil is probably a safe bet to advance out of Group A. (It has absolutely nothing to do with Neymar, Thiago Silva, Fernandinho, David Luiz, Hulk, Willian, or Marcelo.)
13. Unknown Players Will Emerge
Even the most hardcore fan can’t watch every league around the world and the World Cup gives a universal platform for players to showcase their skills. Players no one’s ever heard of suddenly get a stage in front of billions of eyeballs, and putting in a great performance can mean a big-money move to a massive club.
At the same time, a great run of games does not a great player make. It seems to happen every World Cup - a player scores a couple of huge goals on the world stage and becomes the name on everyone’s transfer wish list. In truth, a few matches don’t say much about a player, and some national teams play a system that is built around their superstar, making them look better than they actually are. Some of them pan out, some of them don’t, but their performances for their club are a lot better indicator of quality than a few games.