So your friends invited you over to watch the World Cup, but you don’t know a red card from Red Dwarf? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a soccer cheat sheet to get you through the next month. Actually, if you want to sound like a real expert, you might want to call it football—and check out our guide on “How to Fake Your Way Through the World Cup.”
The first thing to know about the World Cup is that the opening round of the tournament—the “group stage”—is a round-robin format, with eight groups of four teams each. The groups are selected mostly at random, though the top teams (as chosen by the terribly flawed measure of FIFA ranking) are kept separate from one another, as are teams from the same geographic region. (European teams are placed together during the group stage, though, as there are too many of them, 13, to place each one into a separate group.)
This system results in some unfair pairings, with some groups consisting entirely of mediocre teams (we’re looking at you, Group C) and others containing three teams that have a shot to reach the final (hello, Group B). Those super-difficult groups are known as GODs, or “Groups of Death.” A Group of Death is known as such because the losers are boarded on to planes and flown over the Andes over and over again until there’s a crash and the players are forced to eat one another—or perhaps because soccer journalists have an exaggerated view of the importance of the sport.
Only two of the four teams from each group advance to the second round. The last four rounds of the World Cup are a single-elimination tournament contested by the surviving 16 teams. The games are split into two 45-minute halves, with referees arbitrarily adding time (injury time) to the end of each half to make up for stoppages caused by fouls, injuries, or flaming projectiles. Sometimes the referees will add too much or too little time and cost a team the game, and a coach dressed in a slick, all-black designer suit will get angry and storm the field (called the pitch) to get up in the referee’s face and pantomime pointing at his watch to indicate his displeasure.
Much to the consternation of certain American sports consumers, the games in the group phase can end in ties (called draws). A 0–0 tie (nil-nil draw) is not uncommon. When that happens, it’s usually because one team has “parked the bus,” a term for a defense-first playing style that was invented by a canny, poetic Portuguese Svengali and soccer manager named José Mourinho, who will not be coaching at the World Cup but who is quite fond of parking the bus. Once teams reach the knockout stage, the stakes get higher, and bus-parking becomes more common. If a match is tied after 90 minutes, it goes to a 30-minute overtime (extra time). This overtime is not a sudden-death affair: If someone scores a goal, the other team has the chance to tie the game. If the game is still tied after extra time, it goes to a penalty shootout. In a penalty shootout, the manager selects five players to take one-on-one shots at the goalie (keeper). If the teams are still tied after five penalties apiece, each team takes one more penalty each until the tie is broken and England has lost.
Each team puts 11 players on the pitch, one goalkeeper and 10 field players (known outside of America as “players”). These gentlemen can line up in a variety of formations, such as 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1, as well as various positions such as holding midfielder, sweeper, No. 10, No. 9, false 9, etc. But you don’t need to know any of that stuff. You just need to know that there are usually four defenders trying to prevent the opposition from scoring, a few midfielders trying to keep possession of the ball and help in both attack and defense, and a few attacking players, give or take.
The basic rules are simple. You’re not supposed to kick people, or grab people, or push people, and you’re not supposed to pretend to have been kicked or grabbed or pushed. When the rules for pretending are violated, it’s called diving. Some divers have turned it into an art. The greatest such artists are usually Italian. Also, you can’t touch the ball with your hands unless you are the goalkeeper. When you do this in a really big match, the referee doesn’t see it and you win the game or your opponent misses a crucial penalty and you win the game.
If you get caught violating these rules, then the referee could give you a yellow card or a red card. A red card results in ejection. Two yellow cards in one game results in a red card. Unless the referee is named Graham Poll, then three yellow cards are required. According to the 2010 rules, if you receive two yellow cards in any combination of games prior to the semifinals, you are suspended from your team’s next game. At the last World Cup they changed the rules to reduce the odds of a player having to sit out the final. Historically, though, when you got your second yellow card in the semifinals of the tournament, you cried like a baby and had your manhood and mental health questioned for the rest of your life. Certain fouls committed inside the penalty box earn your team a penalty kick.
There are a couple of other rules, most of which sound more confusing than they actually are. You are offside when the ball is played forward to you on the opponent's half of the field by a teammate and there is only one opposing player, usually the keeper, between you and the goal. The assistant referee signals offside by raising a flag. The announcer often misses this and gets very excited about a goal that does not count.
Sometimes there is no visible foul, or visible offside, and you score a game-winning goal, but the referee calls a foul anyway (or an offside, no one is really sure), and your goal doesn’t count, and the game ends in a draw. When this happens, the integrity of the game comes into question, unless it happens to the U.S. team, and then nobody cares.
Throw-ins are boring. You get one of those when your opponent puts the ball out of play on the sideline (aka the touchline). Corner kicks are also boring. You get one of those when your opponent puts the ball out of play behind his own goal.
Oh, yes: You’re supposed to put the ball in the net. The other team’s net, not your own. When you put the ball in your own net, and your team is eliminated from the tournament because of it, and your country is racked by a terrible drug war, and your team was the one great national source of pride, then a true human tragedy happens that is grotesque to even compare to the kind of losses that occur on a soccer pitch.
These are the big things you need to know about the rules and gameplay. But it’s not everything you need to know! You also need to know about the teams, players, and personalities that make up the World Cup, as these are far more interesting than the basic rules and will come up more in conversation. But don’t worry! We’ve got you covered on that front, too.