The biggest sporting event in the world is less than a month away, and despite what ESPN might try to tell you I’m not talking about the Super Bowl. I’ve been dreaming of going to a World Cup for as long as I can remember, and I honestly still can’t wrap my head around the idea that Ash and I actually get to go this year.
I know that a lot of you, probably most of you, have no idea what it’s like to be a soccer fan. Americans avoid soccer for a million reasons, some of them perfectly valid. No, there isn’t a lot of scoring. Yes, there are some rules that are fairly hard to understand, especially if you aren’t a hockey fan. And yes, there are often more dives in the first 15 minutes than in an entire NBA game.
But I can promise you this, despite what you’ve been told your entire life soccer is NOT boring. So in preparation for the World Cup, and since most of you won’t be able to avoid seeing at least some of it on TV, here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know if you’re a total soccer neophyte.
Soccer in itself is simple, you try to score more goals than the other team. Each team has 11 players on the field and only the goalkeeper is allowed to use his hands. Similar to hockey there is an offside rule, but honestly you’ll only think about that when a goal gets called back because of it. Fouls are called and result in free kicks for the fouled team. That’s really all you need to know. Again I know the lack of scoring is a big deal for some people, but the sheer ecstasy (or agony) when a goal is scored is more than worth the wait. Or you can always join my mom’s camp and maintain that the answer is as simple as bigger goals.
Speaking of goals, there’s one more rule: when someone scores, you have to mark the occasion for as long as you can in one breath, at least once. That’s an official FIFA regulation.
The key to understanding the World Cup itself is understanding the national teams. Most countries have at least one professional soccer league and those leagues can and do use players from around the world. Like the NFL or NBA your allegiance is largely based on where you were raised, or familial ties. But in soccer, there is a bigger dream, that a team made up of players from your country would beat the best players from every other country on earth. And there we have the World Cup. It takes 3 years to qualify for a World Cup, you have to beat out other teams from your region to earn the right to compete. (For decades in the middle of the 20th Century the US wasn’t able to do this. The game really has grown by leaps and bounds here.)
Once your team has qualified you can relax for about 5 minutes until the draw. The World Cup is played with a group stage first (8 groups of 4) where after a round-robin the top 2 teams from each group advance to the knockout stage. Obviously these groups have to be drawn “randomly” to be fair. Like everything else FIFA does, the draw is overly complicated and not at all random. I drew this back in December to try to explain the process to a coworker, I’m pretty sure I made it worse.
If you’ve watched SportsCenter since December you’ve probably heard the phrase “Group of Death.” There is at least one in every World Cup, and as you can imagine from the name, this is not the group you want to be in. Naturally this is the draw the soccer gods punished the US with. We have to deal with Germany and Portugal, ranked 2 and 3 respectively in the world rankings. (If you can only name 2 soccer players, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo is probably one of them.) And the fourth team is Ghana, the thorn in our side that has eliminated us from the last 2 World Cups. Clearly this is not ideal.
But really, as the vast majority of us will never play in a World Cup (or play professional soccer in any capacity), the World Cup is largely about the fans. More than 2.5 million tickets have been sold for the 64 games. Like me they are all hoping for an adventure unlike anything else. There will be goals and penalties and a whole lot of beer, but the real takeaway from the World Cup will be a shared experience. Whether you watch from the comfort of your living room, a local pub, or your seat behind the goal, you know that you are sharing that moment with millions of people around the world. If you ask me, that’s what the World Cup is all about.
You can expect a couple more pre-World Cup posts over the next couple of weeks, basically because I can’t think about anything else at this point. We also hope to post from Brazil (and do lots of tweeting @fernmays and @adonnell5) so you can follow along with us, but the internet may be a bit of an adventure in northern Brazil.