A Layman’s Guide to World Cup Soccer

 Posted by on 2014/05/27 at 06:58  Soccer, Sports
May 272014

About a month ago, I set out to explain to non-baseball fans the nuances of baseball’s various forms of “cheating”, because I’m a uniter.  With the World Cup around the corner, I bring the non-soccer people a few pointers to help them understand what the hell they’re watching next month.

Every fourth summer, Americans are told that, like people pretty much everywhere else in the world, they, too, are really, really into soccer.  If for no other reason than it typically morphing into a day-drinking opportunity, Americans usually tune in, and, having never been to Italy, cheer for the Italian soccer team.  That second part might have more to do with me being surrounded by people from New Jersey, and not necessarily reflect “Americans”.  But, I digress.

If you’re one of the people making your quadrennial dip into the other futból world, welcome.  I’m not one of those guys here to lecture you about the “beautiful game” or how soccer is intellectually superior to the popular American sports.  Screw those jerks.  On the contrary, I’m here to make your viewing experience as enjoyable as possible.  So, first, here are a few things you might hear soccer announcers say, and what they mean.  If you do know the rules of soccer, don’t skip this part of the program.  This is really a framework to make jokes masquerading as soccer education.  Promise.

“…but, the flag is up!”

No, he's not rooting for the Yellow Team

No, he’s not rooting for the Yellow Team

This means one of the referee’s assistants – the two dudes running along the sidelines – has raised his handheld flag up, signaling a call of “offsides”.  He’ll extend the flag towards the field to indicate where the offsides occurred.  Unlike hockey, where offsides is based on a static line, the offsides “line” in soccer is the position of the 2nd rearmost defender, including the goalkeeper.  More simply, a teammate can’t pass the ball to you if the only person between you and the goal you’re attacking is the goalie.  However, once the ball leaves your teammate’s foot, it’s game on; you’re free to run ahead of the defender and go for goal.  The broadcasts will have cool graphics that shade out the part of the pitch (field) ahead of that 2nd rearmost defender, that will illustrate this nicely.

Offsides can a big deal, because it can result in breakaway goals being disallowed.  And, breakaway goals are fun.

The referee’s assistants will botch these calls regularly.  Still, you’re free to think that it’s part of a vast conspiracy against whatever country you’re rooting for.

“He’s pointing towards the spot!”

This means that half the players on the field are pissed, one in particular is befuddled as to what he possibly could have done wrong, and Luis Suárez is on the ground grabbing his leg.  It also means you’re about to see a penalty kick.

By each net, you’ll notice lines forming two rectangular boxes.  The smaller one – the six yard box – stretches (duh) six yards in front of the goal line, and marks the area in which the goalkeeper puts the ball in play via a goal kick.  The bigger box – the eighteen yard box – is also known as the ‘penalty area’. That’s the part of the field where you’ll see attacking players flopping to the grass in the ways that earned soccer its reputation as a sissy sport, before NBA and NHL players decided to join the flopping party en masse.

Penalty Kick Assassin

Penalty Kick Assassin

It’s not coincidentally the area in which any foul or handball by a defending player results in a penalty kick from the white dot in the eighteen yard box.  If you have a player like, say, England’s ( / Liverpool’s) Steven Gerrard, penalty kicks are virtually automatic goals.  These are HUGE (Billy Fucillo voice) calls, and this is why you’ll often see referees disregard more ticky-tack fouls that they might call outside the penalty area.

There’s also a weird arch at the top of the eighteen yard box.  I have no idea what its purpose is.

Anyway, making a hand motion towards the aforementioned dot in the eighteen yard box is the referee’s signal that he’s calling a foul or handball, that the infraction occurred inside the penalty area, and he’s awarding the attacking team a penalty shot; hence, pointing towards the spot.

“The equalizer!”

That just means somebody scored a goal that tied the game.  I know many fans aren’t used to commentators breaking out SAT words, unless you’re a Knicks fan who watches MSG telecasts with Walt “Clyde” Frazier doing color.  But, why would you be a Knicks fan, much less actually watch their train wreck / dumpster fire games?

This is one of two more soccer-y terms that have made their way into my general sports lexicon.  The other, “unlucky”, is mostly the result of my one semester of co-ed indoor soccer with my buddy, Matt.  (Cheers, mate).

“He earned a booking” / “He’s been sent off”

This means that soccer’s equivalent of basketball’s flagrant fouls just happened.  Much like in basketball, these calls can be somewhat ambiguous.  You’ll most often see yellow (Flagrant 1) cards when a defending player slides (‘goes to ground’) in an attempt to dispossess an attacking player, doesn’t touch the ball first, and knocks the attacking player over.  When a defender appears to end up making more of a play on the attacker than the ball, it’s viewed as unsafe or careless play.  Also like in basketball, two of those get you ejected from the game.  Particularly brazen hits (these will be the most controversial) or fouls that deny an attacker a clear goal scoring opportunity will earn a defender a straight red card, which is an automatic ejection.  Intentional handball in the penalty area will also get you sent off.

After a red card, announcers will invariably note that the offending team is “playing with ten”.  Teams can’t substitute for an ejected player; they have to play the duration of the game with one fewer guy on the field.

Dave, hold up.  So, theoretically, a team could play a big chunk of the game with one fewer player than the other team and still win?

It’s happened.

Man, soccer is laaaaaaaaame.

Knock it off.  You’re almost as bad as Soccer Snob Guy.  Go crack a Natty Light and watch steroid-ed out guys with helmets find ways to still give each other brain trauma.

If you’re at a bar (and you will be at a bar, because bars are extra-fun during the World Cup) and anything else happens that you don’t understand, find someone who appears engaged by the game, but not too into it, and ask him or her what’s going on.  DO NOT approach anyone who looks like his first born son is riding on the game.  Such people are likely to be the aforementioned Soccer Snob Guy.  He (97.4% of the time, it’ll be a dude) WILL be condescending towards you.  Just leave him alone.  He knows not what he is doing.

Look, ya’ll know me – I fully support casual, bandwagoning, fair weather fandom.  The soccer die-hards, already a somewhat ornery lot, get a bit testy during the World Cup.  The notion that the unwashed masses could come out and enjoy for a month something about which the die-hards are passionate all the time, then ignore it for four years, appears to bother them.  Perhaps getting into soccer later in life – I became a Liverpool supporter at 21 – leaves me more mellow about this sort of thing.

I do, however, have one request for you bandwagon World Cup soccer fans: join the bandwagon of the country from which you actually hail.  I’m looking at you, Tony from New Jersey.  Pronouncing it “gah-BA-gool” DOES NOT make you Italian.  You’re from Bayonne.  You’re American.  The USA is your team.

U-S-A! U-S-A!

In soccer’s defense, other than the World Cup, most of its seasons take place in scarf-appropriate weather

Same goes for everyone who is suddenly a Brazil fan, because Brazil is probably going to win.

You don’t have to be a fan of any given sport to be a fan of events.  How many people watch the Super Bowl every year with no (non-gambling) interest in the outcome of the game?  The World Cup is an event.  It’s a reason to come out, drink drinks, and yell and scream when you see other people yelling and screaming.  But, trust me on this, the event will be way more fun if we all decide that we’re going to unite around a home squad that has only a slight chance to win the thing.  If we do that, we may get to celebrate wildly and end up hugging complete strangers (like I did at Dublin House in Red Bank, NJ in 2010 – don’t judge) when something like this happens:

#RealTalk: We (the States) have to be the only country where this is an issue.  I’m not saying don’t take a side in any given game.  When the USA isn’t involved, you’re free to lean on whatever ethnic stereotypes you possess to determine which country you’d rather be victorious.  After all, the World Cup, like the Olympics, is a time where being racist and xenophobic is sanctioned, even encouraged.  What I’m saying is that, if you’re American, your primary rooting interest should be the US National Team.  There are some narrow exceptions to this, such as:

  • You possess a passport issued by your non-American rooting interest
  • At least one of your parents (not grandparents) immigrated from your non-American rooting interest
  • You lived in your non-American rooting interest for at least ONE year (I’ll let you call 300 days a year here – one semester abroad does not qualify)
  • You are in a country other than America during the World Cup and don’t want to get killed
  • You are in Newark or Astoria and don’t want to get killed (You’ll be pulling for Brazil, Greece, or Croatia in these scenarios)
  • You, like My Mets Fan Brother, have decided that the spread of soccer in America is tantamount to the Euro-fication of America, and thus the most patriotic thing you can do is actively root against the US Team to help stymie that tide of Euro-fication

My Mets Fan Brother absolutely loathes soccer, but did have one fantastic idea about how to make it more fun: throw a second ball on the pitch.  Right now, Soccer Snob Guy’s head is exploding, and the rest of you are nodding, thinking, “I’d watch that.”

There has been a lot of really great soccer in recent months.  Atlético Madrid improbably took the La Liga title.  There were a thrilling (bittersweet if you’re a Liverpool fan) last few weeks of the Premier League season.  The UEFA Champions League Final was bonkers, in which Cristiano Ronaldo’s shirtless goal celebration impregnated half of Portugal.  MLS is still a thing, apparently.

Yes, there will be the nil-nil draws that elicit derision from the folks who need their scoring to come in seven point clips.  However, whether you’re a true fan of a skillfully placed cross, an ambitious strike from distance, and the tactics of pressing one of your midfielders forward, or you’re just here to party, it looks like we’re about to see some exciting games.

But, Dave, I thought this was a World Cup primer.  What teams are good?  Who’s going to win?  What should I be watching for?

Who cares?  Here’s my message to the non-soccer fans looking to get into the World Cup: Just enjoy.  Order up a round of delicious (American) craft beers and strap in.  You might even come to like the sport.

U-S-A!  U-S-A!

–I reserve the right to come back in a couple weeks and do a post that gets into stuff like who’s going to win (Brazil or Argentina, possibly Spain) and what (Brazilian booty and protests) / who (Messi and Suárez) I’ll be looking for come kickoff June 12th.