The World Cup guide to soccer basics


WASHINGTON, June 22, 2014 — Despite the popularity of soccer among children in the United States, many Americans find themselves lost when watching the World Cup.

It is almost impossible for Americans to understand the magnitude of the World Cup to the rest of the world. For most of the rest of the world, the tournament is the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the presidential election and the Game of Thrones finale all rolled into one. Entire countries shut down to watch matches. The games are so serious that after the Colombian captain scored an “own goal” (when a player accidentally scores for the other team) in 1994, he was shot and killed in his hometown.

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The World Cup result is so important that some teams have rules about sex during the tournament. Spain, Germany and Chile prohibit their players from sex during the Tournament, believing it will hurt their performance on the field. Brazilians are allowed “normal sex” but cannot participate in “acrobatic sex.” French players are forbidden from sex that last “all night.”

The basics: The soccer field is a “pitch.” On each team, there are eleven players on the field at one time, one of which is the goalie. The goal keeper, goalie, or keeper, is the only player allowed to use his hands, and he can only use his hands inside the box. The other players are generally divided into offense, midfield and defense. A team that plays a 4-4-2 has four defenders, four midfielders and two offensive players. To score a goal, the ball must break the plane of the goal line; it does not have to go all the way across the goal line to score. If a team kicks the ball out over its own end line, the other team is awarded a corner kick, where they kick the ball in from the corner. If the opposing team kicks it over the end line, the team defending the goal gets a goal kick.

“Offsides” is very confusing for most non-players. An offensive player must have another player, or the ball, between the offensive player and the opposing goal. In other words, the offensive player cannot stand next to the opposing goal keeper and wait for his teammate to lob the ball to him and score. If a player is offsides, the sideline referee will raise his flag and the defending team will get a free kick.

Penalty kicks are direct free kicks awarded for flagrant fouls that occur inside the 18-yard-box. With a penalty kick, the ball is placed on the penalty mark inside the 18 yard box and there are no defensive players except the goalie. The offensive player shoots the ball and the goalie is not allowed to come forward off the goal line. Penalty kicks are also used to determine the winner if a game is tied in a sudden-death round.

If a direct penalty kick is awarded, the kicker can score a goal without any other player touching it. The referee signals a direct kick by raising his arm shoulder height and pointing at the goal of the team awarded the kick. With an indirect kick, at least two players must touch the ball before a goal is scored. The referee signals a direct kick by raising his arm up straight.

Players receive red or yellow cards for flagrant fouls. A yellow card is a warning to a player for committing certain types of fouls or unsportsmanlike conduct. A player who receives two yellow cards in a single match, or a yellow card in two consecutive matches, will receive a red card. If a player receives a red card, he is expelled from that game and is ineligible for the next game. His team must play one man down for the remainder of the game in which he received the red card. The team can play full strength in the subsequent game where the player is ineligible. A player can get a red card for a single flagrant foul.

During World Cup matches, each team is allowed to make only three substitutions. Rosters include 11 starters and 12 potential substitutes.

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The first round of the World Cup, or the Group Round, is a round-robin where each of the four teams in the group plays the other three teams, regardless of win-loss record. The 32 teams that make the World Cup advance after four years of preliminary play.

During the first round, a win earns a team 3 points and a tie earns a team 1 point. A team receives no points for a loss. During Group play, ties are allowed to stand.

At the end of Group play, the two teams with the most points advance to the next round.

If there is a tie for points at the end of the Group round, the top teams are decided by goal differential. Goal differential is determined by the number of goals a team has scored versus the number of goals scored against a team.

After the Group round of play, the teams face single elimination. If they lose, they are out. In these rounds, if the game ends in a tie, the teams play two over time periods. If the game is still tied, the game goes to a shootout, where each side selects players to take penalty shots. If the game is still tied, it goes to a second round of shoot outs.

Each match is 90 minutes long. The referee adds on “injury time” for the amount of time the game has stopped for injuries.

The countries with the best chance of winning the World Cup are Brazil (36%), Argentina (15%), Germany (15%), Chile (7%), Netherlands (6%), Colombia (5%) and France (5%). As of today, no other country – including the United States – has more than a 2% chance of winning.


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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.