Every four years, billions of people tune in to watch one of the world’s biggest sporting events. Soccer, or football – or fùtbol – doesn’t historically have the same frenzied passion in the United States as it does in most countries, but the sport is growing.
Here’s a primer on what any new fan needs to know about the game and the World Cup.
Q: What exactly is the World Cup?
A: Through years of qualifying through continental competitions, 32 teams make the World Cup (host automatically qualifies), with eight groups made up of four teams. The top two teams in each group advance out of the group stage to the single-elimination knockout stages. This is the 20th World Cup, but only eight nations have won.
Q: How many players are on the field?
A: Every team starts 11 players, with formations dependent on squad personnel, abilities and sometimes the opponent. For example, the 4-4-2 is made up of four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards (goalie not listed). The United States’ most important player is probably midfielder Michael Bradley. He’s the son of 2010 World Cup coach Bob Bradley and will be crucial to the team’s chances. He’ll support the defense and will also try to give USA as much possession as possible against more-talented Germany and Portugal. Good luck.
Q: How does the group stage work?
A: Each team plays the other three teams in the group once. Group standings are decided by points, with three points for a win and one point for a draw. If two teams are level with points, goal difference is the decider. If teams still can’t be separated by that, total goals scored is used. If that’s not enough, head-to-head is the decider (though if three teams are tied, results from games between only those three teams will be used).
Q: How long are the games?
A: Games consist of two 45-minute halves. The clock doesn’t stop unless it’s halftime, but there is added time, or stoppage time, used at the end of halves. The length of added time is composed of lost time through substitutions, injuries and other play interruptions.
Q: What happens if there are ties?
A: In the group stages, play ends and each team gets a point. But in the knockout stages, draws no longer work. If teams are tied after 90 minutes, there will be two 15-minute periods. The full 30 minutes will be played, meaning there is no “golden goal,” or a goal that immediately ends the match. If the score is still tied after the 30 extra minutes, it goes to penalty kicks. Penalty kicks are the seemingly arbitrary yet intense way a knockout stage game will be decided. In 2010 in South Africa, two games ended with PKs. England often bows out this way, including in three of the past five World Cups, much to the chagrin of its fans.
Q: How do fouls work?
A: If a player commits a misconduct, officials may show him a yellow card, a caution card, if it is severe enough. If a player gets a second yellow in the same game, he is dismissed from the match and is suspended from the next game. No substitute can be brought in, meaning his team must play with only 10 men. If a player gets a yellow card in one game and picks up another in a subsequent game, he is suspended for the next match. A player can also get a straight red card if the misconduct is bad enough – denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity by using a foul, for example.