A guide for the (very) casual soccer fan trying to understand the 2018 World Cup

Every American has encountered a self-important soccer fan who informed them that it’s called “football” everywhere else on Earth.

But from there, the world of soccer — globally, the most popular sport by a long mile (or kilometer) — can become populated by questions and uncertainty. What’s a red card? Is the Round of 16 like the Sweet Sixteen in college basketball? They’re moving so fast, I don’t know what anyone’s supposed to be doing...


With the World Cup underway, and since the United States will officially host in 2026 as part of the North American bid — which means Baltimore might be a site — it’s best to get your soccer degree now while there’s still time.

Here are some tips and terms to learn as you try to navigate the world of World Cup soccer this summer.

How does the clock work?

This might be completely lost on baseball fans, who usually have to be willing to sacrifice part of a good night’s sleep to see the end of the game, but a professional soccer game is timed. Teams have 90 minutes, split into halves of 45 minutes, to try and score. Then, there’s stoppage time.

What’s stoppage time?

Unlike football, the clock doesn’t pause in soccer when the players do or when the ball goes out of bounds. Referees keep a running tab and add the approximate time to the end of regulation. While FIFA intends to be thoroughly selective in hiring World Cup referees, the ref’s subjective ledger of time has been known to cause problems in the past. During a 2002 Ecuadorian match between Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito and Barcelona Sporting Club, referee Byron Moreno supplemented an unheard-of 13 minutes of time, giving Liga the opportunity to tie and then win the game.

There will be 48 teams playing across three countries. How is that going to work?

What are the positions on the field?

There aren’t nearly as many positions to account for in soccer as there are in football or baseball. Soccer’s limited range of positions resemble hockey’s. On each end stands a goalkeeper, the only player allowed to use their hands with the ball in play. Defenders, usually four, line the backfield to protect the net. Forwards roam the opposing team’s side, trying to steal the ball to lead their own charge. Midfielders cross either side of the pitch to defend or attack, assisting the forwards and even scoring themselves.

How are the players set up on the field?

The most basic soccer formation is 4-4-2 — four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards. There’s plenty of tactical variations on the international stage, but keep an eye out in this World Cup for formations that call for more positional flexibility, a trend that is becoming more prevalent in the NBA, as highlighted in this video breakdown from The Ringer. Some attackers have been pushed back into the midfield in an effort to put more goal-scoring ability on the field. When Germany announced its 23-man World Cup roster, the team listed its midfielders and forwards as one group.

So why is that non-goalie player using his hands to throw in a ball from the sidelines?

When the ball rolls out of bounds, a player will retrieve it and throw it back in, an action called simply a “throw-in.” He must plant both feet on the ground and raise both hands above his head when tossing the ball.

Corner kicks and goal kicks look like they come from the same means — but they’re not the same?

When the ball goes out of bounds through the end line, or each end of the field, it will result in either a corner kick or goal kick. If an offensive player is responsible for the ball going out of bounds, a goal kick is awarded to the defense, and a defender (usually the goalkeeper) will kick the ball from their own 6-yard box in front of the net. If a defensive player was responsible, the attackers will restart the play by kicking the ball from the corner closest to where the ball left the pitch.

Simply using country names is boring. Use these monikers instead.

Yellow cards are flying — what constitutes a foul?

Fouls are awarded based on little else but the ref’s own rubric. Some will issue a yellow card for something as simple as a player tugging another’s shirt or screaming in another player’s face, while other refs would look the other way.

So then what’s a red card?

When a player fouls once, they are shown a yellow card. If they do it again, they will be issued a red card and forced to leave the game, giving the opposing team a man-advantage. The two-strikes punishment is intended to keep soccer clean. A player could also receive an immediate red card for more serious actions, like an excessively hard tackle or spitting on another player.

What is a handball?

In a word, “controversial.” It’s well known that using your hands is very against the rules in soccer — hence the worldwide name “football” — unless you’re a goalie. But the ball tends to take flight often, and when the ball and a player’s hand collide, it can be difficult to decipher whether the player handled the ball or the ball just happened to land on the player’s hand.

The FIFA rulebook defines handball as such:

“Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm. The referee must take the following into consideration:

• the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)


• the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)

• the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement

• touching the ball with an object held in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.) counts as an infringement

• hitting the ball with a thrown object (boot, shinguard, etc.) counts as an infringement”

If found guilty, the offending player will be penalized by a penalty kick or, at worst, a yellow card.

How many substitutions does a team get?

Three, at least in FIFA-regulated events like the World Cup.

So how is the World Cup set up?

After competing in regional qualifying tournaments, 32 teams are seeded by a combination of their nation’s past World Cup performances and FIFA’s own rankings. The teams are then drawn into “pots,” which are intended to be a fair mix of geographically diverse teams.

The four pots are emptied by drawing the eight teams they each contain one by one and placing them in the eight groups of four teams (Groups A to H). The host nation occupies the top position in Group A, while the seven other seeds occupy the top spots in Groups B to H. The positions of all the other teams (from pots 2, 3 and 4) will be decided when they are drawn.

Got all that? Here’s a video explanation from FIFA if you’re still lost.

In the group stage of the tournament, each team plays the others in the group and the two teams with the most points advance to the Round of 16. Three points are awarded for a victory, one for a tie and none for a loss.


The Cup then switches to a single-elimination format, whittling down from a round of 16 to quarterfinals, semifinals, the third-place match (to be played by the semifinal losers) and the final.

Getting ready to watch the World Cup? Here's everything you need to know before tuning in for the next four weeks.

How does overtime work?

In the group stage, ties, or draws, are allowed. But once the tournament moves to the knockout round, there must be a winner in every game.

Unlike previous World Cups, the 2018 tournament will not abide by the “golden goal” in extra time, which awarded the first team to score with the victory.

A shootout is introduced if the teams end 90 minutes of regulation (plus stoppage time) tied and remain tied after an extra 30 minutes, broken into two 15-minute periods. Each team then chooses five players who each try to score against the goalkeeper from 12 yards in front of the net. The team with the most successfully completed shots after ten rounds wins. If the shootout is even after ten rounds, each side shoots back and forth until one succeeds.

What is VAR and how does soccer use instant replay?

Video Assistant Referees (VAR) are the middlemen between the referee and a control room in Moscow, filled with officials who have access to over 30 camera angles to review footage in slow motion. They can either dispatch the on-site referee to suggest a review or receive the ref’s request for one from the field. There are three instances where VAR and replay are used — to review goals, penalty decisions and red cards.

Why are all of these soccer fans singing what sound like completely random songs?

Fan singing or chants date back throughout soccer’s long history and every team and country’s style vary depending on its origin. One of the most famous is Liverpool FC’s “You Will Never Walk Alone”:

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