They’ve already begun playing soccer in the 2016 Rio Olympics, and while this story references the 2014 World Cup, the same thinking applies. It’s still soccer, and if you don’t understand it but would like to, I’ll try to explain the complexities of a game has been around since Pelé scissor-kicked a ball between the columns of the Parthenon in 432 BC.
The 2014 World Cup starts in a few weeks in Brazil and as the name implies, it’s a world event, one that is played every four years by thirty-two of the very best soccer teams on the planet. Soccer—or football, or fútbol or maybe even toe sphere—is the largest spectator and participatory sport on Earth. Every tiny little country has a team, and every player in these tiny countries tells a variation of the same story about how they learned how to do flying upside-down back scissor kicks while practicing with coconuts, melons, wadded up pieces of clothing or armadillos, and at every level, they all play with the same heart and passion as the top players.
Soccer is a sport where anybody can play on any surface with a minimum of equipment, and is probably a game invented by cavemen right after fire. Soccer is the sort of schoolyard activity given to kids because they can play in their school clothes, and a handful of those really motivated kids can go on to play at some sort of professional level, earning tens of hundreds of dollars. That’s in the United States. In countries like France, Germany, and Brazil, they name cities after top players and they can and often do earn millions. They also marry Spice Girls.
They just can’t use their hands.
The Weird Rules of Soccer
With the exception of the goalkeeper, soccer players are forbidden to touch the ball with any part of their arm from their shoulder to their hands. Any other body part is fair game, including the head and face. Most sane athletes in every other sport try to avoid having a ball hit them in the head, but soccer players will actually leap into the air and aim their head at a thick, leather ball that is traveling at around 50 M.P.H. It’s a good thing these same rule-makers didn’t invent baseball and it explains why the top players have a head shaped like a filing cabinet.
The rest of the rules are fairly straightforward, largely arbitrary and centered around good manners. If you break one of these rules—which nobody completely understands anyway because they are fundamentally moody—you get a yellow card. Getting a yellow card is the same as having your mother get mad at you. If you break a worse rule or maybe break the lesser rule twice, you get a red card. A red card is similar to your father being mad at you after he just worked a seventy-five hour week hauling rocks out of a mineshaft in a rickety wheelbarrow and he just found out you broke a window that he will have to pay for by working more hours. You don’t want a red card.
Typical yellow card infractions could be pulling another player’s shirt or even a misconduct that occurs before, during or even after the game on the drive home. The referee then jots down the players name and the nature of the rudeness in a little notebook, which he keeps in a specially designed notebook cozy. Red card infractions include spitting on an opponent, tackling somebody with the same ferocity used in a Pop Warner football game or using abusive language such as that used in a typical greeting between friendly opponents at an NBA game. Unless something is egregiously obvious—such as kicking an opponent in his nether zone while the Jumbotron was scanning the play—infractions often seem discretionary, which usually leads to sidesplitting histrionics on the field.
If a referee truly witnesses an infraction, he will decide if he is annoyed enough to hold up an actual red or yellow card. This system of colored cards might initially seem odd, but it’s not nearly as silly as a football referee lofting their hanky in the air after a penalty and waiting while everybody stands around with their hands on their hips, pointing at the penalty hanky while trying to sort things out.
Most soccer offenses involve kicking something that isn’t supposed to be kicked, touching the ball with your hands or poking an opponent in the eyes, Three Stooges style. Sometimes players try to force a penalty card on an opponent by falling down and holding a body part of some kind to catch the attention of the referee, who is often busy trying to keep his cards in his pockets. Maybe they should wear cargo pants. Once the referee notices the player squirming around as if fire ants have attacked him, he can decide what to do. Fortunately, soccer referees are familiar with these shenanigans and will often scold the squirming player like the petulant, overpaid child that he is rather than waving a colored card. The writhing player is then miraculously cured of his agony and will leap up and start playing again while the crowd applauds his bravery. “How can he play with such a devastating shin injury?” people will wonder as they toss sacks of euros in his direction.
It Took A Lot Of Villages To Make Soccer Popular
The most challenging thing about soccer is not being able to use one’s hands. Outside of that and discounting the tender assortment of rules, it’s a simple game. You have to get a small ball in the huge net behind your opponent’s goalkeeper. Heck, if hockey had a soccer-sized goal, the final scores would be in the thousands. It’s this minimalism that makes soccer a game that anyone can play, but it still doesn’t explain why it is such a huge sport everywhere but the United States.
Soccer has thrived because it’s a game that pits countries against one another, which inspires loyalty on a level that can’t be matched by anything the NFL can fabricate. Germany versus England. Argentina versus Brazil. The United States versus the kids who play over at the vacant field behind a gas station. There’s country loyalty at stake here and that can get pretty intense.
Whatever you think of soccer as a game, it is indeed a world sport with somewhere around three and a half billion fans, including Britain where win or lose, excited fans will routinely riot and destroy perfectly good soccer stadiums after every match. England must have an entire industry that starts building a new stadium as soon as a game is scheduled, because you can always count on some kind of fan-based rioting to make the front page. “France defeats England 2-1. London is in flames.”
It Takes A World To Play The World Cup
For the World Cup, there are eight groups of four teams. Each team plays the other three teams in their group once and then the top two from each group move on to a single elimination tournament where either Brazil or Germany will win and burn down London. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. The tournament starts June 12 and will run until July 13, giving Europeans a month-long holiday to watch as many games as possible. Nothing gets done in Europe during the World Cup.
The teams to watch are, of course, the Germans, who make up for their lack of finesse with being the soccer equivalent of a Humvee in a grocery store. Then there’s the home team and favorite to win it all, Brazil, which plays with a grace and finesse rarely seen outside of Swan Lake. England is pretty good, but they have a lousy attitude and use their teeth as weapons. Spain is fun to watch because they play with big, brass conquistador helmets. France? Well, they had that guy a few years ago who head-butted another guy for no reason other than it just felt right. The French have also been known to say things like “Votre mère fait cuire des tartes pour les marins! Tartes terribles avec croûte sèche!” to members of the other teams, which could result in a yellow card, so watch carefully. The U.S. team? Well, I hear Brazil is nice this time of year. Enjoy the vacation.
It’s Not Football-Football—it’s Foot Ball-Foot Ball
Soccer is an acquired taste and not every sports fan in the United States has acquired that taste yet, and I think the biggest reason is that it still feels foreign. It’s not football, baseball, basketball or even hockey, but that appears to be changing, albeit at a glacial pace. American kids have been playing soccer by the droves since the invention of the minivan, so there are a lot of future players and fans out on those fields.
Soccer wasn’t even on the radar when I was a kid. I grew up with baseball, so baseball is my game. It’s fun to watch. There are hot dogs and songs and organ music and beer and when a ball goes into the stands in baseball and you catch it, you get to keep it. It’s a nice souvenir. In soccer, you have to give the ball back. When a soccer ball occasionally goes up into the stands, the entire game grinds to a halt while the player stands there with his arms open and waits for somebody to throw the ball back to him. That’s not going to fly in the U.S. and if soccer is to catch on here, that has to be changed.
Player: Achtung, little help?
U.S. Fan: No.
U.S. Fan: You heard me. Go get another ball. Welcome to the United States, Jörg. Woop! Woop! Woop! Woop!
Let’s face it folks—the World Cup is a big deal, even though the matches are broadcast on ESPN at times when most of us are working or sleeping. Use your DVR. Someday, all these little kids we’ve been dragging to soccer games will grow up, and they might be good enough to actually compete and win on the same field as the Germans, Brazilians, Venusians or any other team that can bounce a ball off their eyebrows.
The National Pastime Versus the Beautiful Game
About twenty years ago, I took my German father-in-law to a baseball game. He grew up playing soccer, played a little as an adult and he loves the game. He also loves American football, but that was his first baseball game. Ever.
“I don’t get it,” was all he could say when it was all over, and that probably sums up how a lot of people feel about soccer. I’ve grown to appreciate the game as I’ve come to understand the rules and strategy a little better and since every sport seems a little quirky when it’s broken down into little pieces, soccer really isn’t any weirder than the ovoid shape of a football, the scoring in tennis or the “dribble while moving” rule in basketball.
In the end, we watch sports to root for certain teams—our teams—so while the American team isn’t likely to last very long in the 2014 World Cup, we should at least watch them play. It’s like this: People still cheer for the New York Mets and the Detroit Tigers and even the hapless Buffalo Bills because hey—they’re somebody’s home team and as the saying goes—ya dance with the one that brung ya.