GOALLLL! A novice’s guide to World Cup soccer

The whole world is watching – join the fun!

It’s one thing to pass yourself off as a knowledgeable devotee of Canada’s national game but how are you at faking it through the biggest event in international soccer?

Held every four years since 1930 (apart from the world wars), the latest World Cup of soccer kicks off June 14, when the host Russian team takes on Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. More than 60 matches featuring a total of 32 teams will follow in 11 Russian cities. The final takes place July 15, and an awful lot of people will be watching.

“There are great stories that will happen over the course of the month with this event.”

During the 2014 final in Brazil, a global audience of more than one billion watched Germany knock off Argentina. 

The numbers tend to drop in North America (the month-long event reached nearly 250 million viewers in 2014), but “even if you’re not a super soccer fan it’s easy to get pulled into it,” says NAIT Ooks women’s soccer coach, Carole Holt.

“It’s a way to bring the world together just like we see with the Olympics. There are great stories that will happen over the course of the month with this event.”

For the curious but uninitiated, we asked Holt and men’s team coach Charles O’Toole for what we need to know to be part of the global community now gathering around the so-called “beautiful game.” This year’s event is set to attract three billion viewers – dwarfing the recent record-setting audiences for the Stanley Cup. Get set for the greatest sporting event on earth (which will invade Canada when our nation co-hosts the 2026 World Cup with the United States and Mexico!)

The favourites

“Germany to me is always the dark horse.”

France and Belgium will put forward two of the strongest teams in the competition. The latter has Holt’s attention. “I’m a bit more drawn to the Belgium squad this year,” she says. “I think they’ve got some good players and good goalkeeping.”

Germany is a popular pick to win again. “Germany to me is always the dark horse,” O’Toole says. “They always start off slow and finish strong, which they showed in the last World Cup. They kind of meandered their way through the group stages and absolutely blew out Brazil in the semi-final.”

The teams missing out 

Italy, long a soccer power, failed to qualify this year, as did the United States. O’Toole is still upset his native Scotland failed to qualify and isn’t terribly keen on defaulting to the England squad. “Don’t go there,” he grumbles. 

And Canada? Once again, we’re on the outside looking in. The Canadian men have qualified only once for a World Cup, in 1986. While more kids play organized soccer than any other sport in Canada, the passion only goes so far. The Canadian men’s team has a FIFA ranking of 80th in the world – just ahead of United Arab Emirates and slightly behind Belarus. 

John Herdman, who led the Canadian women’s soccer team to back-to-back Olympic bronze medals, was tasked with taking over the Canadian men’s program earlier this year.

“He’s great at fixing problems,” says Holt. “He’s done it in New Zealand and here in Canada. Let’s hope he can do the same with the men’s team.”

Players to watch

Along with Messi and Neymar, legendary names don’t get much bigger than Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal. “He may have an ego the size of the stadium he’s playing in, but he can back it up,” says O’Toole.

“It’s going to be spectacular.”

Fresh off a Champions League victory in Europe, where he plays for Real Madrid, Ronaldo will compete in his fourth World Cup. At 33 years old, this could be his last chance to capture the one great prize that has eluded him.

Get in on arguments about offside calls

A key rule, enforced with the waving of flags, the offside is inevitably contentious. 

“It’s a complicated rule but once you understand it you can see how goals are called back because of where the player was standing when the play initiated,” says O’Toole. 

A player is offside if he’s nearer to the opponent’s goal than both the ball and the second-last opponent (including the goalkeeper) when his teammate plays the ball to him. Often, an attacker will spring toward the goal as soon as the ball is played. In this case, he can pass the defenders, receive the ball, and be considered onside.

The purpose of the offside penalty is to prevent attackers from loitering too close to the goal. Sort of like goal-sucking in hockey. 

Build that wall!

No, not that wall. The “wall” is the defensive formation set up a few metres in front of the goalie in an attempt to block a free kick, which is awarded when a player commits a foul near his own goal. It’s that row of fidgeting defenders, hands carefully cupped below the belt, resembling a lineup of school kids desperate for a washroom break. 

Fun related fact: Mexico’s first game is June 17 against Germany.

No matter what happens, it will be incredible

Three billion people can’t be wrong about the quality of the entertainment the World Cup offers. And Holt makes the point that the ultimate beauty of it is that it’s about so much more than just the action on the field. The nuances of the “beautiful game” are endless.

“It’s going to be spectacular,” says O’Toole. “Sit back, relax, enjoy it.”

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