How to Watch a World Cup Soccer Match

07/06/2010 12:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I need to start this post by admitting that I'm obsessed with the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The biggest and most popular sporting event in the world, it's a truly international event where the best teams from around the globe compete for the national glory. Whether you supported Team USA with their solid showing in the early stages of the World Cup, or whether it's your opportunity to root for the country of your -- or your parents -- birth (I always root for England for just this reason), it's a great global event to follow.

Problem is, a lot of people in the United States have no clue about soccer or "football" and so just ignore the World Cup or watch it without really knowing what's going on.

That's why as we move into the last few matches I thought it would be helpful to explain some of the basics of the game and help you sound savvy with your foreign-born World Cup-obsessed friends.


The World Cup starts with 32 teams split into 8 groups. Each team plays the other three in their group and the top two, by points, proceed to the Round of 16. Points are awarded for a win or a tie, and goal differentials are also factored in as needed.

Later in the tournament ties are not allowed, so if the score is tied after the 90 minutes of a standard match, there are two 15-minute extra time periods (a total of 120 minutes, if you're counting). If it's still tied after extra time, the game comes down to a penalty kick shootout: the player, the ball and the goalie, no other players involved, five shots per team. The first team to get more goals wins.

Personally I hate when the game goes to this point, as it did at the end of the Uruguay vs. Ghana match, but if you need to end with a clear winner, there aren't too many alternatives.

The 11-player teams are split into forwards (also known as "attackers" or "strikers"), mid-field players and defenders, one of whom is the goalie or "keeper," and each side is allowed a maximum of three substitutions for the entire match.

Soccer is played in two 45-minute halves and only the goalies can use his hands. Every other part of the body, from the head to the chest, legs, feet, etc, is acceptable as players seek to get the ball into the goal. If a player touches a ball with their arms -- or even if the ball inadvertently bounces off their arm or hand -- it's a handball penalty and often a yellow card. Inevitably during a match there will be injury or penalty time, which is added at the end of each half as "stoppage time." Typically there are 2-3 minutes of stoppage time per half. Between halves there's a 15 minute break.


A match is a "fixture." the field is a "pitch" and the player jerseys are their "kit." Players on the pitch can incur three levels of penalty for bad play: the ball can switch to the other team with a "free kick" (and if it's close to the goal it can switch to the dreaded "penalty kick" which frequently results in a point), the layer can get a "yellow card" or, if it's particularly egregious, they can be thrown out of the match with "red card." Forwards often push the ball down the pitch along a side, then kick it across the front of the goal with a "cross," hoping one of their teammates can "tap" or "header" it in for a goal.


Yellow and red cards are critically important to the game. One big reason is that teams are only allowed three substitutions during the entire match, and cannot substitute a player that's booted off the field from a red card. Each team starts with 11 players and you'll hear commentators talk about "playing with ten men" after a red card. It's a major disadvantage for a team, as you would imagine.

If a player gets two yellow cards they're out of the game, it acts exactly as a red card would, so while many players get one during a match -- commonly for tripping or body checking an opponent -- once they do have a yellow card over their head, they tend to play a cleaner and more cautious game so as not to get kicked off the pitch.

Here's where that's more interesting: get a yellow card in FIFA World Cup play and it sticks with you throughout the tournament. Aggressive players often have the cloud of a yellow card over their heads before the starting whistle is blown. Slightly mitigating this, FIFA decided this year that yellow cards are not going to be carried over to the semifinals or final match, which will serve as encouragement for the players to be a bit more physical in the quarterfinal games.


There's no rule in soccer that's more misunderstood or more controversial than offside. The basic idea is this: an opposing player cannot gain possession of the ball unless there is are at least two defending players between them and the goal. Since one is the goalie (or "keeper"), it means that players always need to ensure that there's another defender between them and the goal at the moment they get the ball.

What makes this complicated is that being in an offside position isn't unto itself a penalty, it's only when the player actually gains possession of the ball, and it's all subjective: if the referee doesn't see the offside and call it, they're in the clear and can proceed with their shot on goal. There's a second ref on the edge of the pitch called the "line ref": he can call offside too.

Sometimes offside isn't called when we can clearly see from the video cameras that it was offside, and other times it's called when it wasn't offside (as happened with Team USA on a critical goal in one of its early matches). That's part of the game: there are no video replays in soccer and players say that it balances out, sometimes in their favor and other times against them.


Enough about the nuts and bolts, let me offer up some phrases you can use when you're watching a match so you can sound cool and savvy, amaze your friends and perhaps even make a new friend or two!

First off, players try to get in each other's way to steal the ball. If one of them falls, that's called a "tackle," and most players can't resist adding a flourish or "dive" to make it seem they've been mortally wounded, hoping the opponent will get a yellow or red card. When it's particularly egregious, you can say "Oh, that was a dirty tackle!" or "That's a yellow card!" but if you watch the replay and it's as if the players didn't even touch each other, yell "I'm sick of all this diving!"

Looks like it could be an offsides or the team playing your favorites just scored? You can never say "That was surely offsides!" too often, or our local favorite here in Boulder, "What the f-- was that, ref?"

The ball final got into the net for your team? Pumping your fist in the air and yelling "YESSS!" or "BEAUTIFUL GOAL!" or "GOOOOAAAAALLLLLL!!!!!!" are all encouraged.

If it's a slow scoring game comments like "Their midfield sucks" or "Where are those strikers?" (Strikers are the forwards who primarily shoot for the goal) or "Have they forgotten how to pass? this is a team sport!" are all bound to have other viewers look at you with admiration for your grasp of the nuances of the game.

Which reminds me of the most important rule of enjoying the FIFA 2010 World Cup: don't watch it alone. This is your chance to set foot into a sports bar, and if you have an ethnic bar that aligns with one of the teams in a big match (like an English pub for a match when England played), it's even more ideal. Sure there'll be a lot of people and it'll be totally crazy, but it's really, really fun.

And with that, I gotta sign off. There's a great match coming up...

In addition to being a film critic and tech support maven, Dave Taylor has been an enthusiastic World Cup fan for as long as he remembers, always supporting England, even during the lean years. Ask him and he'll show you: he even has a World Cup match ticket in his wallet from years and years ago...