One of my hobbies is following pop culture. Note that I said “following” instead of “consuming” because when it comes to things like video games, I’d rather read about them than play them. Previously, the World Cup soccer tournament, held every four years, fell into the “read about” category but for some reason this year I decided to tune in and I’m now hooked. Some of the rules still elude me (more on that below) but I’ve watched all or portions of several games, including a couple of David and Goliath matches, to catch the excitement shared by 5 billion others around the globe.
This year the World Cup is in Qatar, a tiny, oil-rich nation in the Middle East that’s the size of Connecticut. The 2022 site was selected in 2010, and many of the officials who made that decision have since gone to jail for a variety of offenses, so I harbor no delusions about the purity of the sport, or at least the business side of the sport. This is more about what I’ve seen and felt over the first week of the tournament.
First, some basics: There are 32 national teams in the tournament. Some you’d expect to be there, Italy, for instance, are absent. I haven’t followed the sport closely enough to know why – and I’m avoiding any background research in writing this – but I believe there’s a qualification process that involves winning matches (their word for “games”) prior to the start of the tournament.
The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four teams. The grouping seems to be random. For instance, Group B features England, Iran, United States, and Wales. (I would have thought England included Wales but no, it’s a separate country for World Cup purposes which makes me assume Scotland didn’t qualify). Each team within a group plays the other three teams in the group. On Monday, the United States had a draw (“a tie”) against Wales. On Friday, the US had another tie with England (one of the pre-tournament favorites). This coming Tuesday, the US will play Iran which will complete the “group play” portion of the tournament for the Americans.
Group play continues until Friday, December 2. Then, the top two teams from each group advance to the Round of 16. The top teams are determined first by a points system that awards 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, and no points for a loss. If there is a tie in the number of points, the tie breaker is goal differential, meaning how many more goals you scored than you gave up. Using that method, the top 16 teams advance to a single elimination tournament within the tournament. The first eight games will be played from December 3 through December 6; the four quarterfinal games will be held on December 9 and 10; the two semifinal games are on December 13 & 14; the consolation game is on December 17; and the World Cup final is on Sunday, December 18.
To illustrate this points system, the US tied Wales, 1 to 1; and tied England, 0 to 0. That means the US now has 2 points (one for each tie) and a “goal differential” of zero since they’ve scored as many goals as they’ve given up. The upcoming match against Iran will decide whether the US advances to the next round or is eliminated. Iran lost to England, 6 to 0; but defeated Wales, 2 to 0. That means Iran has 3 points and a goal differential of -4. If the US wins, it gets 3 points for a total of 5 which ensures it will be one of the top two in this group and will advance. A US loss or a tie in the Iran game means the US is out of the tournament.
All games are televised live in the United States on Fox or its cable affiliate, FS1. During the group play portion, there are four games each day. Because of the time differential, the live telecasts here on the US East Coast begin at 5am, 8am, 11am, and 2pm. As an early riser, that schedule works well for me because I’m already up when the first game begins and can watch as I go about my morning routine before heading to work. Add in weekends, the Thanksgiving holiday, and a random day off, I’ve been able to watch portions of several games.
The game that started my transformation from curious onlooker to excited follower took place Tuesday morning: Argentina v. Saudi Arabia. By the time I tuned in, Argentina, an historic world power when it comes to soccer, led 1 to 0 and had had several goals disallowed. But suddenly, Saudi Arabia, a nobody in the soccer universe, scored a goal to tie it. Just a few minutes later, the Saudis scored again. Pandemonium ensued among the announcers and fans. Even I could sense something historic was happening. Saudi Arabia held on to win.
The very next day, I tuned in to Germany v Japan, another expectations mismatch with Germany a past winner of the World Cup several times, and Japan, while more advanced than Saudi Arabia, still not considered in the same league as Germany. Yet as the game came to an end, Japan prevailed by a score of 2 to 1. Another shocking result.
Nationalism isn’t a factor for me. I wish the US team well but can’t name a single player on it. If they win, great. If they don’t, my interest won’t be diminished. As much as I dislike Saudia Arabia (for geopolitical reasons), I was nevertheless elated by their victory. I am very fond of Germany, yet as their match finished, I was rooting for the underdog Japanese.
So what is it that excites me about this tournament? First is the realization that the players are such superb athletes. They run constantly, often at top speed, and show incredible skill in controlling, passing, and shooting the ball. Even if I can’t discern it, there’s a great deal of strategy involved. But luck also plays a huge role. On Thanksgiving, I watched Uruguay and South Korea play to a 0 to 0 tie. Each team had numerous scoring chances but no goals were made, not because of incredible goal tending but because shots kept hitting goalposts and bouncing out. In some ways, the ability to exploit an opponent’s mistakes is central to success.
But that brings me to the many things I still don’t understand. One is offsides. Roughly speaking, a player is offsides when fewer than two opposing players are between him and the opposing goal when the ball is passed to him (with one of those opposing players being the goalie). Presumably this is intended to prevent a player from lingering near the opponent’s net to await a long pass and breakaway goal. The relative nature of a soccer offsides – meaning the player’s position relative to an opposing player rather than a fixed point on the playing surface, like the blue line in hockey, make this tough to understand. But as Ted Lasso said when asked to define the offsides rule, “I know it when I see it.” After watching a few soccer matches, I’m beginning to feel that way too.
Like a “delayed offside” in hockey, an offsides in soccer, it only is called if the player who is offsides handles the ball or interferes with an opposing player. And it can be called retroactively. In the World Cup, there’s something called VAR for “video assistant referee” which is an off field official with access to video replays. That official independently scrutinizes goals/no goals and penalties/no penalties and then “assists” the on field referee to prevent a “clear and obvious error” or a “serious missed incident.” Whenever a goal is scored, there is a review of whether there was an offsides infraction and, if there was, the goal will be disallowed, as was the case with several by Argentina.
A further area of confusion for me involves substitutions. There are 11 players per team on the field (although they can play with fewer if needed) and substitutes can be made, but not many of them. I think you can substitute five players at most, but there can only be three substitutions during the game (you can bring in two players during a “substitution”). The bottom line is that most players are on the field for the entire game and when and who to substitute is a much bigger decision than it is in the major American sports.
The most baffling thing for me is the length of the game. There are two halves of 45 minutes each, but the clock never stops running. When there’s an injury or a substitution or some other stoppage of play, the referee keeps track of how long that takes and then adds that time to the end of the 45 minute half. That’s called “stoppage time.” There is no strict formula for calculating this and it’s largely at the discretion of the referee. Stoppage time seems to be on average 5 to 7 minutes at the end of each half. But there is no publicly visible clock and the referee is not bound to stop play at a particular moment. In fact, if there is an “attack” underway (meaning an offensive attempt) when time expires, referees typically allow it to play out before blowing their whistle to end the game. Because American football, hockey, and basketball all have precise time limits, this looser concept of when the game ends is hard to comprehend.
Also regarding time, there is something called “extra time” which occurs when a game cannot end in a tie, as will be the case in the upcoming Round of 16 single elimination tournament. In those circumstances, if a game is tied at the end of regular time plus stoppage time, two 15 minute periods of “extra time” are played. This is not sudden death as in hockey. It’s more like overtime periods in basketball. If the game is still tied after that extra 30 minutes, then the game is decided by penalty kicks in a best of five shootout. If the game is still tied after five rounds of penalty kicks, then the next round is “sudden death” meaning if the first shooter on team A scores, then so must the first shooter on team B. Otherwise, team A wins.
In case this has piqued your interest in the World Cup, today’s games feature Japan v Costa Rica at 5am; Belgium v Morocco at 8am; Croatia v Canada at 11am; and Spain v Germany at 2pm. And please check back here next Sunday for my next edition of World Cup Diary.