Do you think you’re enjoying the World Cup — but can’t really tell because you have no idea what’s going on? Here, EW.com assistant managing editor Neil Janowitz, formerly an editor with Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine, answers burning questions about soccer — a.k.a. “football,” a.k.a. “not that kind of football” — from perplexed staffers.
Jeff Jensen, critic: Why the practice of a running clock with “extra time” to make up for lost minutes from injuries and penalties? I don’t know if soccer people know this, but there are things called “stopwatches” that can be easily operated with things we call “thumbs.” It seems so much easier to just halt the clock when play stops than keep track of lost time, then add it up and tack on extra time at the end. This is supposed to be sports, not math!
Them’s just the rules. That said, I’d argue that it’s a better model than sports in which the clock is stopped at an almost compulsive rate (looking at you, NBA and NFL), as it keeps the focus on the gameplay itself as opposed to clock management and timeout strategy bullshit. Soccer is a simple, fluid game, and the running clock approach reflects that. It’s also nice to know that a soccer game is likely going to be finished in roughly two hours, as opposed to games in the NBA (in which the final minute alone can feel like two hours) or the NFL (in which nothing actually happens during games).
As for the stoppage time that gets added: It’s somewhat arbitrary, but everyone seems to be on board with that. The system also prevents an injured player — or, more to the point, a player who is feigning an injury — from running out the remaining time in the game, as the stoppage time itself is somewhat fluid. The Washington Post has a nice explainer for anyone looking for a serious stoppage time deep dive.
Jensen: Do the players like hanging out with kids and holding their hands during opening ceremonies? Or are they like, “This really isn’t good for my tough guy image, being all goody-goody ambassador-of-soccer to the youth of the world,” or maybe “I hate babysitting”?
I’d guess that their feelings range from largely agnostic to generally happy. Being that one of the five best (and wealthiest) players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, has posed for countless glamour shots, it’s clear that we’re dealing with a sporting culture that has a decidedly (and, frankly, refreshingly) un-American concept of masculinity. Beyond that, just over the past few months we’ve seen instances of high-profile players engaging with kids in endearing ways: Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge surprised kids in a classroom, and Neymar, from Brazil, prevented security from taking a tiny intruder off the field, instead picking him up and taking selfies with him.
So, no, I don’t think they mind. Kids are fun, especially when they’re not your own.
Mandi Bierly, senior writer: So no one is going to do that front handspring toss Channing Tatum did in She’s the Man? Does anyone do something unique when tossing the ball in?
I can’t find the Tatum footage for a visual aide, but what Mandi’s talking about is this kind of throw-in:
I don’t have great answers here, but:
1. Though it is a legal throw (providing it’s executed properly), you will almost certainly not see it in the World Cup. I’m speculating here, but I’d guess that most high-level players can more or less throw the ball far enough using the standard technique to be effective in most situations, and that there’s an accuracy trade-off when doing a handspring throw-in.
2. Soccer’s rules are pretty limiting — you need to have both feet on the ground when you release the ball. And most times, an elaborate throw-in isn’t required. Generally speaking, the idea is to get the ball to a teammate, often when they’re in stride, who can then maintain control of the ball. You don’t want to get too fancy.
Bierly: Do all fouls yield a free kick? Why do they line up different places for those free kicks?
Not exactly. If Team A is fouled by Team B (as will be the case for all examples going forward) but Team A retains control of the ball — in effect, it retains “advantage” — then play typically just continues without any sort of stoppage.
Otherwise, the type of free kick is determined by the severity of the foul:
If it’s an incidental or not egregious foul, then Team A gets an indirect kick. That means they get to set the ball on the ground at the spot of the foul and boot it wherever they want, though a team cannot score off an indirect kick; the ball must touch a teammate before going into the net. If an indirect kick is awarded close enough to the goal, Team B may elect to set up a wall of players to complicate the offensive strategy.
If it’s an intentional or excessive foul, Team A will be awarded a direct kick from the spot of the foul. That means they can drill it right at the goal. If this occurs within a reasonable distance from the goal, you’ll always see Team B establish a wall in the straightforward hopes of preventing the ball from reaching its intended destination (the back of the net). If a serious foul takes place inside the box that surrounds the goal, Team A will get to take a penalty shot: Just a surefooted member of Team A vs Team B’s goalie, with no defense.
Jensen: I recently saw something I had never seen before watching a soccer match: When a foul was committed, and the offended team got a free kick or indirect kick or whatever they call it, I noticed the ref chalked the spot, and then also chalked off a line ten paces away where the offending team could take defensive position. Don’t all these extra marks on the field confuse the players? Maybe that insults the intelligence of the players. Then again, if they were really so smart, they wouldn’t need marks to show them where to stand. So maybe my question is: Are World Cup soccer players stupid or what?
They’re crafty, is what they are. They know precisely how far they’re supposed to be from a player taking a free kick, but they’re sure as hell going to try to inch closer in an attempt to cut off the angle and make it more difficult for the player to get a kicked ball cleanly over the wall.
As for the spray itself, it actually disappears after a short time — a minute or so.
Bierly: Does flopping (the fun word for taking a fall when an opponent barely touched you) ever really work? Can they get penalized for doing it too often/too poorly? Do they practice it, like hockey players practice fighting without losing their balance?
Flopping works extremely well, unfortunately. We saw it right off the bat last Thursday, when a seemingly obvious flop by Brazil led to a penalty kick that helped seal up their opening match against Croatia. I don’t know the actual rules regarding flopping — or “diving,” as it’s called in soccer spheres — on an international level, but the U.S.’s Major League Soccer has started fining players for it. But no one at the international level is looking to the MLS for cues on how to operate, so don’t expect a change anytime soon.
As for practicing it, I don’t know. I blew at soccer and stopped playing from seventh grade up until my mid-twenties co-ed corporate league recreational soccer renaissance. I’m guessing you just learn as you go.
Bierly: What is offside, exactly? And that’s, like, the only real rule I need to know besides “Don’t use your hands,” right?
More or less. Simply put, no offensive player is allowed behind the back-most defensive player (other than the goalie) until the ball is also behind that defensive player. Does that make sense? It’s meant to prevent one player from just camping out near the goal, waiting for the ball to be booted downfield to him (or her).
Bierly: Why do they spend so much time kicking the ball backwards?
To spread out the defense and create lanes for passing and attacking. It’s not unlike what NBA teams do, with guards hanging out beyond the three-point line. That forces their defenders to come out and guard them, thereby giving teammates space to move around and create plays. The difference is that the NBA has a back-court rule, which prevents players from bringing the ball back over the center line once they’ve entered their offensive half of the court. Soccer doesn’t have any such limitations, meaning players can boot the ball as far back as they want, even to their goalie, in order reset their offense or escape pressure from the defense.
Jeff Labrecque, senior writer: Why is there only one referee (and two assistant refs)? American football has like 7, but soccer has just one, responsible for that giant field and 22 players.
I have to resort once again to the “Them’s just the rules” cop-out. A couple thoughts, based on nothing but my own observations:
- Coming back to the simplicity of the game: There aren’t many rules that a referee needs to be enforcing. The linesman (or “assistant refs,” in Labrecquian parlance) monitor and call offsides, freeing up the ref to follow the ball and scan the field for any wrongdoing. American football, on the other hand, involves a seemingly infinite number of different penalties, and those infractions take place all over the field: At the line of scrimmage between offensive and defensive lines, downfield between wideouts and defensive backs, even in the backfield during the pass rush (if you consider this a different area of engagement than the battle being waged at the line of scrimmage, which it can be depending on the offensive formation). It would be impossible — literally impossible — for a single ref to follow all of that.
- For the most part, the action occurs around the ball and in the offensive zone of the team with possession of the ball, so there’s not an unreasonable amount of eyeball ground for the ref to cover — he just stays behind the ball, looking toward the offensive zone, and gets closer to the ends of the field in lockstep with the driving team. I don’t know how often fouls occur in the backfield, away from the action — I’m sure it happens, particularly if two players have been jawing at each other all game or whatnot — but there’s a lot of running in this game. My guess is that players far away from the action use that opportunity to do some nice breathing.
Labrecque: Why do some of the Brazilian players only have one name?
I’ll defer to a 2006 Slate article on the subject:
That’s the Brazilian convention. Nicknames and first names are used in all settings, no matter the gravity. Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is known to all by his nickname, Lula.
If you’re into curious naming conventions, or Brazil, the entire article is worth a read.
Labrecque: How does soccer get away with not having commercials?
You’re really bringing the heat, Labrecque. This is a great question, especially considering that broadcast rights for the World Cup cost hundreds of millions of dollars. NBC, which owns the TV rights to Barclay’s Premier League games in the U.S., has experimented with little on-screen, mid-game ads, but I’m not sure that sort of thing would fly during the World Cup. Mashable reports that advertisers are instead choosing to spend money on social media activations during the games, so there’s that. But maybe expectations are just adjusted accordingly due to the lack of commercial opportunities. ESPN pays $1.9 billion a year for the rights to air Monday Night Football. That’s much more than they paid for the World Cup — and while I’m surely misinterpreting these numbers in some way, I’m guessing that the disparity is partly due to the smaller number of monetizable moments during soccer matches.
Jensen: Why so many days in between matches for each team? Does it really take that long for soccer players to recover from the last match or prepare for the next opponent? It shouldn’t, because soccer is neither that arduous nor that complicated to play. I mean, if it was real football, I would understand. But soccer?! C’mon. Why so wussy?
One recent estimate indicated that your average midfielder will run about seven miles during a given game, so the level of arduousness is debatable. You have to factor in travel days, too, and if we’re talking about a tournament — or the regular season, for that matter — there are TV schedules to be considered.
But I’m guessing the primary reason is that there isn’t a need for matches to occur more often. The Premier League season is 38 games long. That’s a decent number of matches for a single season. The NBA and NHL play 82 games during their regular seasons; that’s almost certainly more than necessary. The MLB plays 162 games, which is an outright joke. Take 38 games, spread them out over a handful of months, and you end up with games played at their current frequency.
Bierly: Why have the World Cup in Brazil during its rainiest month of the year? Will they ever stop a match for rain? Do cleats always keep players from slipping (what’s the fun in that?)
The schedule’s the schedule. This is the time of year that the World Cup is held. It’ll be even more of an issue when the Cup is in Qatar in 2022 and the gameday temperatures will be around 900 degrees.
My understanding is that soccer rules are similar to American football rules: They won’t stop for rain, but they will for lightning and such.
Cleats help, but if a field is really chewed up, you may still see guys lose their footing. Or they may opt to voluntarily lose their footing in pursuit of a beneficial foul call.
Hillary Busis, staff editor: Why don’t they just pick the ball up with their hands and throw it into the goal? Like, duh, guys. Use your heads.
Hey, it took 35 years for American football to permit the forward pass. Prior to that, it was just a rugby-esque ground game. So, perhaps soccer will eventually come around.
They’re allowed to use their heads, Hillary.
Busis: Okay — alternately, why aren’t they ONLY allowed to use their heads?
Think of the children.
Bierly: When did Alexi Lalas cut his hair?
Don’t know. Whenever it was, it was a dark day for everyone.