By now, the Leopard has gotten over his astonishment that association football (i.e. "soccer"), the most international and universal of all sports, makes little impact in the United States. If I were to be so bold as to theorize, I would imagine that two reasons for this absence of interest are a simple lack of familiarity with the rules of play and limited media access. To help alleviate the first problem I have put together an introduction to soccer. I can't help much with the second issue. Unless you have access to one of the premium soccer channels through cable or satellite (in which case you must have me over some time), you will have few opportunities to actually watch soccer in the United States. I manage to catch occasional games at Irish pubs but have to mostly rely on the internet to keep up with my favorite sport. In the below guide to soccer on the internet, I have listed some of my favorite sites so fellow soccer fans can benefit from my painstaking research.
However, one refuge for those of us who don't have cable are international channels. During the last World Cup, even those with limited Spanish language skills found a better alternative to sub-par American coverage on the Spanish language stations, and you can watch Latin American and international matches throughout the year on Telemundo and Univision. Those who claim they have no interest in these "foreign" matches might want to know that all of the matches for the recent 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup (which both Canada and the United States played in) were broadcast on Spanish language stations. Yes, when the United States beat Mexico in the final game the only way you could watch it without cable was to tune into a Spanish station. I've included below a Spanish soccer glossary to help you with unfamiliar terms. I have also found that the Italian-language network RAI International broadcasts matches on the weekends and allows me to catch some of the action in Italy's top division. My Italian soccer glossary should help you decipher some of the commentary.
I have written this guide to help those who have always been curious about soccer but have been unable to find anyone to explain a match in enough detail to make the spectator's experience enjoyable. Of course, someone in such a position could examine the official Laws of the Game, but a newcomer might not find the plethora of sometimes infrequently applicable rules very useful. Instead, I am going to take a more simplified approach and explain the details by describing the course of a match. Because some guidelines vary by tournament, I will draw upon the World Cup for examples when necessary as it is the tournament North Americans are most likely to be familiar with.
But first, how exactly should we refer to this game? The usage varies in English-speaking countries, and contrary to popular belief, the United States is not the only nation where "football" refers to some variant of the game once known as "rugby football" and now called either "rugby" or "football," depending on the region. Because the highest, most official, most international governing body of the game, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), uses the word "football," my tendency would be to adopt that term as well. However, because most of the readers of this page of the website are likely to be from the United States or Canada, I will defer to the national convention of using the term "soccer."
I also feel the need to insert the inevitable personal note here. Sports allegiances are frequently irrational matters. Ask someone from the United States why his or her favorite sport is baseball and you will likely hear nostalgic accounts of playing catch with friends or trips to the stadium with family. Someone else might bring up similar comments about cricket or soccer in countries where either of those two games constitute the national pasttime. I, however, have no such excuse. I developed an appreciation for soccer late in life for reasons that I may as well expand upon as they might possibly serve to inspire others.
Though I don't wish to disparage other sports with unfavorable comparisons, I have admit that I really enjoy the speed and dynamism of soccer. For a full ninety minutes, only one break interrupts the flow of the game, unlike in some sports where much of the time is taken up with dead play. I also like the elegance of what I think is accurately nicknamed "the beautiful game." To watch an expert player maneuver the ball is to witness a dance that just happens to be focused on putting a ball into a goal. Finally, the international character of soccer has an inevitable appeal for someone like me. For sporting events, not even the Olympics draws in the viewership of the World Cup, and I find it thrilling to watch national teams from countries that otherwise make little impact on the world stage successfully take on more established teams. But let us move on to the game.
I won't go into details of the field (or "pitch") here, but you may need to refer back to this diagram. Note that features are exaggerated for clarity.
A maximum of eleven players from each team are in the game at any moment. A team actually consists of more players than that, and in the finals of the World Cup a full 23 are included on each team's player's list. During the course of the game, only three substitutions are allowed. Thus, much of the team will see no action in a specific match. At the start of a match, the eleven players of each team are arranged according to their positions, which break into three broad categories. The goalkeeper of course guards the goal and is the only one who can touch the ball with his hands, though only in his own penalty area and within certain restrictions. Arranged in a line before the goalkeeper are the defenders, whose essential job is to keep the opposing team from getting a ball near the goal. Next are the midfielders, who play sort of an intermediate role between defense and attack and often need to be available for either role. In front are the forwards, who are dedicated to making goals. Players are distributed in these positions in a formation determined by the team coach, one of the most common of which is 4-4-2, meaning four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards.
Everything begins with the opening kick-off. The two teams flip a coin, and the winning team decides which half of the pitch it will defend. Significant factors in this decision include wind direction, the position of the sun, and the condition of the field. The team that loses the toss gets to kick first. For kick-off, the ball is placed on the center mark and all defending players take positions at least 10 yards away, a distance defined by the center circle. Once the whistle is blown, the attacking team kicks the ball and tries to move it into the defending team's half of the pitch and make a goal, though the first player to kick cannot kick the ball again until another player has kicked it. Keep in mind that when I refer to the attacking team or the defending team, these terms only apply to the team that happens to possess the ball and the team that happens to be defending the goal at a particular moment of play. Soccer is a fluid game, and an attacking team may quickly need to get on the defense if the opposing team takes the ball. Naturally, many things can happen between kick-off and a shot on goal, and I will describe each of these possibilities in turn.
Out of Play
If the ball is kicked out of the boundaries of the field during the course of play, three possible means are employed to put it back into play, depending on where it went out and by whom. If a player kicks the ball past the touch line along the length of the field, a player from the opposing team gets a throw-in, standing on the touch line and throwing the ball back into play. You might see a player run outside of the touch line to kick the ball and keep it in play, which is perfectly legal as long as the ball itself stays inside the touch line. Sometimes a player will deliberately kick the ball past the touch line to put it temporarily out of play when an injury occurs.
If the ball is kicked past the goal line (provided, of course, that it hasn't gone into the goal) by the attacking team, the defending goalkeeper gets a goal kick and must kick the ball back into play after placing it anywhere in the goal area. If the ball is kicked past the goal line by the defending team, the attacking team gets a corner kick. The ball is placed in the corner arc closest to the point at which it crossed the goal line. An attacking player then tries to kick the ball to one of his teammates positioned to kick it into the goal. The defending team position themselves to stop a goal attempt.
Injuries and Substitutions
Naturally, spirited play frequently results in injuries, and play may stop momentarily to assess an injured player. A dropped ball may then be used to restart play. The referee drops the ball at the spot where play was stopped between a player from each team; either player can kick it after it has hit the ground. If a player is injured enough that he needs to stop playing in a match, he is substituted by a player who was not in the team's starting eleven. In many tournaments (including the World Cup), only three substitutions are allowed, and they are generally reserved for injuries or for late in the match, when a fresh pair of legs can give a team an advantage. Late substitutions often result in goals.
An aggressive game can also result in many offences, or fouls, both accidental and intentional. Offences fall into two broad categories: direct free kick offences and indirect free kick offences. Direct free kick offences are considered more severe and include kicking, tripping, pushing, hitting, or holding an opponent as well as deliberately handling the ball. Indirect free kick offences include generally dangerous play and certain offences committed by the goalkeeper such as holding onto the ball too long. Play stops when a referee calls for a free kick. Referees are frequently and loudly criticized for either calling or failing to call a foul, but the decisions of the referee are final. Also keep in mind that the referee or one of his assistants must actually see the offence occur to call it, so even if it seems perfectly obvious to the viewer watching instant replays and close-ups it may not appear so to the referee on the pitch. The referee will not call for a free kick if allowing play to continue would benefit the team against whom the offence was made. Otherwise, a player could commit an offence deliberately to stop play and impede the other team's progress.
If a free kick is called, the referee will place the ball where the foul occurred for a player from the other team to kick. If awarded a direct kick, the kicking player can attempt to kick the ball into the goal. If awarded an indirect kick, the player must first pass the ball to another player, who can then try to make a goal. Either way, the other players on the team will position themselves to receive the ball. These formations are called set pieces, and putting together a good set piece is frequently a vital element in winning goals. The players of the opposing team need to be at least 10 yards from the ball when it is kicked and usually create a formation of their own. If the kick is called dangerously close to the goal, the defending team will frequently position some players side-by-side in a "wall" between the kicker and the goal. The kicker must then either get the ball over the wall (usually by kicking it high, causing the players in the wall to jump up in unison to stop it) or pass it to another player who can get it past the wall.
If a player makes a direct free kick offence in his own team's penalty area, the consequences are more dire for his team as the other team is awarded a penalty kick. A penalty kick entails a one-to-one face-off between a kicker and the defending goalkeeper. The ball is placed on the penalty spot, all the other players have to stand outside the penalty area augmented by the penalty arc, and upon the referee's whistle the kicking player tries to kick the ball past the goalkeeper (who has to stay on the goal line) and into the goal. Naturally, he has a good chance of making the goal as only twelve yards stand between him and the goalkeeper. Generally, the kicker makes a decision to either shoot for the far right or the far left side of the goal to minimize the chance of a block, while the goalkeeper has to essentially guess which side the kicker will try for. A good goalkeeper will watch for subtle cues in the kicker's approach to the ball that indicate which side he is shooting for. On his part, the kicker may try to fool the goalkeeper by making it seem like he is shooting for one side of the goal when he is actually trying to put the ball into the opposite side, much as a pitcher tries to fool the batter in baseball.
If a player commits an offence that falls under the category of misconduct, including repeated infringement of the rules, delaying restart of play, and the catch-all classification of unsporting behavior, he may receive a yellow card, which is held up by the referee for all to see. A yellow card constitutes a caution, and if a player receives a second one during a game he is sent off, or eliminated from play. One type of unsporting behavior is simulation. When I first started to watch soccer, I was amazed at how often players would fall to the ground and writhe in pain after an injury. I quickly realized that those same players would sometimes get up immediately after the injury and resume play as if they were perfectly fine. Yes, players sometimes exaggerate the effects of minor contacts with other players just to get an offence called against the other team. This shameless tactic can backfire when an astute referee gives a player a yellow card for simulation.
If a player commits one of the more egregious misconduct offences, including violent conduct, spitting, denying a goalscoring opportunity by handling the ball, or serious foul play, he is shown a red card and is immediately sent off without further warning. No substitution is allowed for a player who is sent off in this manner, so the team is adversely affected because they need to play with fewer men. Cards frequently carry over to subsequent matches. For example, during the group round of the World Cup, a player who receives two yellow cards in two matches misses the next match. Similarly, a red card will eliminate a player from both the current match and the next match.
Another type of offence is covered by the offside rule. A player is considered offside if he is closer to the opposing team's goal line than both the ball and the closest opposing player (a player other than the opposing goalkeeper of course). The basic idea is to keep an attacking player from lurking near the defending goal waiting for a pass and getting the ball in before the opposing team has a chance to defend. An offside player isn't necessarily committing an offence just by being in that position, but he does commit an offence if he engages in play. He is also not committing an offence if he receives the ball from a goal kick, a throw-in, or a corner kick. If a player does commit an offside offence, the other team is awarded an indirect free kick. Frequently, "engaging in play" can be a fairly open concept, and a player can commit an offside offence just by obstructing the goalkeeper's line of sight. Sometimes, the defending team will employ an offside trap, whereby the defending players will abruptly run down the pitch in unison just far enough to leave an attacking player suddenly and unintentionally offside.
Finally, the player with the ball can be tackled by an opposing player. Unlike American football, in soccer a tackle simply means that a defending player has managed to kick the ball away from an attacking player. Successful tackles are not easy to accomplish as they frequently result in unwanted contact with the attacking player, which can in turn cause injury and come under the category of dangerous play, resulting in the award of an indirect free kick to the attacking team. An especially unsafe tackle can be considered violent conduct, resulting in a sending off. Defending players need to be particularly careful with back tackles (tackling a player from behind) and late tackles (tackling a player after he no longer has possession of the ball).
If the player with the ball manages to avoid kicking the ball out of play, getting injured, making an offence, or having the ball tackled away from him, he just might get close enough to the defending goal to make a shot on goal. If the shot goes in the goal, one point is scored and a bit of celebrating generally ensues before another kick-off puts the ball back into play. With all of these obstacles, goals can be a rare thing at the professional level, and matches are frequently decided with a difference of one goal.
Duration of Play
In soccer, the action occurs continuously for the forty-five minutes of each half of a game. The clock does not stop even if someone is injured. However, at the end of the forty-five minute period, the referee will frequently award stoppage time to compensate for time used up in dealing with injuries, substitutions, or general time-wasting, usually consisting of two to four minutes. After stoppage time, the first half is over and a half-time break of about fifteen minutes is taken before the two teams switch sides and commence the second half with another kick-off.
As noted, goals are difficult to achieve and very close games are the rule rather than the exception. Indeed, games are often tied at the end of the full ninety minutes of play. Unlike many other sports, in which a tie needs to be broken before a game can end, a soccer match can frequently legitimately end in a draw. For example, the World Cup finals begin with the group round, in which groups of four teams play each other and accumulate points: 3 points for every win and 1 point for every draw (called the league system). The two teams with the highest number of points advance to the next round. Matches can thus end in draws during the group round. However, after the group round comes the round of sixteen, followed by the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and the final game. The matches in these rounds need to end in clear winners as only one team can advance from each match.
In matches that need to end in wins, draws are decided with extra time, consisting of fifteen minutes of play followed by a change of sides and an additional fifteen minutes. The "golden goal" rule used to apply to extra time in the World Cup, meaning that the first team to win a goal would win the match. However, currently the full extra thirty minutes are played out and only the end result counts. If the score is still tied at the end of extra time, a sequence of penalty shoot-outs occurs. Five players from each team are lined up to make penalty kicks, alternating their attempts with those of the other team. Whichever team achieves more goals in the five chances then wins the game. The game will end before all ten kicks are taken if one team makes enough goals to win; for example, if the third round of kicks has ended with one team making all three and the other making none, the game ends because the team with no goals cannot possibly catch up. If the five rounds ends in a draw, additional rounds are added until a round is reached in which one team scores and the other fails to score.
One frequent point of contention in penalty shoot-outs is the position of the goalkeeper during the penalty kick. According to the rules, the goalkeeper must stay on the goal line and between the goal posts until the opposing player has kicked the ball. The rule is not always followed and, perhaps more importantly, not always enforced. The semifinal match between Uruguay and Brazil in the 2007 CONMEBOL Copa América ended in a penalty shoot-out. After the first five rounds ended in a draw an additional round was played, at which point Brazil scored but Uruguay didn't as Brazilian goalkeeper Doni caught Uruguay kicker's Diego Lugano's attempt. The replay clearly showed that Doni came forward at least two yards off of the goal line before Lugano had kicked, yet the result was allowed to stand, much to the consternation of Uruguay.
Penalty shoot-outs have drawn other criticism as well. Some say that a successful penalty goal is primarily a matter of luck. Luck certainly plays a big part, but some goalkeepers seem to be more skilled at stopping penalty kicks than others. For example, in the 2006 World Cup quarter-final match with Argentina, German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann prepared for the penalty shoot-out beforehand by making notes on the kicking styles of the Argentine players. He allowed Argentina only two goals on penalty kicks, winning the game for Germany. Other critics accept the role of skill but contend that a penalty shoot-out is too arbitrary a manner to decide a match after both teams have given their all for a full two hours of play and feel that a drawn match should simply be replayed after an appropriate rest interval of a couple of days.
The topic will not be easily decided, and it will be interesting to see if FIFA makes any changes for the 2010 World Cup, a tournament that I will be eagerly and obsessively following, perhaps with some of the readers of this page if I have managed to convince you of the glories of the beautiful game.
I won't describe my woeful experiences. I won't go into details about how, after trying three genuine Irish pubs in my neighborhood, I finally found one that was showing one of the qualifying matches for Euro 2008 but was told after half-time that everyone else in the pub wanted to watch a baseball game. Yes, it happened to be a divisional play-off and thus an important game, but still! The only way I could follow the rest of my match was to go home to the internet, where I found a match tracker that kept me up on all of the major events in the game. A few of the below sites have live text commentary, which is no substitute for actually watching a game but is frequently my only option. I have also listed some websites I like for soccer news.
Live Text Commentary
BBC Sport Football page:
My favorite site for following soccer in the United Kingdom and much of Europe. You can keep track of every match in the Premiership with their live text commentary, which also serves the European championship, the UEFA Champions League, and the UEFA Cup, though coverage naturally tends to focus on games with English or Scottish teams.
Union of European Football Associations homepage:
The umbrella organization for soccer in Europe offers comprehensive coverage of UEFA-sponsored competitions, both club and national. Their live Match Reports have lots of information on matches in progress. However, the text commentary can be a little dry, and I frequently find myself going to the BBC, above, for more involving coverage.
I will confess I was leary of a page affiliated with ESPN after their lackluster commentary during the 2006 World Cup. But I have to admit that the website is very comprehensive and includes detailed profiles of all the contenders in the UEFA Champions League as well as a Gamecast for major matches. I particularly like the graphic feature that shows the location of all attempted shots on goal.
General Soccer News
Fédération Internationale de Football Association homepage:
FIFA is the Vatican of world soccer, and their page offers a wealth of information and news. I manage to keep up on much of what's going on by subscribing to their free weekly newsletter. Do you want the latest results from the Asian Football Confederation Champions League? How about an article on Oman's national team? Or maybe you have an interest in women's soccer, youth soccer, or beach soccer. FIFA is the place to go.
International Herald Tribune Sports page:
I can really respect the international character of IHT's sports page. Where else can you see the latest news from soccer, baseball, cricket, American football, and rugby on one page? My favorite one-stop site for sports news.
New York Times Soccer page:
Though coverage of international games is sporadic, the Times is the place to go for news on Major League Soccer in the United States. During the 2006 World Cup, their blog coverage was some of the smartest and wittiest around. The dedicated fans at the Times also took out their laptops and blogged much of the 2007 CONMEBOL Copa América.
Specific League News
Guardian Unlimited's Football page:
Though you won't find much on soccer outside of the United Kingdom, the Guardian has lots of news on the local clubs and matches.
La Gazzetta dello Sport - Calcio:
To keep up on the latest from top Italian clubs like Inter Milan, AS Roma, and Juventus FC, La Gazzetta is the place to go, and you can also practice your Italian. I'll even give you a headstart: Italian for soccer is "calcio." See the below Italian Soccer Glossary for other vocabulary.
France's leading sports journal has a football page where you can keep up with Ligue 1 favorites like Olympique Lyonnais, Olympique Marseille, and FC Nantes. It's in French, but at least the French word for soccer is a familiar one.
Some of Europe's mightiest clubs are based in Spain, and with Marca.com you can find out how heavy hitters like FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Valencia CF are doing in their own league. Check my Spanish soccer glossary for help with vocabulary, or go to my Spanish page to get even deeper.
One of Portugal's biggest sports dailies might occasionally favor Lisbon's big home teams Sporting and Benfica, but you can still read it to keep up with FC Porto and the other clubs in the Liga. If you need some help with the language, go to my Portuguese page.
Süddeutsche Zeitung Sport:
This German-language journal's sports page lets you know everything that's going on with Fußball in Deutschland. For English-language news on FC Bayern München, Werder Bremen, and other Bundesliga clubs, try Deutsche Welle's German soccer page.
Jornal dos Sports:
Everyone seems to know and love Brazil's uniquely skilled national team, but all of those great players had to develop somewhere, and Brazil's champions of tomorrow are likely honing their abilities in big Brazilian clubs like Corinthians, São Paulo, and Vasco. Follow all of them on this Brazilian sports page, and refer to my Portuguese page for help with the language.
Do you have any favorites I haven't mentioned? I would love to hear about them: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The best places I've found to watch soccer with Spanish commentary are the Telemundo and Univision networks. Univision tends to focus on the Mexican league, while Telemundo has more diverse offerings, including matches from the German, Italian, and Dutch leagues. Both were recently joined by the Telefutura and Galavision networks to present all the matches for the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup and the 2007 CONMEBOL Copa América. Best of all, you'll love the commentators. They get very involved and delight in hearty, extended calls of "GOOOOOOOOOOOL!" My Spanish page can aide you with Spanish pronunciation.
Area: Penalty area
Balón a tierra: Dropped ball
Campo: The field
Carton amarillo: Yellow card
Carton rojo: Red card
Chilena: Bicycle kick
Círculo central: Center circle
Dar una patada: To kick
Descanso: Half-time interval
Empate: A draw
Fuera de juego: Offside
Fuera de lugar: Offside
Gol: A goal
Golazo: A particularly exciting or skillful goal
Goleador: Goal scorer
Golpe de cabeza: Header
Internada: A tackle
Intervalo del medio tiempo: Half-time interval
Línea de banda: Touch line
Línea de meta: Goal line
Palo de la portería: Goalpost
Partido: A match
Pasar: To pass
Pase cruzado: Cross
Patada: A kick
Posición adelantada: Offside
Primer tiempo: First half
Propia meta: Own goal
Prórroga: Extra time
Punto penal: Penalty spot
Red: The net
Saque de banda: Throw-in
Saque de esquina: Corner kick
Saque de meta: Goal kick
Saque de puerta: Goal kick
Saque de portería: Goal kick
Saque de salida: Kick-off
Segundo tiempo: Second half
Tajada: A save
Tarjeta amarilla: Yellow card
Tarjeta roja: Red card
Terreno de juego: Field
Tiempo suplementario: Extra time
Tiro de esquina: Corner kick
Tiro libre: Free kick
Tiro penal: Penalty kick
This vocabulary should get you started for following the games on the Italian network RAI International or on La Gazzetta dello Sport's soccer page. Many of the Serie A top league matches are played concurrently on Sundays, and my local RAI affiliate will show a pivotal match in its entirety while cutting to other games when goals are made (preceded by the horn fanfare from Rossini's William Tell overture, natch). RAI is also great for close-ups of some of the best hairstyles in world soccer. Check my Italian page for help with Italian pronunciation.
Ala: Winger (attacking midfielder playing on the extreme right or left)
Ammonito: A warning
Area: The field
Area di porta: Goal area
Area di rigore: Penalty area
Assist: An assist
Autogol: Own goal
Calcio: Soccer or kick
Calcio d'angolo: Corner kick
Calcio d'avvio: Kick-off
Calcio d'inizio: Kick-off
Calcio di punizione: Free kick
Calcio di rigore: Penalty kick
Calcio di rinvio: Goal kick
Campo: The field
Capitano: Team captain
Cartellino Giallo: Yellow card
Cartellino Rosso: Red card
Centroavante: Forward (player position)
Centrocampisto: Midfielder (player position)
Cross: A cross
Difensore: Defender (player position)
Fallo di mano: Hand ball foul
Fatte: Goals made (on a scoreboard)
Gara: A match
Giocare: To play
Linea di fondo: Goal line
Linea laterale: Touch line
Modulo: Team formation
Nulle: Games drawn (on a scoreboard)
Pallone: The Ball
Panchina: Bench (as in "in panchina," "on the bench")
Parata: A save
Partita: A Match
Passaggio: A pass
Perse: Games lost (on a scoreboard)
Porta: Goal mouth
Primo tempo: First half
Provare: To try
Regista: #10 player
Rigore: Penalty kick
Rimessa da fondo campo: Goal kick
Rimessa laterale: Throw-in
Ripresa: Second half
Secondo tempo: Second half
Subite: Goals against (on a scoreboard)
Tentare: To attempt
Terzino: Fullback (defender playing a wide position)
Tiro: Shot on goal
Tridente: Formation consisting of three forwards
Tripletta: Hat trick (three goals made by a single player)
Vinte: Games won (on a scoreboard)
Last update for this page: 30 August 2007