How to Talk About the World Cup and Sound Reasonably Smart

Don’t know anything about soccer, but know you’ll be forced to care? We’ve got you covered.

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One of Russia’s five goals on Thursday in its 5-0 victory against Saudi Arabia in Moscow.CreditAlexander Nemenov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The World Cup started on Thursday. You may not be the world’s biggest soccer fan, but you want to at least pretend, right? Excellent. We’ve got you covered. Here is our sixstep plan to sounding smart wherever you might be watching the 2018 World Cup.

Where is this thing, anyway?

This year’s tournament is in Russia. The first game, on Thursday, between the host and Saudi Arabia, was in Moscow. Over the next month, games will be played in 11 cities: as far east as Yekaterinburg (which is closer to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, than it is to Moscow) and as far north as St. Petersburg.

The time difference means most games will be broadcast between early morning and late afternoon in the United States.

People watched Russia’s match on Thursday in a fan zone near the main building at Moscow State University.CreditMaxim Zmeyev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Know who’s playing … and who’s not

Let’s start here: The United States is not playing in Russia. A change in coaches and the lack of a consistent lineup led to a ragged qualifying period for the team, and an October loss to Trinidad and Tobago (and Honduras’s win over Mexico) sealed its fate.

Italy and the Netherlands, perennial soccer superpowers, did not qualify this year, either. Other than that, all the big teams are here: Germany, Spain, France, Argentina, Brazil and England, which has not made much noise in international soccer for several decades but which many people care deeply about anyway.

Timo Werner, second from right, celebrated a German goal with teammates during an international friendly match against Saudi Arabia this month ahead of the World Cup.CreditAlex Grimm/Getty Images

The 32 teams are organized into eight four-team groups. Each team plays three matches, against its group members. The top two teams from each group advance to an elimination stage, at which point each match becomes a must-win. Here’s our full preview of each group.

Pick a team

It’s easier to know a lot about a single country’s team than it is to know a little about every team in the tournament. Pick a nation and a justification for rooting for its team, read a couple of articles and know what number its best player wears. That’s all it takes to seem knowledgeable enough to hang; no one expects you to know every player on every team.

César Ramos of Peru painted his face with Peruvian colors in a stadium restroom on Thursday in Moscow.CreditFelipe Dana/Associated Press

Attractive potential options include:

  • Iceland, the least populous country ever to qualify for the Cup.

  • Colombia, a fun, flashy team with a politically divided nation united behind it.

  • Brazil, eager to avenge a 7-1 loss to Germany at home in the 2014 World Cup semifinal.

  • Peru, which hasn’t been back since 1982, and has great uniforms.

For what it’s worth, we have, without much rhyme or reason, tied our hearts to Belgium and Colombia.

Recognize today’s big stars, and tomorrow’s

Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Lionel Messi of Argentina are the two most recognizable athletes on the planet, but this is likely the last World Cup for both of them. This tournament will be a moment of transition as their spots at the top of the game continue to be threatened by this group:

Neymar: The Brazilian attacker is 26 and already tied for third on his country’s career scoring list, a testament to his skill with the ball. (He goes by a single name, as is traditional for the country’s biggest futbol stars.) He was injured toward the end of his club season, but if his goal against Austria in Brazil’s last tuneup before the World Cup is any indication, he will be fine.

Mo Salah: The ferociously fast Egyptian winger was the English league player of the year, netting 44 goals in all competitions last season. He, too, is coming off an injury, strained shoulder tendons sustained during the recent Champions League final, but is likely to play in Egypt’s first game, against Uruguay, on Friday, when he turns 26. He may be talented enough to take a relatively weak Egyptian team into the knockout stages for the first time.

Kevin De Bruyne: The Belgian, 26, is probably the best player on a talented Belgian team that most soccer experts expect to go far this year. He plays midfield, and his biggest contribution is making sure a game is played at the pace his team needs. He also does this:

A brief and arbitrary glossary for the uninitiated

So you want to hang with true soccer fans? Memorize some key phrases about how teams approach the game or that can be used to describe in-game moments, and you’ll be golden.

Tiki-taka: Playing a possession game with short passes between players arranged in a series of connected triangles. Usage: “Spain’s tiki-taka style is going to be tough for Portugal to defend against.”

Route one: Some teams prefer the directness of playing a long ball over the heads of defensive players to attackers who are sprinting at full speed. At its best, it can produce a goal of superb quality. Usage: “England’s really getting desperate if they’re resorting to route one.”

Kit: What soccer people call uniforms. Like everyone else, we are pretty partial to what Nike dreamed up for Nigeria this year.

Dive: A flop, in which a player acts as if he has been fouled or injured when, in fact, he hasn’t. Traditionally, Americans complain about diving, or simulation, but it can be hilarious and sometimes dramatic.

Joga bonito: The unofficial catchphrase of the Brazilian national team. It has used the phrase to describe soccer that is played more as a form of artistic expression than as a sport.

The offside rule: An attacking player cannot be the first to touch the ball if there is not at least one opposing player (not counting the goalkeeper) between him and the goal when the ball is passed to him.

Catenaccio: A lockdown defensive style associated with Italy and used with great success in its 2006 World Cup title. As mentioned, Italy will be absent from this Cup, but some of the less skilled teams may take cues from the approach.

Ask questions

You’ve got your team chosen, you know where this is taking place (and what the capital of Kazakhstan is) and you can discuss Salah’s highlight reel. Inevitably there will be some soccer nerd who does know every player on every team. Ask that person questions! Sports fans love to talk about all the sports knowledge they’ve acquired in their sports time. And maybe, after taking all these steps, you’ll know enough to argue with that person about, say, the color of Saudi Arabia’s kit. After all, developing the knowledge it takes to argue with pretty much anyone about trivia that could not possibly matter less is what sports is really all about.

Jonah Bromwich is based in New York. He writes for the Style section. @jonesieman



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