SPT IHN 070109-45 Save your lunch break or just bail from work this afternoon at 4. Go turn on ESPN and watch the opening match of the World Cup with the rest of the world.

The first game is the host nation, Brazil, against Croatia. Croatia aren’t half bad, ranked 18th in the world by FIFA, the international soccer governing body.

But this is Brazil’s game. This is their stage, their national obsession and they all know that billions of eyes around the world are on them and nothing else. Anything less than three goals from the Brazilians would be disappointing.

Past the opener, there is a month’s worth of games, mostly on in the afternoons and evenings. You could watch highlights on Sportscenter, but the World Cup is too much fun to watch in highlights alone.

At least it’s not baseball.

-How does it work?

Right. There are 32 teams playing in the group stages, four teams per group in eight groups, A through H. To get into the group stages, these teams had to qualify through regional matches (except for Brazil, as the host country always gets to play, as South Africa did in 2010).

In the group stage, each team plays the other teams in its group once, with three points per win, one per draw and zero per loss. The top two teams at the end of those three games advance. If two teams are tied on points, the first tiebreaker is goal differential, the cumulative +/- for those three games. The 87th tiebreaker is a captains-only knife fight, ‘Beat It’ style.

From there, it’s a single-elimination tournament. Tie games go to over time then penalty kicks. You lose, you go home to a heartbroken nation. This is life and death.

Why is the World Cup less boring than other soccer?

Well, yes. It can be very boring. A 0-0 game feels like waiting in a doctor’s office for an appointment you never made and leaving after 90 minutes.

The best part about the World Cup is that it’s a tournament and you’re not going to see many teams aiming for a 0-0 tie once you get past the group stages. Even then, it’s rare. Three points for you means none for your opponent, and puts even more pressure on them for the next two games.

What’s most interesting is the matchups themselves. Each team has its own style, some more distinct than others. Brazil plays fast and offensive soccer, with more individual talent at every position than anyone. They will score on you, and they will probably score a lot. Spain needles you with a thousand probing passes, possessing the ball better than anyone and scoring almost unimpressively. Portugal runs their own version of the Bel-Air offense, with Cristiano Ronaldo as Will. If someone were to create a perfect, soccer-playing robot, it would not be very different from Ronaldo.

Even with the different kinds of offense, they don’t ever really score that much. And that’s just something that you’re going to have to live with, because scoring is rare in soccer.

You’ll see way more 1-0 and 2-0 games than 5-2 or 4-3 games. If this is your sticking point, then I don’t have much to offer you other than it’s really hard to score.

But when you’re watching and you see THAT goal, it’s worth it,

I mean by THAT goal, or THAT other one, the one that sent your nation into hysterics.

It’s THAT one, or THAT other one, the one that makes you question physics (and the lung capacity of Dutch announcers).

Or it’s THAT one, the one that lives forever in infamy. English people are still mad about it.

Still, those goals are rare and any goal will usually take a while to arrive. Try to watch the game and see what teams are trying to do, what’s working and what’s not, who’s beating whom in one-on-one matchups. That’s how it becomes less boring.

 

-What’s the US team looking like?

It could be worse. They have a really tough group with Germany and Portugal, traditional European powerhouses, and Ghana, who have owned the United States over the last few years. They’re actually underdogs and you know you love a good underdog story. They’re fairly competent throughout the team with a pretty strong central midfield in Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. Striker Jozy Altidore is hit-or-miss but the defense is by far the weakest link of the team, which is scary when you’re up against teams as good as Germany and Portugal.   -Who else should I watch? Outside of the United States, I think there are two teams you really need to watch: Brazil and Belgium.

I can hear you now. Belgium? The place with the waffles? Yes, the place with the waffles. Those waffles turned this team into team huge. Seriously, I don’t think there’s any bigger team than Belgium at the World Cup and they’re surprisingly deep despite having a national population smaller than Ohio. But seriously, there are huge dudes—the best defender in the world for me in Vincent Kompany—and the most recognizable hair in all the tournament in Marouane Fellaini. They’re good! No, seriously. They have a good chance at winning it all, I think.

Brazil is fun to watch just because they are going to score and smile and dance. They have made this game their own and have made it beautiful. Just watch them. 

All things said, I really hope you take some time to sit down and watch the World Cup.  It’s going to be fun and it rarely comes around. And, above all else: at least it’s not baseball.