Primer’s Primer to the World Cup

For the avid fan, or the usually uninterested, we've got everything you need to know to survive the world's biggest sporting event: the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Hear that?  It’s the sound of the band U2 playing in every other commercial on ESPN. The World Cup must upon us.

The one time every four years that most Americans actually give a hoot about soccer leaving many viewers without a clue of what is really going on or what to expect.  That’s why we took the time to put together this guide so you can not only watch the World Cup this summer, but you can talk about it and actually sound like you know a thing or two.

Some important World Cup facts:

How the Groups Work – The World Cup groups are drawn using a pool system.  There are four pools (each with eight teams) basically separated so that the best teams are in pool 1, the second best in pool 2 and so on.

The teams are then randomly placed into eight different groups of four.  Each group features one team from each pool, the idea being that no group will get stacked with great teams while another has four crap teams.  Each team plays each other (in the groups) once getting 3 points for a win and 1 point for a draw.  The top two teams in each group advance.

The host country is South Africa. Which means that the South African team automatically qualifies for the tournament and they are placed in the top pool.

The most successful country in World Cup competitions is Brazil with five titles. Italy is 2nd with four.

Diving – When a player intentionally goes down to try and draw a foul.  South American teams and Italy are generally the most notorious for this.

Offside – A lot of people will complain about offsides.  This is when an attacking player is standing closer to the goal than all defenders at the moment the ball is passed to him.

Iker Casillas – The name of the goalkeeper and captain of Spain’s team.  It’s pronounce (Eee-ker Cas-see-yas).  Spain has a few players with tricky Catalan and Basque names, Xavi (Chavy) and Xabi Alonso (Shabby).

Uniforms are called “kits”, the field is called the “pitch”, and zero is called “nil”.

The Vuvuzela – That constant droning sound you’re hearing during the matches.  The vuvezela is a type of horn that somehow became popular among football fans in South Africa.  Many people find them obnoxious, but you might as well learn to deal with them because they aren’t going anywhere.

Stars to Watch

Lionel Messi – The best player in the world right now.  There isn’t a single thing that this young Argentinean doesn’t do exceptionally well.  Noted for both his incredible ability to score as well as create chances for others, Messi is one of the few great attacking players that is just as well known for assisting goals as scoring them.

Cristiano Ronaldo – Very fast and tricky, the “new” Ronaldo from Portugal is tremendous on the ball and has absolutely deadly shooting skills.  Also a lighting rod of controversy, Ronaldo has been criticized for showboating, diving, and not producing in clutch situations.  He certainly has the skill to go very far, but as of yet, international success has eluded him.

Wayne Rooney – You’ll probably hear this name as much as any in the early stages of the cup, as Rooney is the most dangerous player on England’s roster and he’ll start off the cup playing the Americans.  Rooney may be the best “pure scorer” in football today.  Rooney, much like Ronaldo, is clearly a world-class talent but is yet to really shine on the international stage.  He is known to lose his temper rather easily on the pitch and will need to learn how to control it better before he can truly lead his team.

Messi Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney posing for the cameraFavorites


Player to watch: Xavi

  • Currently the best team in Europe and many also believe, the world.  Spain controls games through their dominating midfield, which features many of the world’s best playmakers.  They have the best pair of strikers of any team in the tournament in Fernando Torres and David Villa.  Their open style of play also usually fills their games with fast paced action and creativity making them one of the more exciting teams to watch.
    • For years Spain had been criticized for not being able to perform together as a team despite having some of the world’s greatest talents on the pitch.  Two years ago they removed that monkey off their back by winning the Euro Cup, their first-ever major trophy since 1964.  But the team still has weaknesses.
  • Their lack of height is an issue.
  • Iker Casillas (see above), normally regarded as one of the greatest keepers in the world, hasn’t performed as well for his club team, Real Madrid, this season and some have voiced concerns that he may be slipping.
  • And as with any team that plays the kind of “open” football that Spain does, they leave themselves vulnerable to counter attacks and have a defense that sometimes has a tendency of moving too far forward.

Power houses

Speaking the lingo - kit, pitch, nilBrazil

Player to watch: Kaka

If someone isn’t picking Spain to win it all, then they are probably going with Brazil, and why not?  They always seem to show up for the World Cup.  They nearly always make it at least as far as the semifinals and are one of the few countries that have several major stars that seem to know how to play together.

But with Kaka having a down year, the team is lacking a truly top class player.  And much like Spain they have several defenders who seem to enjoy attacking the opponent’s goal more than protecting their own.


Player to watch: Wayne Rooney

For some, it is tough what to make of England.  They have arguably the most marquee players of any team in the world.  Yet, two years ago they failed to even qualify for the Euro Cup.  Most from the British Isles have put that embarrassment behind them and have great confidence going into the WC, thanks in no small part to Wayne Rooney.  Some fans are still cautious, jokingly already conceding defeat to the United States in their group. If they play up to their potential, the boys draped in St. George’s Cross could very well walk away with their first major trophy since 1966.

Old Reliable


Player to watch: Bastian Schweinsteiger

Most people would probably balk at rating Germany’s chances so high.  They don’t have any real big name stars and are ranked a modest 6th in the FIFA World Rankings.  But if there is anything I have learned watching international football over the years its to never count out the Germans.

They’ve won 6 major international cups and have a knack for playing very well in the World Cup despite their opponents.  It would be a tremendous surprise to see them in the finals but a deep run is certainly not at all out of the realm of possibility.



Player to watch: Wesley Sneijder

The Oranje, as they are known, are instantly recognizable.  Not just because of their bright orange kits, but because of their tenacious attacking style known as “total football”.  They allowed a mere two goals during all of qualifying making some expectations for them quite lofty.  At their best, they are unstoppable.  The only problem is staying at their best throughout a tournament.  The Oranje have performed very well early in tournaments in recent years only to crash out deeper in.  This summer they hope to find some consistency.


Player to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo

Through the years few teams have mustered so much bark yet so little bite as the Portuguese.  They are famed for their creativity and attacking style but they never seem to be able to find their stride in international competitions.  Ronaldo is capable of playing with anyone on the planet but a very difficult group stage and checkered past have fans worried.

Powers in Decline


Player to Watch – Gianluigi Buffon

The Jersey Shore ain’t the only thing giving Italians a bad name.  The undisputed villains of international football, the Italians are notorious for their suffocating style of play, diving, and tendency to overact on the pitch to try and curry favor with the refs.  They tend to win games on the cheap, expect a lot of 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, matches where these guys are involved.  They usually show well in the World Cup (collecting four trophies over the years) but an aging squad and lack of superstars have many doubting they’ll repeat on their 06’ success.


Player to watch: Franck Ribery

Some people don’t even think France should be in the World Cup (ask Ireland).  But even of those that like them, few believe they will make it very far.  They have a chance of making it past the group stages, thanks to an easy draw, but anything more would have to be considered a smashing success for France.

Article text - Good to know

Long Shots


Player to watch: Raphael Marquez

The United States’ arch-rival has a pretty easy path to the round of 16.  As long as they win their group, they should be able to make it at least as far as the quarterfinals but anything more would be a pleasant surprise for this plucky but somewhat outmatched squad.

Ivory Coast

Player to watch: Didier Drogba

Or Cote d’Ivoire helps to make Group G the resident “group of death” in this year’s World Cup.  Recognized as one of the best African teams in the world (ranked only behind Cameroon in the FIFA rankings) they have quite a few marquee players on their squad and they’ll need them if they are going to pass Brazil and Portugal to make it out of the group stage.

Dark Horse


Player to watch: Lionel Messi

Argentina could do anything this summer.  They feature two of the best young goal scorers in the world in Gonzalo Higuain and Leo Messi.  The latter has spent the last two years establishing himself as the greatest player in the world, but as a team, Argentina has had difficulty finding the right balance between their skill and effectiveness.  They won gold in Beijing in 08, and they will be looking to repeat on that success this summer.  Watch out for Argentina to go deep this summer.


Player to watch: Landon Donovan

Donovan wearing a uniformUndoubtedly, the team that will get the most coverage over here in the states are the Americans themselves.  So how well should you expect them to do?  Ever since the U.S.A.’s surprise run in the 2002 World Cup analysts have been waiting impatiently for the Americans to make the leap to the world elite, but it still looks like they have some time to go before they get there.

At their best, the United States can play with the top teams in the world.  They defeated Spain in the Confederations Cup and played one spectacular half against Brazil in that same tournament.  They don’t seem to be able to sustain top form for very long, however, and have a habit of losing key games against teams believed to be far inferior.  Not making it out of the group stage would be considered disastrous for the Americans but making it any farther is going to be difficult (particularly if they don’t win their group) and would most likely require a little bit of luck and not-so-stellar play from their opponent.

So I guess that’s it then.  Now go out and get your face paint and scarves.  See you in South Africa!

Landon Donovan photo by Jarrett Campbell
Kevin MacLean

Kevin H. MacLean currently resides in Brooklyn, NY where he enjoys people watching, writing, and dominating all comers in four-square. You can keep tabs on him at his blog