17 June 2010

Soccer for Soccer Virgins and Reluctant Fans: Rules and Slang

Soccer has a unique vocabulary that, at times, can make it tough for those not familiar with the sport to understand what is going on. Heightening this barrier is the fact that A) we have different terms for similar concepts in other American sports and B) terms that major American sports share with soccer often bear different meanings. This is true for the language that the commentators employ and the rules that govern the sport.

Want to sound like you know what you're talking about during tomorrow's US-Slovenia match? Worried that you'll look like an ignorant soccer-hating American in front of your attractive Latin, African, Asian or European friends? This primer is for you.

  • Handball: pretty self explanatory at first glance. Players (excepting the goalie in certain circumstances) are prohibited from touching the ball with their hands. However, the rule extends to cover the entire arm, not just the hand.

  • Offsides: this can be a tough concept for those unfamiliar with the game, and hockey fans will pick this one up faster than football fans. The rule: no offensive player can be closer to the goal than either the ball or the last defender on the opposing team. By extension, this exempts a player in possession of the ball. There is a confusing exception: if you are not offsides when the ball is kicked, you may then run offsides to receive the ball.

  • Penalties: Yellow Card. A referee decides to "caution" a player for infractions such as slide tackles that get no ball, intentional handballs, delay of game or taking a dive (a.k.a. flopping). After a yellow card, the player may remain on the field. However, two yellow cards within the same game equals a red card.

  • Penalties: Red Card. Red-carded players must leave the field immediately. Their team may not replace them with another player for the rest of the game. In addition, ejected players may not play in either of the next two games for their team, although the team may play full strength (11 players on the field). Infractions include intentional handballs that prevent goals, intent to injure or a slide tackle from behind.

  • Substitutions. Each team is allowed to make a total of 3 substitutions throughout the course of the game. Once subbed out, there is no re-entry into the game (as in baseball). When a player must leave due to injury and there are no substitutions remaining, the team is forced to play down a man.

 Common Phrases
  • Caps: a player is awarded a "cap" for every international match he appears in. Once upon a time, an actual hat was presented to players for playing. Today the term exists solely as a way to count the number of games someone has played in.
  • Clean Sheet: soccerspeak for a shutout.
  • Club: professional soccer team. For example, Clint Dempsey plays for Fulham F.C. of the English Premier League. The initials F.C. stand for Football Club.

  • Equalizer: a goal that ties the game.
  • First Choice: soccerspeak the starter at a position. Between World Cups, it can be tough for a national team to get all their starters back for games. Often these games take place during league seasons. Given that players play in various leagues throughout the world, not all of them can make it back to their home country for all the matches. So while the World Cup roster consists of 23 players and only 14-15 players who actually play, you will often see over 60 different players capped in between World Cups. While this is the case for most countries, it is more of an issue in the Americas as most top players play in European leagues, making cross-Atlantic travel difficult.
  • First Touch: literally what it sounds like, a player's first contact with the ball when receiving it. This means two different things, depending on the context. If someone takes a first touch shot, they are shooting the ball without settling the ball first. A player who makes a bad first touch failed to control the ball upon receiving a pass. Conversely, a good first touch means that the player controlled the ball well upon receiving it. The quality of the first touch has a major impact on the quality of the ensuing possession.

  • Making a Run: similar concept as "cutting to the hoop" in basketball. When a player without the ball runs hard into open space in an attempt to get open and receive the ball, he is making a run.

  • On Loan. Unlike in major American sports, clubs often "loan" players to each other in soccer. You may hear announcers say something like "Landon Donovan just recently returned from being 'on loan' to Everton." While this has nothing to do with the World Cup, it refers to the player's pro affiliation. When Donovan was on loan, the MLS club Los Angeles Galaxy still owned his rights, but they loaned him to Everton--an English Premier League team--allowing him to play there during the MLS offseason.

    Why would an American soccer club conduct this transaction, the equivalent of the St. Louis Cardinals "loaning" Albert Pujols to the Japan Central League's Yomiuri Giants? Often, a player is loaned to another club within the same league when this player fallen out of favor. In this case, players on loan must sit out matches against their parent club.

    In other cases, players in lower-level leagues (such as the MLS) are loaned out to higher-level leagues (such as the EPL). This allows American players to gain experience at a higher level of play, and does so without allowing the overseas soccer leagues to drain the United States of its relatively spare soccer talent.

  • Set Piece: when the driving team receives a free kick deep in their opponent's territory, the players attempt to "make a run" in order to create scoring opportunities. This is similar to how basketball draw up and run plays in an attempt to score on an inbounds pass.

  • Stoppage Time. The clock works very differently in soccer than in hockey, basketball or football. First of all, the clock runs up rather than down. Second of all, the clock does not stop when play does. Instead, at the end of the half, the referee determines how long the clock ran during celebrations, injury stoppages and penalties. That lost time is added to the end of the half, always in full minute increments. What's more, the amount of extra time added isn't revealed until regular time runs out (which creates an incentive to play hard up until the end of regulation).

  • Tackle. This is not the same as bringing an opponent to the ground, as in American football. In soccer, it is the process of taking the ball from an opponent while they have possession of it. Often this involves two players kicking the ball at the same time. A variant of this is the Slide Tackle, when a player slides feet first to get the ball, often (legally) dropping the opposing player to the turf.

  • Vuvuzela: not exactly a soccer term, this refers to a type of horn that fans blow during matches. If you've been watching, no doubt you have heard a constant buzz resembling giant swarm of bees throughout each game. Commentators and fans alike (especially in North America and Western Europe) have been critical of these horns, some even calling for a ban of the device, to which South Africans responded that the Europeans are trying to Westernize or "sanitize" the game.

    The collective din of these instruments has been measured to be louder than a construction site or a rock concert, easily exceeding the human pain threshold of 125dB. Facing the prospect of a ban, vuvuzela makers have introduced a newer model that brings the noise down to non-damaging levels. Think of vuvuzelas as the earsplitting cousins of thunder sticks or rally towels.
You should now have a leg up on all the other pretenders when you find yourself sitting in a bar in New York City at 9:30 AM (or, deo volente, a bar in San Francisco at 6:30 AM) with your bloodshot eyes glued to the HDTV. In Part II of this series we'll take a closer look at the teams, the structure of the game, and the layout of the tournament itself.

(Image Credit: Wikimedia)

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