A hockey fan's guide to the World Cup: An Overview

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 19: In this handout image provided by M&S, the England World Cup squad pose during the Marks and Spencer England World Cup Suit Launch on May 19, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by M&S via Getty Images)

Every four years the world turns its eyes to one event, one tournament, one global phenomenon. If you are on Twitter or watching ESPN, you will not be able to avoid this spectacle (and some of us wait with bated breath for it to begin, our DVR at the ready). It is the World Cup, and it is brilliant. Now, many Americans don't get the passion or fervor for football (futbol, footy, soccer) that is displayed around the world. I understand that. I too felt like that once. However, 10 years later, I am a die-hard football fan. Once I spent time watching the games, learning the rules, strategies, players and clubs, my fandom grew to the point where I get up at 6:00 to watch games on TV, or travel to the nearest football pub to surround myself with likeminded folks, pulling pints, singing and chanting, rising to our feet with every close play, and eventually drowning our sorrows in Guinness once again.

Buddha asked on Twitter if someone would explain soccer to him in terms he understands, and on Twitter, I received many questions and requests on such an explanation, so here we begin our month-long endeavor. I'll begin with a brief overview of the teams playing and the format of the tournament before getting into more of the tactical explanation of rules, strategies and situations. If you have a question, please ask. If you would like further explanation of something, or are watching the games and don't get something, let me know. I'm happy to help as much as I can, and if I can't, I'm sure we can find someone who will!

The World Cup Tournament

Qualifying stage

The World Cup isn't a month-long tournament. This is actually called The World Cup Finals. The World Cup is a multi-year tournament, beginning with qualifying stages across the globe. Each "confederation": (think conference, if there were 6 conferences) CONCACAF - North America, UEFA - Europe, AFC - Asia, CAF - Africa, CONMEBOL - South America and Oceania - New Zealand, et al., holds their own tournament amongst all of the country teams in their confederations to get down to the teams who actually qualify for the finals. Think of this as the regular season to get from 32 teams to the top 16. Then we get to the month-long World Cup Finals, which are held starting tomorrow in South Africa. This would be the playoffs.

Group stage

The first round of the Finals is called the Group Stage. The Group Stage is set up so that none of the top seeded teams, according to FIFA (NHL) rankings, play each other in the stage (eight groups of four teams for a total of 32). The Group Stage is a round robin format. Each team will play each other team once. The top two teams from each four team group then advances to the ...

Knockout Stage

The top team from one group will play the second place team from another group in the first knockout game. Unlike the Stanley Cup playoffs, there is no best of seven. It's more akin to the NFL playoffs. As the name suggests, lose and you're out. This format continues among the 16 teams until you get to the final two who play for the title of World Champion and the right to lift the gold trophy and put a shiny golden star on their country's kit (sweater/jersey) for all eternity. No, as far as I know, nobody gets to have a day with the trophy, nor is it possible to drink from it, which kinda sucks. The player who scored the most goals is awarded The Golden Boot. This is not like the Conn Smythe. The player deemed to be the most valuable to his team is awarded the Golden Ball, this is the Conn Smythe.

The 32 teams

I'll give you a brief overview of most of the teams with whom you should become familiar, players to watch and the NHL team I feel they are best aligned. This doesn't always mean that they have the same chances at winning, or that they play a similar style, but they may have a historical reference instead.

The Favorites:

Spain: Champions of Europe "La Furia Roja" (The Red Fury) is a team filled with superstars who finally broke through their San Jose Shark-like choking tendancies to win the European Championships.
Players to watch: Cesc Fabregas, David Villa, David Silva, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Carles Puyol, Jesus this team is stacked.
NHL Team: San Jose Sharks

England: The country that invented football has the ability to dominate, and will play one of the more physical styles. This is my team and my choice to win, though I know they won't, because they always collapse and haven't won since 1966. Backline decimated by injury, they will be suspect defensively.
Players to watch: Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard.
NHL Team: Montreal Canadiens

Germany: Die Mannschaft plays football the way an Audi drives. Efficiently, brilliantly, without soul. They are mechanical in their football and are tactically superior, though creativity is a major issue for them. They lost their leader and best player in Michael Ballack to injury.
Players to watch: Bastian Schweinsteiger (best name in football), Miroslav Klose, Thomas Mueller, Per Mertesacker.
NHL Team: Anaheim Ducks

Brazil: The best of Brazilian football may be behind them. This is the least exciting and creative Brazilian team in years. Their "samba" football style lives on in name only. This team is more physical than the Brazilians have seen in years. That said, they get away with more than anyone else because of their history, and they may have lulled the world into a false sense of security. This is a fantastic defensive team, and they will counter attack and kill you.
Players to watch: Kaka, Hulk (yeah, they have a guy named Hulk), Maicon, Luis Fabiano.
NHL Team: New Jersey Devils

The Spoilers:

Argentina: They have the best player in the world, Lionel Messi. Think of him as Martin St. Louis or Daniel Briere. Small, shifty, exceptionally gifted offensively. His supporting cast is not nearly strong enough to carry him through though, and Argentina had difficulty qualifying.
Players to watch: Messi, Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano, Maxi Rodriguez.
NHL Team: Washington Capitals

The Netherlands: The Oranje will be among the most fun teams to watch. They play with an offensive mindset, attacking at all times, play with speed and creativity in what they call "Total Football". The Netherlands will easily roll through the group, and should go deep. Their success will depend upon the defense, which can be a bit out of control.
Players to watch: Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Mark Van Bommel.
NHL Team: Pittsburgh Penguins

Cote de Ivoire: An African team has never won the World Cup. In fact, only two have ever made it as far as the quarterfinals. That said, no African side has ever had the roster of the Ivory Coast. Granted, their coach, Sven Goren Eriksson, has a history of collpasing and out-managing himself, but the Elephants should make it further than any African team before them, considering the amount of success their players have seen with their European clubs.
Players to watch: Didier Drogba (unsure if he'll play), Emmanuel Eboue, Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Salomon Kalou.
NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks

Italy: The defending World Champions have seen the best years pass them. The generation that brought such success has now gotten old, and you will tire of their diving and whining and gesticulating. Seriously, nobody will annoy you more than the Italians. Don't worry, they won't win.
Players to watch: Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Fabio Cannavaro.
NHL Team: Detroit Red Wings

The Sleepers:

The United States: For years, we've been told that the US is on the rise. The Confederations Cup of last season was a coming-out party. This team was not supposed to threaten the best of the rest of the world, yet they found themselves controlling the title game with Brazil at half-time, only to fall apart in a defensive shell. With a lineup mostly composed of players based in Europe, the US has skill in the midfield, unbelievable athletic ability up front and (arguably) the best keeper in the world. Unfortunately, they are suspect at the back, and will have to rely on simply outscoring everyone. We all know defense wins championships, and that's why this team will make it to the knockouts, and maybe to the quarterfinals, but no further. That said, watch them. They're damn fun and will put the rest of the world on notice yet again.
Players to watch: Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Maurice Edu, Oguchi Onyewu, Tim Howard
NHL Team: Vancouver Canucks (I hate to do this, but it's true. Great goalie, excellent offense, weak along the blue line. Will threaten but can't go far enough).

Portugal: The Portugeuse have fallen on hard times since winning Euro 2004, and are in the Group of Death with Brazil and Cote de Ivoire, so it's unlikely they'll make it through the group stages. But they can provide some highlights, both with creativity and diving. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the three best footballers in the world, but once he pulls on the kit of his homeland, he falls to the ground, writhing in pain. It's unreal and frustrating to watch someone of his talent dive like that.
Players to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco, Ricardo Costa, Nani (unsure of injury status)
NHL Team: Los Angeles Kings

Ghana: This is a talented team (note I said team), lacking superstars aside from Michael Essien. Essien is a beast, and The Black Stars' hopes live and die with him. Unfortunately for them, Essien is out. As such, the Ghanians are too.
Players to watch: Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntari, John Pantsil
NHL Team: Carolina Hurricanes

Mexico: Ugh, Muck Fexico. Dos a Cero bitches. Move on.
Players to watch: Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Gerardo Torrado, Rarael Marques, Guillermo Franco, Giovani Dos Santos.
NHL Team: Philadelphia Flyers

The dark-horses:

France: 2006 saw the end of the Golden Generation, and the end of the greates footballer of all-time, Zinedine Zidane as he was redcarded in the final for headbutting Marco Materazzi of Italy. France lost, but Zizou's headbutt was totally worth it. The French no longer will frighten anyone, but they will be able to spoil someone's day should they make it to the knockouts. Some of the remaining members of the Golden Generation have seen their careers reborn in the last couple of years (Anelka, I'm looking at you) and others have been virtually non-existant, but are still among the best goal poachers in the world (Henry, that's you).
Players to watch: Franck Ribery, Djibril Cisse, Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Patrice Evra.
NHL Team: New York Rangers

Denmark: Olsen's Eleven are just happy to be here, or that's what most people will say. Denmark was the story of the UEFA qualifiers. This team came together as a group during the qualifiers and were able to play solid, defensive, counter-attacking football and hold off Sweden and Portugal to win the group. The advantage they have is that while The Netherlands is the clear favorite in their group, no other team is going to push for the top spot. They will battle Cameroon for the second place. It may come down to who beats Japan by the most and loses to the Oranje by the least. It's hard not to pull for this plucky squad.
Players to watch: Nicklas Bendtner, Soren Larsen, Jesper Gronkjaer, Daniel Jense, Christian Poulsen.
NHL Team: Phoenix Coyotes

Uruguay: Any team that qualifies from CONMEBOL has been through hell and back. Playing at altitude, playing in heat, playing against the best in the world, playing against teams so overmatched that they resort for thuggery. An advantage is thaty they are playing South Africa, who is terrible. They'll battle France for the second place behind Mexico, likely. They also had to play in a play-in game against Costa Rica to see whether CONMEBOL or CONCACAF would get the extra slot in the World Cup Finals, so they've already faced certain elimination and can play with pressure. However, they are young, young, young.
Players to watch: Diego Forlan, Diego Lugano, Luis Suarez
NHL Team: Los Angeles Kings

Cameroon: They crushed their way through CAF qualifiers and have a huge amount of experience on their side. Plus their nickname are The Indomitable Lions, which is awesome. They are an offensive powerhouse, but are suspect in transition, as many of their offensive players don't like playing in their own end. But they'll likely move forward so quickly, it won't matter.
Players to watch: Samuel Eto'o, Alexandre Song, Achille Emana, Jean II Makoun.
NHL Team: Ottawa Senators

I've bored with going through all the teams, so I'm stopping with the 16 who have the best chance.

The rest:
Honduras
Chile
Paraguay
Nigeria
Serbia
Switzerland
Slovakia
Slovenia
Japan
Australia
Greece
Algeria

Pack a lunch:
South Africa
New Zealand
South Korea
North Korea

Up next we will begin with the rules, starting with Offsides. What else would you like to know?

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