Statistically speaking, if you live in America you are probably not a dedicated fan of soccer, aka “footy” or “The Beautiful Game,” as your one friend who studied abroad in London for a semester and came back wearing scarves all the time calls it. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s coming, to a Laundromat, elevator, coffee line or bar stool near you — the Dreaded Soccer Conversation (DSC).
A recurring challenge for casual observers, getting caught in a DSC is a near-sure thing. The major distinction here is that while boorish soccer haters welcome the chance to blather on about how prissy and phony they think the game is (“They don’t even have touchdowns, bro!”), noobs just want to get through it without looking like idiots. With the 2014 World Cup fully upon us, there’s simply no time to master the nuances of the sport and its culture beyond the most rudimentary observations (“They can’t use their hands, that’s crazy!”). That’s why we’ve put together this handy guide to faking your way through a DSC as painlessly as possible.
It should be noted that soccer fans, stateside especially, often get a bad rap. Since they so fervently follow a culture that has yet to go permanently mainstream in America, they're cast as elitist Euro snobs. "Soccer is high fashion, a ritzy Parisian promenade, a sport for intellectuals and, of course, socialists," jokes Seth Vertelney at goal.com. But you might be surprised to learn that many of these socialists are actually very excited to teach neophytes the ins and outs with no judgment. "If those of us who religiously follow soccer give them some context around the World Cup, engage them, answer their questions patiently and generally make them not feel like ignoramuses, they may yet be converted — or at the very least feel welcomed," writes Vertelney.
For those of you who don’t even want to get to that point of mutual understanding, though, here's what you need to know.
1. Understand the Setup
You don't need to master the bajillion teams and leagues out there, but you do need to know what exactly differentiates the World Cup from everything else. Organized by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, it’s a quadrennial tournament of 32 national teams, meaning professional clubs you’ve heard of, like Real Madrid or Manchester United, are not competing as units (Athletes from such pro teams, however, are heavily involved — they're just playing for their home countries.) MLS teams — just MLS, not "the MLS," as it stands for Major League Soccer — like the Philadelphia Union, are not in the World Cup, either.
The tourney starts with the group stage, meaning the field of 32 is split up into fours and made to play each other round-robin style. The two best teams from each group then advance to single-elimination play, a la March Madness. This year, the U.S. is in a group with Ghana, Portugal and Germany. All these teams are really good and we're a definite underdog, so you'll hear people referring to it as a "Group of Death." This is a great nugget to toss out there to fake like you know, then break to the bar or bathroom (fake and break!), as long as no one’s dropped it yet and the Cup is still in the group stage (vital).
ACTUAL SOCCER FAN: [smart comment involving Portugal's superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, the drama associated with U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann being German, and how Ghana has beat the U.S. in the last two World Cups]
YOU: "Man, Group of Death!" [slinks away]
2. Use the Right Slang
The well-kept field the hot dudes your girlfriend loves are running all over is called "the pitch." (People who run onto the field are awesomely called "pitch invaders" — usually drunk and annoying, occasionally adorable.) The fancy cleats the hot dudes wear are "boots." Their uniforms — jersey, shoes, socks — are referred to as "kits." Fans are "supporters." There is more advanced lingo — "tiki-taka" describes the short, speedy passing style Spain used to win the 2010 Cup; a "talisman" is a team's most important and lethal player — but don’t get too deep into all that or you’ll get yourself in trouble. Knowing a national team's informal nickname can also be slick — the rest of the world calls us "The Yanks."
ACTUAL SOCCER FAN: "I’m really not liking Klinsmann's formation here … he needs to [complicated suggestion you don’t understand]."
YOU: "Yeah, but you gotta love those Yank away kits, right?" [slinks away]
3. Complain About the Right Things
"I don't mind wannabes as much as I mind the jitbags who whine about low scoring and diving," says Brian Hickey, a Philly journalist and actual soccer fan (ASF). Yes, the scoreboard is never going to resemble a Peyton Manning-Drew Brees shootout, and yes, matches (not games) will sometimes end in a draw. Accept it. The dig on diving — players crumpling to the ground in dramatic fashion without really being touched, in the hopes of drawing a penalty — might be the most hackneyed and irksome criticism to soccer fans, since it happens in pretty much every sport. "Don't complain about flopping and go back to watching the NBA Finals," says Philly DJ and ASF Bo Bliz. "Hypocrisy!"
One of the most difficult rules for a soccer newcomer to grasp is "offside," which a ref will call for what seems to be no reason to the untrained eye. It's way too complicated to succinctly explain here. Pick your spots — if an entire bar crowd is outraged by a questionable offside call, you can easily blend right in and rabble-rabble. Don’t be the first guy to do it, though, if you’re not an ASF. "This is nuanced, since even the referees can be unclear about how the offsides rule works," says local writer and ASF Brion Shreffler.
ACTUAL SOCCER FAN: “ARRRGGHHH I CAN’T BELIEVE IT ANOTHER OFFSIDES ON DEMPSEY WHAT IS THIS BULLSHIT?!”
YOU: [looks around] “Arrgghhhh!” [takes sip of beer]
4. Call It Soccer
Yes, the rest of the world calls it football, but this is America, and using our vernacular is accepted and encouraged. ("Soccer" was shorthanded from the "soc" part of "association football," the sport’s official birth-certificate name.) Going out of your way to drop the F-bomb in an awkward manner is a good way to raise suspicions, especially with fans from the UK, who love ribbing Americans about their knowledge of the sport or lack thereof. Though it does have the potential to foster positive vibes — "Using that word as an American is like a password that says you love it and take it seriously," says Shreffler — no true fan, if he/she is not a complete asshole, is going to chide you for calling it soccer. "Personally, I find I use both terms, usually referring to the game abroad as football and the game in the U.S. as soccer," says Ed Farnsworth of Northern Liberties’ The 700, a good place to watch Cup games.
ACTUAL SOCCER FAN: "You consider yourself a football fan?"
YOU: "Sure, I love soccer. Here, have a shot of whiskey."
5. Just Be Cool
"The best part about it [is] that it can bring groups of people together that you never thought in a million years would do so," says Border Springs chef Nick Macri, a former Division I goalkeeper with Drexel. All this good will, however, will be augmented by the occasional pretentious douche, "expressing opinions really loudly and in great detail to make sure everyone knows how much they follow soccer," explains ASF Emynd. Steer clear of that guy, and that crowd, and you'll dramatically decrease the likelihood of being trapped in a Dreaded Soccer Conversation. Keep an open mind and try not to tip your hand that you only watch soccer during the World Cup. But above all else, try not to be a dick, and I believe that you will win. "You're going to be surrounded by people who are insanely passionate about this game," says Shreffler. "It's a very unique, convivial atmosphere. Anyone who runs counter to that stands out, big-time."
Follow @DrewLazor on Twitter.