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Your Complete Guide to the World Cup

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Goooaaalll! The 2014 World Cup is about to kick off (literally) in Brazil, so for the next month you’re going to be hearing a lot about soccer. But if you’re like most Americans, you probably don’t pay much attention to the planet’s most popular sport during the three years and 11 months when the World Cup isn’t going on.

Fortunately, Jimmy Conrad—a former member of the U.S. Men’s National Team, a long-time Major League Soccer star, and current host of KICKTV—provides the lowdown on this year’s tournament, from its funky format to its most-likely contenders. Conrad even offers his two cents on the Landon Donovan controversy. (More on that in a minute.)

How the Tournament Works
Regardless of where they play the sport professionally, soccer stars from across the globe will suit up for their home countries in an event that happens only once every four years, Conrad explains.

While qualifying matches have been going on for the past two-plus years, the 32-team field of competitors is set and the real tourney is about to take place in 12 cities spread across host country Brazil.

Each national team has been assigned (through a blind draw) to a group that includes three other countries, and those four teams will each play one another once. For a win, a team receives three points. For a tie, they receive one point.

At the end of those group games, the top two teams from each group based on points will then move on to the Round of 16. “After that, it’s a sudden-death, one-loss-and-you’re-gone competition,” Conrad explains. (FYI: The United States is playing in Group G against Germany, Portugal, and Ghana—the team that eliminated them in the last two World Cups.)

Reasons to Watch
1. Ronaldo or Messi? There’s a huge international debate going on right now over who’s the best player in the world, Conrad says. Is it Ronaldo or Messi? Also, neither has won a World Cup. “The best players of all time—Zidane, Pelé—they’ve all won a World Cup,” Conrad adds. “And, for me, you have to win a Cup to be considered one of the all-time best.”

2. Europe’s South American struggles. “No European team has won a World Cup on South American soil,” Conrad says. He attributes this drought to the climate and the size of a country like Brazil. “I don’t think the European clubs are used to traveling so far and playing in such different conditions from one game to the next,” Conrad says, adding that he’s curious to see if one of the Euro teams can step up this year and break that dubious streak.

3. Landon Donovan not making the U.S. team. “He’s arguably the best player the U.S. has ever produced, and he has more goals in World Cup play than Ronaldo and Messi combined,” Conrad says. “So I’m curious to see what we can do on a world stage without him.” He adds that he thinks there’s “no question” Donovan should be on the team. “Landon’s a friend, so I have some personal bias here,” Conrad says. “But you can’t tell me he’s not one of best 23 in our country.” (Conrad won’t speculate about why Donovan didn’t make the U.S. team. But a lot of sources point to the rocky relationship between the aging star and the U.S.’s head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, as the reason for his omission from the roster.)

Go to the next page to get the details on the players to watch and the basic rules 

Players to Watch
1. Lionel “Leo” Messi of Argentina. “He’s arguably the best player in the world,” Conrad says. “At one point he was the FIFA World Player of the Year four times in a row, and he’s a threat to score every time he gets the ball. You can’t say that about a lot of players.”

2. Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal. Not only is he the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, but he’s also another guy who’s a threat to score every time, Conrad says. “He’s really good on set pieces like free kicks or corner kicks. He’s also really handsome, so there’s that.”

3. Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior of Brazil. “He’s young, but he’s really skillful with both feet,” Conrad says. He’ll also pull a trick out of nowhere and surprise you, which is a very Brazilian trait, Conrad adds. “They don’t just want to beat you, they want to beat you with style.”

4. Luis Suárez of Uruguay. He’s the leading goal scorer in the English Premier League, which is arguably the most competitive professional soccer league in the world, Conrad says. “He dives a lot, and he actually bit someone last year, so he’s really unpredictable,” he adds. “But love him or hate him, he works so hard, which is rare for a guy that talented.”

5. Clint Dempsey of the United States. “He’s the U.S. team’s captain, and he’s scored a goal in every World Cup he’s participated in,” Conrad says. “He really embodies the American spirit. Never say die. He came from a really small town in Texas, and now he’s the man for the U.S.”

Contenders
1. Brazil. Not only are they playing on home turf, but they’ve also won more World Cups (five) than any other country, Conrad explains. “On top of that, there’s been so much political turmoil off the field in Brazil that I think they’re playing for more than most teams—for peace in a troubled time.”

2. Argentina. “They have one of the best players in the world in Leo Messi, and they’re used to playing in Brazil, so they understand the climate there,” Conrad says. “They’re also really good.”

3. Spain. They won the last World Cup, and they have a style that’s very possession based and fun to watch, Conrad says. “They don’t force anything. They wait for openings, and then they attack.” He says for a casual fan, Spain is fun to watch because they make it look so easy.

Rules to Know
You probably know the basics (no hands, no tackling other players), but here are a couple more rules that will help you follow the action.

1. Offsides. No offensive player can hang out between the opposing team’s last defender and their goalie if he doesn’t have the ball. “Basically, you can’t just sit by the other team’s goal all game hoping one of your teammates will lob the ball to you,” Conrad says. When a player is offsides, the referees will whistle and stop play, and the other team gets the ball.

2. Yellow card. Sort of like a warning, refs issue a yellow card to players who’ve done something they’re not allowed to do, like pulling on another player’s jersey, swearing, or any other type of unsportsmanlike conduct, Conrad says. If a player receives two yellow cards in one game, he’s automatically issued a red card (see below).

3. Red card. These are given for more serious offenses, like spitting on an opposing player or stopping the ball with your hand while the other team is in position to score. “If you get one of these, you’re ejected from the game and your team has to play short a man the rest of the match,” Conrad explains. “You’re also suspended for your team’s next game, although they’re allowed to replace you on the field and play at full strength.”