I mean, it's just kicking the ball, right?
October 1, 2012 12:16 PM   Subscribe

Explain non-American football ("soccer") to me like I'm a 6-year-old.

I played soccer when I was a kid. I've been playing FIFA '13 and am addicted. But explain this sport to me like I'm an idiot (since I might be).

I'm a huge, huge fan of the big-four North American sports, so if it helps to explain rules or strategy with analogies to other sports, feel free. Despite the name, I get the sense that strategy and flow of the game more closely resembles hockey than American football.

(I'm hoping that, like hockey, once you explain penalties, offsides and icing, you know all the basic rules as well.)

Also, with the schedules (English clubs) - are they basically competing in multiple cups/leagues simultaneously? And explain how free agency/lending works.

And, bonus sub-question: While I've read this, it was written six years ago. Who should someone new to the sport pick a Premier League team to follow? Ideally they'd closely resemble someone like the Peyton Manning-era Indianapolis Colts: a good mix of cerebral/blue-collar ethos, high-scoring and able to win a championship once or twice a decade. But without any weird band-wagon vibe.

Sorry for the multiple questions, but really want to learn and everything I'm finding online either assumes you know everything already.
posted by po822000 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
West Ham United! High-scoring & winning is overrated! It's the drama of (near-)relegation you want!

OK, maybe not, but it was worth a try. Up the Hammers!

I'll leave it to someone a bit more concise to explain the rules, etc...
posted by pammeke at 12:24 PM on October 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Offsides is similar to hockey, except that the blue line is an imaginary line that is parallel with the last defender on the pitch (not including the keeper), and it is measured when the ball is kicked, not when it is received.
posted by Grither at 12:29 PM on October 1, 2012

Soccer Strategy to me is actually closer to Basketball than it is to hockey, excluding the ability to use picks and screens. Move the ball, find the open man. Marking can by man or zonal. A lot of strategy is more about how you position your players around the field and how you employ the players than it is about running plays, outside of certain set pieces.

Rules are pretty simple outside of offsides. And really that's not very complex

Yes, you play league games and cup games at the same time. There are also multiple leagues you might be playing for at once (champions league/europa league). Lending is basically allowing someone who wouldn't get first team time at the club that owns his contract to play for someone else, usually not someone you are competing with. Free Agency doesn't really exist, in that teams will usually sell on someone before their contract expires. Its pretty rare for a high quality player to get a free transfer. Transfers are usually done for cash - that cash usually goes to the club, but can contractually be granted to a whole pile of other stakeholders. Players appear to have more power to force moves than they do in US leagues.

Picking a club - its not really like US sports in that Parity barely exists. In most of the major leagues really only a few teams have a viable chance of winning, but the existence of relegation and entry to the international league means that with exception of the very middle of the table teams there is always something exciting to cheer for. The flipside of that is that its a bit difficult to pick a team that has a chance to win and not be at least a little band-wagony.
posted by JPD at 12:31 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're right, of the big four North American sports, soccer's more like hockey than any of the others. The big difference is the offside rule; whereas in hockey there's a fixed line on the ice and the puck has to pass it before a player can enter the zone, in soccer the rule is that the player receiving the pass has to have at least two defenders (which usually works out to the goalie and an outfield defender) between him or her and the goal *at the time the pass is played*. Don't worry about it too much, though; the offside rule is notoriously confusing and arguing over whether a player was offside or not is one of the joys of the game. There's also nothing analogous to icing in soccer.

You've got it right when it comes to multiple competitions at once. Each team plays in a domestic league, but there are also a bunch of different cups going on all season long, some domestic, some international. The top teams from each domestic league in Europe qualify to play in the UEFA Champions' League; the teams below them qualify to play in the Europa League. Teams in the Champions' League stand to make a lot of money, so they'll try to win; teams in the Europa League sometimes look at it as a distraction from trying to do well in their domestic league. Same with the domestic cups; the bigger teams often put out weak squads in the early rounds and don't care so much if they get knocked out.

As far as picking a team goes, unfortunately supporting any team that has a chance at winning the league is going to make you look like a bandwagoneer. There just aren't that many teams that have a legitimate shot every season. This year your best bet would probably be Tottenham Hotspur. (And I can't believe that I, as an Arsenal fan, just said that.)
posted by asterix at 12:36 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I actually think it's closer to basketball than hockey. A lot of hockey is about dumping the puck and scrapping, quick turnovers, penalties. In basketball, and in soccer, the trick is to build a play that gets your guy a clear shot at the net with no-one in the way. Picture a point guard slowly bringing the ball up while his forwards criss-cross and try to create space between their defenders. The same thing happens in soccer, just at a much slower pace due to the larger distances.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:43 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let me tell you about relegation, because that is Not A Thing in US sports. Basically, soccer leagues in most countries have multiple levels, like the way baseball in the US has the Majors and then the Minor leagues. The difference is that in soccer, at the end of every season, the worst performing clubs from the top league drop down to the top level of the "minors", to be replaced with the best clubs from that league. It provides for a significant amount of drama, as the difference between being in the Premiere League and the Championship (to use England as an example) can mean millions of dollars for the club.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:45 PM on October 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and a great writer to follow for an American perspective on soccer is Brian Phillips, late of The Run of Play, now at Grantland.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:55 PM on October 1, 2012

One of the things about soccer is there are very few rules to learn compared to most US sports. What you want to spend time on after learning the basics (yellow/red cards, offsides rule, 3 subs per match, how a foul is judged) is tactics. A more aggressive attacking team tends to play a 4-3-3 whereas a more defensive oriented team could play a 4-5-1, the last number in sequence standing for how many attacking players (forwards) they choose to employ. There are also styles of play like long-ball (typical "ugly" English system, currently being employed by pammeke's West Ham United, as we type!) contrasted with the "tikka-taka", possession-oriented football of Barcelona and the Spain national team.

You simply need to watch English Premier League soccer games and you'll learn the few rules there are because so little happens that they will endlessly replay all the fouls and talking points and give their opinion on why the ref was right or wrong to award a free kick. That's the other thing about professional soccer--there's 1 ref on the whole field aided by 2 line judges, so an awful lot of calls are either made subjectively and/or end up being just plain wrong.

The vast majority of conversation is taken up by opposing fans arguing over the merits of penalties (was it a dive or was contact made?) and/or if their manager got the tactics right.

I would recommend Everton as a stand-in for the Manning-era Colts, if you substitute "Championship" for top-4 finish which is all they can hope for based on their budget. The finances of European soccer make anything approaching the parity of the NFL impossible, but that's a different discussion.
posted by the foreground at 1:01 PM on October 1, 2012

A lot of hockey is about dumping the puck and scrapping, quick turnovers, penalties.

The long-ball game may be deeply unfashionable these days, but you'll still see teams, especially in the lower leagues, that hoof it down the pitch to a big striker who will either win headers or hold it up until support arrives. So I think there are similarities to both ice hockey and basketball. As befits someone from a footballing family, Steve Nash in his heyday played the point guard position like a midfield playmaker.

Something you need to understand: footballers start their path to the professional leagues young. There is no equivalent to a collegiate level (and definitely no draft) because at that age, the best talent is already in the team. (In that regard, it's a bit more like the Canadian junior hockey system.) Promising boys will be affiliated to a club with "schoolboy forms" as young as 9, and will train in academy systems on an ever more intense schedule until they either make the grade or get released, and it's a pretty ruthless process, especially when the richest clubs can sign up young talent and be content with them spending a couple of seasons on loan in a lower division. (Loan deals vary widely: season-long loans to give young players experience are usually paid for by the team to which the player is under contract; loans to acquire cover usually involve covering at least some of the wages.)

a good mix of cerebral/blue-collar ethos, high-scoring and able to win a championship once or twice a decade. But without any weird band-wagon vibe.

You're mostly out of luck. I'd actually suggest Everton, as they're in a good run of form and they're among the last of the biggish clubs to resist becoming the plaything of a foreign plutocrat, and you'll find an immediate welcome among local supporters, but the championship is probably out of their reach. Slightly bandwagony, because Landon Donovan's been loaned out to Goodison over the past few years, but you'll get the appropriate mixture of triumph and disappointment.
posted by holgate at 1:11 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't worry about "bandwagonning" (is that a word?) -- just watch a few games here and there and see who catches your eye. I find the "bandwagon" label annoying. Every new fan is jumping on a bandwagon of some kind. And if you are in the States, it's difficult to not have an affinity for one of the top teams just because that's who is on tv every weekend. I try to semi-follow a few teams (lower table, mid-table, and Arsenal) so that I have a few storylines to keep track of during the season.

I played soccer as a kid and paid little attention to it until about 10 years ago, and I found that paying a little attention to tactics made it more interesting for me. I'm no expert, but I like the difference in styles of play (4-3-3 vs. 4-5-1) and how that affects the game and the selection of the starting 11.

Despite my advice above about picking your own team on your own terms, the smart answer is Arsenal. Particularly if you enjoy teams that are perpetually about to turn the corner with great talent but never do.
posted by RabbleRabble at 1:15 PM on October 1, 2012

It's not English Premiere League, but In North America, we do have Major League Soccer, which is a group of our top level professional teams. The tier lower is the North American Soccer League.

If you can get to see soccer live, the Match Day experience is not to be missed. And being around other soccer fans and supporters can also increase your knowledge of the game as well. So much more engrossing than sitting around a TV. (And if you choose to go this route, I'm plugging my team, the Seattle Sounders FC)
posted by spinifex23 at 1:28 PM on October 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

One of my favorite, sort of esoteric rules that I just finally figured out is that if you pass the ball directly back to your own goal-keeper, he can't pick it up - unless you passed it to him via a header! So there's often some harassing offensive player who chases the keeper down on those passes, pressuring him to get the ball back in play.
posted by gorbichov at 1:42 PM on October 1, 2012

One thing to remember when you are watching, is that goals are really, really valuable, and they can come at almost any time. This means that boring 1-0 games where the ball gets passed around slowly can turn on a dime. If you're aware of that, then that's where the excitement can come from.

It's also why disputed penalties, free kicks, etc are such a big deal.

Multiple cup competitions also make the season a little more exciting, as you can have a team like Liverpool - who are not doing very well these last few years in the league - gain some satisfaction over winning the League Cup last year (the least prestigious) and getting to the final of the FA Cup. You also have European competitions going on at the same time - the Champions League being the best.

As for a team, if you want to root for a team that has a chance of winning the league in the next couple of years, your pickings are slim.
Manchester United: Powerhouse for the last 25 years or so
Manchester City: Bankrolled by Middle-East Oil Money
Chelsea: Bankrolled by Russian Oil Money

The next tier would probably be Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, and you could make arguments for Everton or Newcastle as well.

Have fun watching.
posted by sauril at 2:24 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

A bit about the schedule and league structure. In professional club football, teams from England and Wales are entered into a series of leagues. There are four main professional leagues - in descending order of prestige; The British Premier League, The Championship, League One and League Two - and a number of semi-pro national and regional leagues underneath those. Every team plays every other team in their league twice a season, home and away. So, in the Premier League where they have twenty teams, that makes a league programme of 38 games a season. Lower leagues have more teams, so play more matches. The higher up the league you are, the more money your team wins from the governing body of that league. Scottish teams have their own league and cup competitions.

In the British Premier League, where you end up in the final table can also open up entry to European cup competitions where you'll go into a separate tournament and play other top teams from domestic leagues in Europe - the top four teams in the Premier League go on to the UEFA Champions League, the two teams following usually go in to the UEFA Europa League. These are knockout competitions (after a group stage which is in round robin format) played for prestige and money and happen alongside the main league campaign, with a break over winter. The Champions League is very much considered to be the better of these two competitions in terms of prestige and financial reward for the competitors.

The bottom three teams in the league are relegated to the league below and to replace them, the top two teams from the league below are promoted to the next league up. The third team to be promoted is decided in a mini-knockout competition that takes place between the next four teams in that league. There are occasionally exceptions to this - grounds have to be of a certain standard and, if the Football Association (the governing body for football in the UK) are concerned that a promoted team won't be able to host matches to a certain standard (or that the ground can't be brought up to standard before the next season begins), they can refuse to allow the failing team to move up. This is rare and usually only happens with promotion for teams from the non-league Conference (a semi-professional league that follows League Two) where there really isn't a lot of money sloshing around.

As well as that, there are two domestic cup competitions, also played alongside the main league campaign - The FA Cup and the League Cup. The FA Cup is a knockout competition open to any team in the country (that meets the qualifying standards) and can be drawn against any other team in the competition; so it's conceivable that the best team in the Premier League could be drawn against a semi-pro team a hundred places lower than them in the league tables. The winner of the cup gets money and bragging rights for a year. The League Cup is only open to teams from the top four leagues and once again is a knockout competition. The winner gets entry to the Europa League, unless they've already qualified for the Champions League, in which case the place goes to the highest-placed team in the Premier League that hasn't already qualified for European competition. The FA Cup is seen as the better of the two competitions due to its history, but both cup competitions are beginning to pale to Premier League teams due to the financial boon that qualifying for the Champions League provides.

Oh, and if you're looking for a team and aren't afraid of a lot of expectation and more than a little disappointment, try Liverpool #YNWA
posted by peteyjlawson at 3:15 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Football can't be compared to any other US sport and I always find it kinda funny reading US perspectives on the beautiful game. Dont analyse it too hard but if you must...football is not a sport, it's a culture. A football match is art, a long, drawn-out battle of wills, belief and passion. There are basic strategies sure: formations, set-pieces etc but the key to the game is flow, the amalgamation of individual talent and cohesive teamwork. Matches ebb and flow like tides, there is a rhythm than can build into a dynamic tussle or stagnate into mundanity. Brilliance can flair up and explode or fade dismally, routs can ensue, one man can have the best game of his career or crash and burn forever. Don't be left brained about it, this is a right brained game, the Picasso of sports. Follow the team you identify with, ideally a crappy town you are somehow related to through genetics, support them through thick and thin, relishing in their defeats not their glories. Football is not about skills and tactics, plays and strategy, it's about more than that. It's not science, it's religion, there are no laws or logic to it, only a love of the game.
posted by veryape at 3:25 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bloody Confused is a pretty good introduction to the culture.

I think some teams play it like it's hockey and some play it like it's basketball (Barcelona for example). I like the Guardian Podcast and their coverage in general. If you really want to understand the convoluted financials, start here. Players are loaned to get experience or to get rid of the salary costs, particularly for someone who doesn't fit or isn't working out, e.g. Andy Carroll to West Ham.

The Premier League has been dominated by a few clubs for most of its existence. If I weren't a dyed-in-the-wool Liverpool fan, I'd be thinking about Wigan or perhaps West Brom. I think interesting things are happening at both. I'd like to think Swansea will continue to play pretty football, but perhaps not. Everton are looking good this year, but I can't bring myself to recommend them ;-)

FWIW, in my limited experience, Men's college soccer (and the MLS to an extent) in the U.S. is a bit frenetic, but the Women's college soccer I've seen has been very high quality.
posted by idb at 4:05 PM on October 1, 2012

I support Liverpool. Watch a few games before you get set on your pick, though. If you have a local bar that shows games, go there for breakfast/brunch a few times and chat with the other fans. I ended up with Liverpool as I'm a bit of a drama llama and really like the Bad News Bears vibe of the recent team. And then the owner of our local Red Sox bought them, so, well... it's fate. They're just so close to doing what they want to do, sooo clllloooossseeee that it's hard to look away.

Check out Being: Liverpool. It's been described as the best spinoff of The Office since the original. It airs and replays on Fox Soccer. Liverpool's manager has a giant picture of himself up in his living room. Seriously.

Also consider what games you are able to watch. If you don't have Fox Soccer (and if you're a sports guy, it's probably part of your channel package), you're left with ESPN2, which is pretty much Man United All The Time. Eh. While teams like United and Chelsea are good, their ability to grind out victories from mediocre play makes them a bit boring to watch.

Other teams to cast your eye upon are: Everton (shoestring budget, amazing results this year), Swansea (always plucky underdogs, capable of some wonderful performances), West Brom (well organized, something to prove), and West Ham (who, with Stoke City, are the most English of English teams - muscly forwards, long throws, power and grit). You might not be able to watch those games without signing up for a streaming services, though, which leaves Arsenal (glass cannons) and Man City (oil money, Mario Balotelli) as Top 4 options that will keep your soul intact.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:08 PM on October 1, 2012

We did the Who Should I Support question on Ask a couple of years ago, it's worth a read.

The Guardian's website has the best football coverage on the net (my opinion) - a good mix of weird snark, straightforward team predictions/match reports/news, tactical articles and a good community of passionate and funny commenters. Just subscribe to it in google reader and read whatever takes yer fancy. The best way to learn more is to jump on in, it's hard to understand the ins and outs from a forum post - due to my family's general fanaticism I've been following Spurs and (what is now) premiership football since I was in the womb and I still find some of the descriptions above confusing :)
posted by jamesonandwater at 4:38 PM on October 1, 2012

I have to pedant a bit:

In professional club football, teams from England and Wales are entered into a series of leagues.

Wales has its own league. For 'historical reasons' (that I don't actually know), Swansea and Cardiff are in the so-called English pyramid.

if the Football Association (the governing body for football in the UK)

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own FA (and separate league pyramids). Frustratingly (but for reasons you can readily imagine), the Northern Irish FA is called the Irish Fooball Association and the Republic of Ireland's is called the Football Association of Ireland (I think this may be why the Republic of Ireland gets called 'the Republic of Ireland' in football but not in other contexts).

The four British FAs is actually why having a Team GB for the Olympics was a big deal--the Olympic committee belongs to Great Britain, but FIFA doesn't know Great Britain exists and they run the qualifying. (In fact, the FIFA statues specify England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as separate members.) But the Olympic tournament isn't actually something people particularly care about. I just like that piece of trivia.

Similarly, there's some rule I don't quite understand about who can represent what country because the teams don't represent entities that issue passports (the usual standard). (I think the rule is you can play for where you, your parents and your grandparents were born, but I'm not positive. In practice, England can snag a lot of the better players.)

Since no one's plugged it, you'd learn a lot listening to Football Weekly.
posted by hoyland at 4:40 PM on October 1, 2012

Are they basically competing in multiple cups/leagues simultaneously?

Yes. The big money however is in a good place in the league, and qualification for the European champions league, which is why you often see teams put out largely young or reserve teams for the cup and (lesser European competition) Europa League. Us supporters like winning cups and if you have the opportunity a cup final is a wonderful day out but premiership teams are often in a surprisingly precarious financial position and if they have a shot at qualifying for the champions league need to put everything into that effort. This also helps them keep their best players (eg Luka Modric leaving Tottenham when they only got into the Europa league).

And explain how free agency/lending works.

I don't really follow US sport, does this mean transfers? There are "transfer windows" in the summer and in january when premiership teams can buy and sell new players and register them. If a players contract runs out without renewal he can move on a free transfer, for example Stoke picking up striker Michael Owen who was without a contract since Man Utd let him go. Sometimes if it looks like a player will not renew they sell him a year ahead so as to make some money - for example Van Persie going from Arsenal to Man Utd. Of late, some players are forcing transfers when they want to leave by whining to the press, missing training and other tomfoolery eg Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona and Modric as mentioned above, creating much consternation among fans and the tabloids calling them spoiled millionaires who should do their jobs. Teams (usually the big ones who have good reserves) can "loan out" young players to other teams so they get experience.
posted by jamesonandwater at 4:54 PM on October 1, 2012

If a players contract runs out without renewal he can move on a free transfer, for example Stoke picking up striker Michael Owen who was without a contract since Man Utd let him go.

The Bosman ruling in 1995 introduced what Americans would recognise as free agency to European football. However, it's generally not as significant a factor, partly because of the lack of a draft system and salary cap, mainly because clubs can get large sums of cash money for parting company with a player still under contract, as opposed to trading existing contracts. This creates incentives for clubs and players either to extend a contract with a year remaining or seek a transfer, as happened with Robin van Persie over the summer -- by announcing that he wouldn't re-sign, he implicitly forced Arsenal's hand. It's against league rules for clubs to approach in-contract players, but there are subtle (and less subtle) ways to declare interest on both sides.

Most players who make it to "free agency" are surplus to their club's requirements and aren't considered worth a transfer fee; others, for some reason, have failed to negotiate a new contract that they expected to receive -- a change of ownership or management, relegation, injury, etc. Some do take advantage of their post-Bosman freedom to demand higher wages from a new club, and it's probably extended the earning potential of older players with life in their legs, but it's never going to be the jackpot that it is in the US.
posted by holgate at 7:24 PM on October 1, 2012

A little late to this, but the website that helped me understand soccer was zonalmarking. It's not updated as much as it use to be due to the writer now writing articles for ESPN & the Guardian, but the emphasis on tactics really helped me understand why certain players were positioned where they were and why things happened the way they do. Before that, it just seemed like a bunch of guys running around and kicking the ball.
posted by nolnacs at 7:09 AM on October 2, 2012

Oh, on the subject of lack of parity (well, sort of), you may want to read about Financial Fair Play. (It's worth noting that lack of parity is not necessarily a bad thing, at least in moderation. Parity is one of the (granted, many) things that makes the NFL unappealing to me.) I also want to point out that the Bundesliga is actually quite competitive, so it's not like every European league is horribly lopsided. There are certainly seasons when Bayern just run away with it, but plenty of years when they don't. If I counted properly, of the 18 teams in the Bundesliga, 7 weren't there in 2008/2009 (to pick a random year)--teams come up and stay up. (Of course that's because Hertha do things like finish fourth and then get relegated the next year. Oops.)
posted by hoyland at 7:41 AM on October 2, 2012

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