2014 World Cup soccer: A beginner's guide

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chris-wondolowski-us-world-cup-2014.jpgThe 2014 World Cup kicks off Thursday (June 12), running for 64 matches over 32 days in Brazil. If you're interested in what is one of the most-watched sporting events in the world but don't exactly know where to start, Zap2it is here to help.

This isn't a primer about the rules of soccer, mind you. For that, check out this handy guide courtesy of the Upper Dublin Soccer Club. But here are some important things to know for the 2014 World Cup.

  • There are 32 countries participating. The World Cup pool starts with nearly every country in the world fielding a team, with the World Cup qualifying matches for 2014 beginning back in 2011. Over the ensuing three years, the field was whittled down to 32.
  • The first stage of the World Cup is the group play. The 32 teams were divided into eight four-team groups, with the seven top-seeded teams plus the host country (Brazil, in this case) divided evenly among the eight groups and the other 24 teams randomly drawn from three pots that were divided up geographically -- this means your team is unlikely to be facing its next-door neighbor (i.e., the countries from its home association, like North/Central America, South America, Africa, Europe, etc.) in group play.
  • The group play is round robin-style. Each team plays its other three group members and the top two teams from each group advance to the round of 16. If there are ties in terms of overall record (and there frequently are), tiebreakers fall to things like total points scored, goal differential, etc.
  • A common term you're going to hear in the group play is the Group of Death. This year, that term applies to the U.S. group because it is generally considered the toughest. The U.S. drew one of the top seeds in Germany; the also-highly seeded Portugal; and Ghana, the team that knocked the U.S. out of both the 2006 and 2010 World Cup tournaments.
  • We don't mean to be negative Nellies, but there's a real chance the U.S. squad doesn't make it out of group play, so be prepared for that if your main interest is watching/rooting for the U.S.
  • But if the U.S. is not your only reason for watching, some other clubs to keep your eye on include the aforementioned Germany, the defending World Cup champs Spain, the 2006 champs France, 2010 runners-up the Netherlands, 2010 semi-finalists Uruguay and England (as a bit of a dark horse).
  • Once the group play is over, the World Cup works the same way as any tournament, like March Madness, for instance. There's the round of 16, the elite 8, the final four and the championship game. The two semi-final losing teams also play each other for third place.
  • When watching, do not be dismayed if it looks like players are diving to the ground feigning injuries in order to stop play. It's a common practice in soccer, though some teams are worse than others -- you will hardly ever see a German or Italian player flopping. On the bright side, the referees have gotten much more stringent about giving out penalties for diving.
  • A good tip if you're not an avid fan but don't want to miss the big plays: Pay attention to the announcers. Not only do they know their stuff, but their dynamics and timbre rises quickly when something is happening. So, when the announcers sound excited, look up at the screen because something exciting might be on the horizon.

The 2014 World Cup starts with Brazil facing off against Croatia Thursday, June 12 at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT on ESPN. The first U.S. match is Monday, June 16 when they face Ghana at 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT on ESPN.
Photo/Video credit: Getty Images