The World Cup boiled down to a preschool primer
Unless you’ve been living inside a vegetable crisper for the past couple weeks, then you’re probably aware that the World Cup is going on. This is a massive, global event, initially involving 32 nations and billions of fans worldwide, and I am a big, big fan.
A lot of Americans have gotten swept up in World Cup fever and have happily jumped on the bandwagon of the U.S. team, which defied all odds to beat out higher-rated competition en route to the second round of the tournament. But there are a lot of people out there who don’t understand the game, and may be at a loss to explain it to their kids. True, it’s a remarkably simple game involving two teams, one ball and only one objective (put ball in other team’s goal). However, there are some confusing things, like refs who wear a different color shirt at every game, strange rules and colorful plastic cards.
To get to the bottom of all this, I’m going to break down a few key soccer concepts in very simple terms. In fact, I’ll explain them how I would to my kids, who are four, three and 19 months. If you don’t get it after reading this, then I simply can’t help you. So here you go, soccer in a pre-school package. I challenge you not to enjoy the World Cup now!
Referees. A soccer match has three referees (one on the field and two linesmen who patrol the sidelines), plus a mysterious “fourth official” who has the unenviable task of keeping the two team benches in line, holding up a big digital sign during substitutions and generally being the other refs’ bitch. The refs wear a color that contrasts with both teams’ jerseys, but that color could change from game to game. It’s the only sport I know where the officiating crew could be wearing fluorescent yellow or hot pink, and you’re still supposed to take them seriously.
How to explain the referees to your kids: “Referees are like parents. They are out there to make sure everyone behaves and no one gets into a fight people don’t fight too much.”
Cards. “Getting carded” is not the same thing as when you were trying to sneak into a bar when you were 19. It’s a system for cautioning players and, ultimately, ejecting them if they persistently misbehave. A yellow card is a warning. A red card is an ejection from the game. Two yellow cards equal a red. I’ve decided to implement this disciplinary system at my house. The bright colors and clear consequences have resonated with the kids. Only, it’s a little hard to explain when a neighbor walks by and asks my four-year-old son why he is sitting in the front yard by himself, and he explains, “I got red carded.”
How to explain cards to your kids: “When the players misbehave, the ref shows them a yellow card as a warning. If they keep being bad listeners, then they get a red card and have to spend the rest of the game in a timeout.”
Diving. Also known as “taking a dive.” No, not literally, although sometimes it looks like it. Diving is both a curious art form and an absolute plague on the game. It’s when an offensive player falls down intentionally, and melodramatically, in an attempt to get a foul called on a defensive player. If you’ve seen a two-year-old throw himself on the floor in a wild tantrum, flop around like a fish out of water, scream, cry, and display all manner of unnecessary histrionics to get his way about something, well, then you’re familiar with the concept behind “taking a dive.” Oddly enough, the toddler tantrum scene is eerily similar to watching Italy in the World Cup. Eerily similar.
How to explain diving to your kids: “Diving is for pools, not soccer fields. Some people don’t play fair. Don’t let those people play with your soccer ball.”
Penalty kick. This is often the intended result of a dive. A penalty kick, also known as a spot kick or PK, occurs when an offensive player is fouled inside the penalty box. The penalty box is a space on the field that extends 18 yards on either side of the goal post, and 18 yards out into the field. If a diver gets into the penalty box, look out, ‘cause he’s going down if you look at him sideways. If the ref awards a penalty kick, the ball is placed on a spot 12 yards in front of the goal, and an offensive player gets to take a shot on the goalkeeper from there.
How to explain a penalty kick to your kids: “The penalty box is like this house. Do not hit, kick, trip, bite, push or spit on anyone in this area. If you do, that person gets to kick a soccer ball at you from a close distance.”
Shootout. No, not what happens in a Sao Paulo favela after a World Cup game. A shootout is an unsavory ending to a game that remains tied all the way through regulation and 30 minutes of overtime. That’s 120 minutes of full-throttle soccer—and professional soccer has very limited substitutions, so most players are on the field for that entire time. During the course of an overtime game, the average player runs about 217 miles at a dead sprint. As much as we’d all like to see the fellas finish it on the field, you can only expect the human body to run so much. So after two hours of straight soccer, you have a shootout, which is a series of penalty kicks (see above) until one team finally scores more goals than the other. Not very satisfying, but trust me, very necessary.
How to explain a shootout to your kids: “This is how you and your sister will settle arguments from now on. Whoever scores more goals in a shootout gets the toy. End of story. Any whining about the result, and you get a red card. Now go in the other room and play. Daddy is watching the World Cup.”