In this June 2, 2012 file photo, Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates with Gonzalo Higuain after scoring against Ecuador during a World Cup 2014 qualifying soccer game in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Extensive qualifying campaigns. The opaque World Cup draw. And how do points (no, we don't mean goals) work, anyway? The logistics and technicalities of Earth's biggest sporting event can be a bit mystifying to the soccer newbie. That's where we come in.
Here's how the World Cup works.
There are three general phases to the World Cup: qualifying, group play and the knockout stage. Now let's go into more detail.
- Each World Cup's host country qualifies automatically. Everyone else in the 32-team field must earn their berth by playing matches against other teams from their region of the globe during a qualification process that begins about three years before the actual World Cup.
- Separate qualifying regions, called confederations, are determined by FIFA, world soccer's governing body. They cover: Africa; Europe; Asia; North America, Central America and the Caribbean; South America; and the South Pacific.
- The number of teams each region gets to send to the World Cup depends on its overall size and quality.
- The 32-team field in this year's World Cup was culled from an initial field of more than 200 nations.
How groups are determined
- Before the World Cup's 16-team knockout stage begins, teams first have to navigate group play, which this year begins on June 12. There are eight groups of four teams in this year's World Cup, identified by the letters A through H.
- Groups are determined by a semi-random draw that aims to evenly spread the qualified teams in terms of quality and geography. This means that, say, the first-place teams from Europe, Africa, South American and Asia don't all end up in the same group, or that a group consists mostly of European teams, for example. But a truly even spread of talent is, of course, impossible — so the draw ends up playing an important role in determining teams' World Cup chances.
- The 2014 World Cup draw took place in a televised event that was broadcast in 193 countries on Dec. 6 of last year.
What is the "Group of Death"?
- The "Group of Death" refers to a group (or sometimes groups) with an exceptionally difficult 4-team draw. Being in a "Group of Death" most adversely affects mid-ranked teams lumped in with 2 exceptional teams and so are unlikely to pass out of the group stage. (For an example, see the U.S. World Cup draw this year.)
How group play works
- Each group has four teams. Each team plays three matches during group play — one against each of the three other teams in its group.
- The top two finishers from each group move on to the World Cup's single-elimination tournament bracket. The bottom two finishers go home. So you really need to finish in the top two.
- Scoring in soccer is more complicated than simple wins and loses, however. When a World Cup team wins a group-play match, it's awarded three points. When it ties, it's awarded one point. A loss does not earn any points. A team's total number of points, not its simple win-loss record, determines its spot in the group standings.
- In the event of a tie between countries after group play concludes, FIFA's complicated tie-breaker procedures (found on p. 50 here) determine who moves on.
How knockout stage match-ups are determined
- The top two finishers in each of the World Cup's eight groups qualify for the knockout stage, filling out its 16-team bracket.
- The first-place team in Group A plays the second-place team in Group B, and vice versa. The first-place team in Group C plays the second-place team in Group D, and so on for all eight groups.
The road to the World Cup Final
- Once the round of 16 is determined, the World Cup becomes a standard single-elimination, bracket-style tournament (like March Madness).
- Unlike in group play, however, matches cannot end in a draw. If the score is tied after 90 minutes of regulation time, there are two extra periods of 15 minutes each. If the score is still tied after that, it's time for a penalty shoot-out; each manager gets to select five players from his squad to go mano-a-mano against the opposing goalie.
- After one round, the 16-team field is winnowed to eight. Then eight teams become four, then four become two. Those two will play in the 2014 World Cup Final, to be held on July 13 in Rio de Janeiro's legendary Maracana stadium.
- Whoever wins that match becomes immortalized in soccer history.
And now you know how the World Cup works. The 2014 World Cup kicks off on June 12.