Lake Norman Sports Report: World Cup Soccer

BY JOHN P. CHANDLER

Okay, I know you just had a huge binge at the end of November.  You consumed so much that you became numb and probably fell asleep.

No, I’m not talking about the Thanksgiving meal; I’m talking about watching football. If you’re a sports fan (and even if you’re not), your Thanksgiving meal was likely accompanied by football from noon (looking at you, Detroit Lions) through the afternoon (that’s you, Dallas Cowboys) all the way to midnight.  The Friday and Saturday after seeing you gorge on college football’s rivalry week games, and Sunday into Monday brought the weekly slate of NFL games.

Football gluttony! (I admit – guilty as charged.)

However, this month of this year, we turn our attention from football to futbol. In the U.S., we call it soccer, but in the rest of the world, it is known as futbol, or – wait for it – “the beautiful game.” When it comes to the most popular sport in the world, it’s no contest: American football finishes a distant second to the game you actually play with your feet.

The men’s World Cup is played every four years and has been since 1930. (The ninth women’s World Cup will play in 2023.) Nations compete fiercely to host the World Cup, with Qatar winning the bid to become the first Arab nation ever to host.  Hosting involves building or retrofitting large stadium venues and matches become one of the toughest tickets in the world – and the host nation automatically makes the field. Hosting is not without controversy, as there are often allegations of bid-rigging and a track record of labor abuses in host nations. Expect some legitimate protests, and heads-up: the U.S., along with Canada and Mexico, is slated to host the 2026 tournament.

Here are a few fast facts you should know about the World Cup:

– Thirty-two teams have been competing for two years to qualify (the 2026 field expands to 48).
– “Group play” features eight pods of four teams. Winners of the pods go on to a single-elimination playoff. The most difficult of these pods is invariably labeled the “Group of Death.” Dramatic, just like futbol itself.
– Normally the cup is played in June-July, but the desert heat of Qatar has pushed it to November 20-December 18, an unprecedented shift.
– It’s a bit of a stereotype, but styles of play can reflect cultural norms. Latin American teams can play an improvisational style featuring individual brilliance and flair, whereas European teams tend to play a very structured, organized style of futbol.
– You will be hard-pressed to find more passionate fans, and nationalist fervor runs high in these matches. Security is tight for a reason.
– Futbol features a different vocabulary: what Americans call uniforms are now “kits;” the field is the “pitch.” There are unique customs: players walk onto the field holding the hands of children and faking injury is generally accepted as part of the sport. I used to mock this one, until I remembered how much I watched and enjoyed professional ‘rasslin’ when I was growing up. Now, I’m used to seeing a player who has been slightly tripped to look like he’s been taken down by enemy fire, then be carried off on a stretcher and return to play within about 30 seconds, as if the whole thing never happened.

So, if you’ve never watched soccer/futbol, grab a knowledgeable fan (friend, kid, grandkid) and watch together. If you are already a fan of the World Cup, as I am, prepare for some hard decisions. Personally, I have tickets to the UNC-State football game, which is scheduled at the same exact time as the U.S.-England World Cup match.

These things call for prayer!

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