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How to talk about the World Cup and sound reasonably smart
[NEW YORK] The 2018 World Cup started Thursday. You may not be the world's biggest soccer fan, but you want to at least pretend, right? Here is how to sound smart wherever you might be watching the matches.
Where is this thing, anyway?
This year's tournament is in Russia. The first game, on Thursday, between the host and Saudi Arabia, was in Moscow. Over the next month, games will be played in 11 cities: as far east as Yekaterinburg (which is closer to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, than it is to Moscow) and as far north as St Petersburg.
The time difference means most games will be broadcast between early morning and late afternoon in the United States.
Know who's playing... and who's not
Let's start here: The United States is not playing in Russia. A change in coaches and the lack of a consistent lineup led to a ragged qualifying period for the team, and an October loss to Trinidad and Tobago (and Honduras' win over Mexico) sealed its fate.
Italy and the Netherlands, perennial soccer superpowers, did not qualify this year, either. Other than that, all the big teams are here: Germany, Spain, France, Argentina, Brazil and England, which has not made much noise in international soccer for several decades.
The 32 teams are organised into eight four-team groups. Each team plays three matches, against its group members. The top two teams from each group advance to an elimination stage, at which point each match becomes a must-win.
Pick a team
It's easier to know a lot about a single country's team than it is to know a little about every team in the tournament, and no one expects you to know every player on every team.
Attractive potential options include:
Iceland - The least populous country ever to qualify for the Cup.
Colombia - A fun, flashy team with a politically divided nation united behind it.
Brazil - Eager to avenge a 7-1 loss to Germany at home in the 2014 World Cup semifinal.
Peru - A squad that hasn't been back since 1982 and has great uniforms.
Spot the rising stars
Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Lionel Messi of Argentina are the two most recognisable athletes on the planet, but this is likely the last World Cup for both of them. Their spots at the top of the game continue to be threatened by this group:
Neymar: The Brazilian attacker is 26 and already tied for third on his country's career scoring list, a testament to his skill with the ball. (He goes by a single name, as is traditional for the country's biggest soccer stars.) He was injured toward the end of his club season, but if his goal against Austria in Brazil's last tuneup before the World Cup is any indication, he will be fine.
Mo Salah: The ferociously fast Egyptian winger was the English Premier League player of the year, netting 44 goals in all competitions last season. He, too, is coming off an injury, strained shoulder tendons suffered during the recent Champions League final, but is likely to play in Egypt's first game, against Uruguay, on Friday, when he turns 26. He may be talented enough to take a relatively weak Egyptian team into the knockout stages for the first time.
Kevin De Bruyne: The Belgian, 26, is probably the best player on a talented Belgian team that most soccer experts expect to go far this year. He plays midfield, and his biggest contribution is making sure a game is played at the pace his team needs.
A brief and arbitrary glossary for the uninitiated
So you want to hang with true soccer fans? Memorise some key phrases about how teams approach the game or that can be used to describe in-game moments, and you'll be golden.
Tiki-taka:Playing a possession game with short passes between players arranged in a series of connected triangles. Usage: "Spain's tiki-taka style is going to be tough for Portugal to defend against."
Route one: Some teams prefer the directness of playing a long ball over the heads of defensive players to attackers who are sprinting at full speed. At its best, it can produce a goal of superb quality. Usage: "England's really getting desperate if they're resorting to route one."
Kit: What soccer people call uniforms.
Dive: A flop, in which a player acts as if he has been fouled or injured when, in fact, he hasn't.
Joga bonito: The unofficial catchphrase of the Brazilian national team. It has used the phrase to describe soccer that is played more as a form of artistic expression than as a sport.
The offside rule: An attacking player cannot be the first to touch the ball if there are not at least two opposing players (one usually being the goalkeeper) between him and the goal when the ball is passed to him.
Catenaccio: A lockdown defensive style associated with Italy and used with great success in its 2006 World Cup title. As mentioned, Italy will be absent from this Cup, but some of the less skilled teams may take cues from the approach.
You've chosen your team and you can discuss Salah's highlight reel. Inevitably there will be some soccer nerd who does know every player on every team. Ask that person questions!
Sports fans love to talk about all the sports knowledge they've acquired. And maybe, after taking all these steps, you'll know enough to argue with that person about, say, the colour of Saudi Arabia's kit.
After all, developing the knowledge it takes to argue with pretty much anyone about trivia is what sports is really all about.