Wesley Sneijder and Lionel Messi don't play college football but are still fun to watch. (Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
There is no law (we think) that says football fans can’t enjoy fútbol. With the World Cup starting on Thursday, if you haven’t gotten excited yet, now is the perfect time to start. Soccer combines some of the things college football fans enjoy most -- eating, drinking and getting irrationally angry over officiating -- and really emphasizes the kicking game, something we all like to obsess over every once in a while.
I’m no expert. I try watch the occasional Premier League match, and I pay close attention during the World Cup. But I’m not nearly as well-versed as others. So, I turned to Planet Fútbol contributor Liviu Bird to explain why college football fans should focus on Brazil for the next few weeks.
SI: Let's assume I'm a football fan who knows nothing about the World Cup. Why should I spend my offseason watching a sport where people aren't getting tackled or wearing helmets and pads?
LB: Soccer is a surprisingly physical game for those who enjoy that aspect of it. You'll surely see some physical play, such as when the Netherlands played Spain in the 2010 final. Nigel de Jong got away with what is now considered an infamous karate kick to the chest on Xabi Alonso, which should have been a straight red card.
For those more aesthetically inclined, the World Cup should offer something different than you see on the gridiron every week. The top teams’ tactical manipulations turn the best World Cup games into chess matches, in which ball movement, decision-making and player IQ take center stage.
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SI: Which team is the soccer equivalent of Alabama? Which is the scrappy BCS-busting underdog?
LB: Host nation Brazil has won a whopping five World Cups and, by virtue of hosting this year's tournament, is favored to win a sixth. (Host nations have won six World Cups since the first in 1930.) The Samba boys often play some of the most attractive soccer on the planet, and they will surely look to impress on home soil. Keep in mind, the Seleção also won its fourth Confederations Cup last summer, which is kind of a dress rehearsal for the World Cup.
A number of teams have come close to winning the World Cup but have fallen short. The biggest footballing nation to have never won is probably the Netherlands, which lost in the final for the third time in 2010. Spain won its first World Cup in ‘10, and the tiki-taka nation holds the World Cup and last two European Championships at the moment, making it the most successful country of late. However, a European team has never won a World Cup in the Americas. Look for other South American teams to give valiant efforts in Brazil, especially Argentina.
SI: What are we supposed to eat and drink during the World Cup? Where should I go to watch?
LB: Beer, and lots of it. Never mind the early kickoffs on the West Coast; soccer fans are known for drinking at all hours of the day. Traditional food varies depending on the country, but you can never go wrong with tacos when watching Mexico and bratwurst when watching Germany. As such, the best place to watch will be at the bar. You're sure to find a combination of American fans and passionate expats wearing jerseys and screaming at the top of their lungs.
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SI: Which soccer players would make the best football players? What positions would they play?
LB: The soccer/football divide is wider than it seems. Most soccer players aren't known as particularly physical specimens, and hardly any would seem to possess the pure strength necessary to play such a brutal sport. Most teams focus more on technical and tactical training rather than on 40-yard dash times and bench press reps. I can't say with any degree of certainty who among the world-class soccer players would be good at American football. It just requires a different skill set.
SI: College football fans get really mad when referees screw up, but soccer fans seem have that problem on an entirely different level. Is that accurate?
LB: After seeing the replacement refs blow the Monday Night Football call in the Seahawks-Packers game a couple of years ago, I would say refereeing controversies are about equal in both sports. Since soccer is low scoring, the most vital blown calls involve would-be goals. This will be the first World Cup with goal-line technology, so we should finally see fewer mistakes. Hopefully, that will allow refs to focus on their duties elsewhere on the field, thereby reducing levels of fan angst.
SI: If soccer had a Heisman Trophy, which players would earn trips to New York? Who are some players "real fans" love who don't get enough attention?
LB: Soccer's version of the Heisman is the Ballon d'Or (Golden Ball), awarded annually to the best player in the world. The 2013 winner, Cristiano Ronaldo, will play against the U.S. with Portugal, so fans will get a taste of just what makes him so special. Lionel Messi, who plays for Barcelona, has been criticized in the past for not playing as well for Argentina as he does for his club side, but he should be primed for a good tournament in his home continent.
Another Group G opponent, Germany, is home to a couple of players who don’t seem to get enough respect from casual fans. Philipp Lahm is one of the smartest players in the world, and he rarely fails to complete a pass. Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller are also fun to watch.
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SI: The chanting and the songs and the scarves. We love them. Where did these traditions start? Are there any that you absolutely hate?
LB: Soccer traditions have been around for so long that it feels like they’ve always been part of the game. Chanting and singing are as engrained in soccer as painted faces and bare beer bellies in 20-degree weather are in football. Every nation has its own customs, including the much-maligned vuvuzela at the World Cup in South Africa. They're all charming in their own way, although the drone of those horns did get annoying after a while.
The only things worth truly hating are the soccer incidents involving racism that seem fairly common these days. The Spanish league feels like the most frequent location of racist chants and fan actions recently, although isolated incidents break out all over the world.
SI: Why have all these qualifiers? Wouldn't having a committee select the best teams be more ideal? Or better yet, why not have writers and coaches vote on the best teams in the World Cup, and then use some complex algorithms to magically spit out who should play in the final?
LB: More than any other sport, soccer cannot be played on paper. No computer would have told you that Greece would win the 2004 European Championship, but it did. Any team can win on any given day, depending on how they set up for success. Even teams that are completely outclassed on paper can find ways to win if they manipulate the game to their advantage.
If there is anything fans would not change about our game, it's that feeling of hope and wonder than comes with watching an underdog like the U.S. defeat Spain, as it did during the 2009 Confederations Cup. That U.S. team made it all the way to the final of that tournament and led Brazil at halftime before eventually falling, 3-2. No computer would ever produce that kind of match.
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