Beginner’s Guide to the World Cup Soccer Tournament

By Matt Jones, World Soccer Talk

If you aren’t really into soccer, I can’t begin to imagine how strange this time of year must be for you. Whilst the rest of the planet—quite literally—is (watching) the World Cup, here’s your chance to get up to speed on the world’s most watched sports competition.

The meeting of different cultures, the vibrant color, the fervent fandom and the unhinged passion are all unique facets that make the World Cup an unyieldingly gripping spectacle. It’s a feast of top-class sport played at the very highest level. There’s no other event that produces such a packed schedule of encapsulating action.

If you’ve never watched the finals before or never been that into soccer, it must be difficult to get it like the rest of us. And you might be thinking that you’ve missed the boat again.

But fear not, there’s still time to unashamedly jump on the World Cup bandwagon, we can absolute guarantee it. We’ve got you covered with all the basics when it comes to getting you up to speed with the tournament format so you can enjoy the 2014 World Cup in Brazil to its full capacity.

Group Stage

25-Donovan-600x429The World Cup is comprised of eight groups, each containing four teams. Typically, the hosts open the tournament with the first game, but occasionally the holders can kick things off, like France did against Senegal in 2002. With the pressure on, there can be some pretty spectacular results.

In the group, each team plays the other one time. A win will get you three points, a draw will get you one and naturally a defeat will get you zero. The top two teams from each group will qualify for the second round.

If two teams are tied on points, the side with the superior goal difference—the number of goals scored subtracted by the number of goals conceded—will progress.

The final two fixtures in the group stage are played at the same time, meaning that we can get some pretty dramatic moments as sides battle to make it to the last-16. The most exciting group stage finale in recent years was when Landon Donovan scored an injury time winner against Algeria to send the United States team into the knockout stages.

Knockout StageDavid-Villa

The knockout format will see a team that finishes top of their group play a team that has finished second in theirs. So for example, the winner of Group A will player the runner-up in Group B, whilst the winner of Group B will play the runner-up of Group A.

Here’s the full tournament bracket for this year’s competition to provide you with a better understanding of how this works:

bracket-600x363Aside from that, it’s all pretty self-explanatory. If you win you go through, if you lose you go home. Win four knockout games in a row, and you’re the world champions.

At this point, winning is all that matters; in the 2010 tournament, Spain won all of their knockout games 1-0 on the way to the World Cup final. They eventually won the trophy after another 1-0 win, but that was after extra-time.


If a knockout game is tied after 90 minutes, then the game will go to extra time. That involves 30 extra minutes where a winner can be decided. If a team is leading at the end of extra time, then they’ll progress.

With players jaded and managers often throwing caution to the wind, the game can be without rhythm or pattern. And that typically gives way to some extraordinary spells of soccer. In the 2006 semi-final, Italy scored two late, late goals in a frenetic extra 30-minute spell.



If the scores are level after 120 minutes of action, the game goes to a penalty shootout to determine who progresses to the next round, or if the final is level after 120 minutes, to decide who lifts the trophy.

BaggioThe shootout sees each team take five penalty kicks and whoever has scored the most at the end of the five kicks go through. If the score is level after five kicks, it goes to sudden death, where each team gets an extra kick. If one team scores, then other misses—or vice-versa—the team that scores will go through.

The World Cup final has only ever been decided on penalties twice, both times involving the Italian national team. Roberto Baggio missed the crucial kick in the 1994 tournament, but the Azzurri won the trophy via this dramatic deciding method in 2006, with Fabio Grosso netting the winning strike.

SEE MORE — Everything you need to know about the World Cup including TV schedules, previews and more.

About Matt Jones

Matt Jones is an Everton supporter living in Merseyside, England. He has a enormous passion for the Toffees and travels far and wide to watch them in action. Not to mention an significant interest in all aspects of European football. Completely at ease with the fact he is a football nerd, Matt has a huge interest in tactical and statistical side of the game. Matt’s writing has featured on Soccerlens, Bleacher Report and in the Liverpool Echo. Follow him on Twitter for more football chatter @MattJFootball View all posts by Matt Jones

(World Soccer Talk)