Your water cooler guide to the World Cup

BY Robert Pursell  June 6, 2014 at 6:26 PM EDT
The World Cup is truly the world's event. Billions are expected to watch this year's competition in Brazil, where the host country's fans will settle for nothing less than a championship. Photo from Flickr user Peter Fuchs

The World Cup is truly the world’s event. Billions are expected to watch this year’s competition in Brazil, where the host country’s fans will settle for nothing less than a championship. Photo from Flickr user Peter Fuchs

Are you an American struggling to understand the hype behind the World Cup? You’re not alone. In fact, a recent Reuters poll showed that 86 percent of all Americans said they know little to nothing about soccer’s biggest event, while two-thirds of all polled said they didn’t know it was being held in Brazil this year.

Not to worry though, we’re here to help.

What is the World Cup?

The World Cup is an international soccer tournament that pits 32 national teams against each other for the top title. This happens every four years.

The 32 countries are chosen through a two-year qualifying process. Here’s how it works: countries are grouped according to geographic location into one of six international soccer confederations. They are the CONCACAF (Central & Northern American teams), CONMEBOL (South American teams), CAF (African teams), UEFA (European teams), AFC (Asian teams), and the OFC (Oceania teams).

Within these confederations, member countries compete in qualification tournaments for entry into the World Cup. Confederations are allotted a guaranteed number of spots in the World Cup, with one of the 32 spots always reserved for the host nation. The number of entries each confederation is granted varies greatly though. Oceania, for example, has no guaranteed entries, whereas Europe has 13. (USA finished first this year in the CONCACAF qualification, earning the team a spot.)

The 32 teams are then randomly drafted into groups of four. Within their groups, those teams play three matches each, and the two teams with the top aggregate performances in each group advance to the knockout round of 16. From then on, each match is sudden death through the finals.

Just how big is the World Cup exactly?

Massive. It’s hard to quantify its importance internationally, but for to put it in perspective, think about Super Bowl Sunday. Last year’s Super Bowl was the most watched television event in United States history, drawing 111.5 million viewers, certainly not a paltry sum. That is, until you compare it to the World Cup.

The live broadcast of the 2010 World Cup Final between Spain and the Netherlands drew an estimated 909.6 million viewers from around the globe. The tournament as a whole reached more than 3.2 billion viewers, the equivalent of 46.4 percent of the world population, and the average viewership for a live match was 188.4 million viewers, meaning that a group stage match between New Zealand and Slovakia in 2010 likely drew more viewers than the 2014 Super Bowl.

But it’s not just the number of spectators. To understand soccer’s impact on the global stage you have to understand their passion.

Following its 2010 World Cup victory, Spain saw an upswing in nationalism. For a country with strong separationist ideologies, specifically in the Catalonia region where an intense independence movement has been underway for decades, the sight of some 75,000 fans waving the Spanish national flag in the Catalan capital of Barcelona was hailed as a welcome moment of national identity.

Its more than just spirits that are lifted, but, some argue, fertility rates too. Nine months after the soccer club FC Barcelona won three major titles in May 2009, February birth rates in Catalonia jumped 16 percent. That baby boom is now referred to as “The Iniesta Generation” in honor of the Barcelonan midfielder Andres Iniesta.

A World Cup victory has been known to boost the nation’s economy. Goldman Sachs found that victorious countries’ stocks outperform the global market by an average of 3.5 percent in the month following a World Cup victory, and can experience growth of about 0.7 percent on their national GDP. In 2006 to 2007, for instance, Italy saw its GDP increase more than $250 billion following its World Cup victory.

What do I need to know about the U.S. team and our chances?

First the good news: the United States has a great soccer team this year. The U.S. squad is currently the 13th ranked team in the world by soccer’s governing body, FIFA. While FIFA’s rankings are notoriously fickle and plagued with irregularities, the team’s results don’t lie. The United States has compiled a record of 30 wins to 11 losses and eight draws under the tutelage of German-born coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The team, filled with young talent, has played faster and more aggressively with Klinsmann at the helm. Since Klinsmann took over in 2011, the U.S. has defeated a four-time World Cup champion for the first time ever, earned its first-ever win against Mexico on Mexican soil and defeated then second-ranked Germany early last summer.

Now the bad news: the U.S. got really, really unlucky with its schedule. Remember how the 32 teams are drafted into random groups that compete to make it to the knockout round? Well, the U.S. got placed in Group G along with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. Germany is currently the oddsmaker’s third-favorite pick to win it all, while Portugal is the sixth-favorite. As for Ghana: they’ve ended the United States World Cup dreams in the last two World Cups, eliminating the U.S.’s chances to advance out of the group stages in 2006 and then kicking them out of the round of 16 in 2010. There’s a reason Group G has been dubbed “The Group of Death”: its four teams have the best combined FIFA rankings of all the groups.

Still, despite the ominous draw, there’re plenty of reasons to be excited for the United States in Brazil. Simply advancing out of the group stage would be a great accomplishment for the U.S. and help the sport’s burgeoning popularity.

So when do we play?

The U.S. opens its campaign against Ghana on June 16 at 6 p.m. EDT. It follows that up with a matchup against Portugal on June 22 at 6 p.m. EDT and ends its group stage play against Germany on June 26 at noon EDT. All of these games will be televised on ESPN.