Soccer for Dummies: All the terms you need to know ahead of the World Cup

For millions of soccer fans around the globe, the 31 days between World Cup opener and World Cup final represent the greatest month of every four years. For millions of other sports fans, however, it’s the only month every four years when soccer exists.

And while we here at FC Yahoo would love if you stuck around for the three-year, 11-month interims, we understand. We welcome all comers to soccer fandom. And we cherish your interest – so much so that we’re here to help you, the casual soccer fan, understand the beautiful game.

That’s why we’ve put together a fun little three-part series, entitled Soccer for Dummies. The goal is to foster both understanding and enjoyment of the sport. Part 1 will clue you in on soccer’s terminology and linguistic quirks. Part 2 explains the rules of the game. Part 3 breaks down tactics, and the diverse styles of play you’ll see in Russia this summer.

So without further ado … Soccer for Dummies, Part 1: Terminology.

The team

We’ll begin with the 22 players on the field – 11-a-side, never more, only occasionally fewer.

  • A team’s starting lineup is often referred to as its starting 11, or XI. If a player is in the team, that means he’s in the 11. If he’s been dropped, he’s been benched.

  • If a player is in the squad, on the other hand, that means he’s on the roster. Squad and roster are interchangeable. At the World Cup, every player on a 23-man roster, but not in his country’s starting 11, is on the bench and available as a substitute.

  • The head coach is more commonly referred to as the manager, because until recently most head coaches of professional teams essentially doubled as GMs.

  • The athletic trainer, as its known in American sports parlance, is often called the physio.


  • The most advanced player in an 11-man team, the one often tasked with scoring goals, is usually a striker. A traditional goalscoring striker will sometimes be refereed to as a No. 9.

  • A false 9, on the other hand, is a player who occupies a traditional striker position but doesn’t perform traditional striker duties. More on that in Soccer for Dummies, Part 3.

  • But be careful – striker and forward aren’t necessary interchangeable. Every striker is a forward. But forwards can also be wingers.

  • A winger is a forward whose starting position is closer to the sideline than the middle of the field. It falls under the forward umbrella. It’s sometimes used to describe wide midfielders, too.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar would both be described as forwards, but not necessarily strikers – though Messi has become one at times during his career. (Getty)
Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar would both be described as forwards, but not necessarily strikers – though Messi has become one at times during his career. (Getty)
  • Midfielder is a general term to describe any player stationed in between forwards and defenders. Some teams play as many as five of them. It often refers to a central midfielder. There are attacking midfieldersNo. 10s – and defensive midfieldersNo. 6s – both of which are pretty self-explanatory. The latter is sometimes called a holding midfielder. In between, there are box-to-box midfielders No. 8s. (More on midfield responsibilities and structures coming in Part 3.)

  • A center back is a central defender. It’s interchangeable with center half, which is an archaic term whose origin we don’t have time to explain.

  • Fullbacks are left-sided or right-sided defenders – left backs or right backs – if a team plays with four defenders. If it plays we three or five, the three closest to the center of the field are all called center backs; the fullbacks become wingbacks – a more attacking designation. The defense, as a whole, can be called a back line.

  • Goalkeeper is often shortened to keeper, or occasionally goalie.

Got all that? Good. Because that’s the easy part.

Now it’s time to become soccer literate – and soccer literacy is much different than overall American sports literacy.

Two words, one meaning

  • Where else to begin but with the great soccer vs. football debate? It’s the subject of a whole dang book, co-authored by the great Stefan Szymanski. Long story short: The term soccer is originally a British one used to distinguish between rugby football and association football – now simply rugby and soccer. It gave way to plain old football toward the middle of the 20th century. But soccer has stuck in countries where another type of football – American or Aussie rules, for example – is the dominant football. Either term is acceptable – or should be acceptable – as long as it’s clear which sport you’re referring to. In the United States, it’s easier to avoid confusion if you use soccer. But you’ll probably hear both.

  • Some other British or soccer-specific words … field and pitch both refer to the playing surface.

  • A stadium is sometimes called a ground.

  • American kids grow up calling soccer shoes cleats. They’re more often called boots.

  • Many Americans abbreviate penalty kick as PK. It’s more often just called a penalty, or pen for short.

  • A clean sheet is the soccer term for a shutout.

  • A brace or double is to two goals what a hat trick is to three.

  • Penalty area, penalty box, 18-yard box, or simply the box all refer to the two areas at either end of the field inside which a goalkeeper can use his hands, and inside which a foul by a defensive player results in a penalty kick.

  • The endline – what in basketball would be called the baseline – is also the byline.

  • The sideline is also the touchline.

  • Soccer uses a running clock. Stoppage time, added time and injury time all refer to the few minutes added on at the end of each half to account for mid-game delays.

  • Not to be confused, however, with extra time, which is the soccer word for overtime. At the World Cup, if teams are tied after 90 minutes in the knockout rounds, the game will go to two 15-minute periods of extra time – and then, if still tied, the dreaded penalty shootout.

One last note here: Brits love to refer to singular nouns that represent groups of people as plural. And it has seeped into soccer verbiage. So don’t be alarmed when you hear that France are struggling to find their rhythm. (We’ll always say “France is …”; others sometimes won’t.)

One word, two meanings

  • *Runs to podium, taps microphone, clears throat* – DO NOT GET CONFUSED BY THE WORD TACKLE. Its meaning in the world’s football is very different from its meaning in American football. It’s not a two-arm throwdown – that, uh, would be a foul. A tackle, in soccer, is simply any attempt by a player to win the ball off an opponent. It could be via a shoulder barge, or a slide, or a poke. They’re all tackles.

  • A “ball” is the round object, of course. But a “ball” is also simply any type of pass. When a commentator exclaims, “What a ball!” or, “Great ball!”, he or she isn’t talking about the object flying across the field, but rather about how it’s flying, the fact that it’s flying, and the human being who kicked it to make it fly.

The game

  • Speaking of balls … a through-ball is a pass that splits opposing defenders and leads a teammate toward goal.

  • A long ball is the scourge of soccer aesthetes. It’s a lofted pass that bypasses both teammates and opponents – and that is often more aimless than purposeful.

  • A 50/50 ball is a pass – or deflected pass, or clearance, etc. – that a player from each team challenges for, with neither clearly favored to gain control of the ball.

  • A cross is any pass – perhaps aiming for a specific player, perhaps not – from a wide attacking area into the center. It is often in the air, but can be on the ground.

  • Corner kicks, often just called corners, are awarded if the ball goes over the end line last touched by the defensive team.

  • Corners, free kicks – the result of fouls – and sometimes even throw-ins – when the ball goes out of bounds on the sideline – all fall under the umbrella of set pieces if they’re used to try to generate goalscoring opportunities. (The antonym here is open play.)

  • If a referee plays advantage, it means he has acknowledged a foul by the defending team, but decided, literally, that the attacking team still has an advantage. Thus, he has allowed the play to continue rather than stopping it for the foul.

  • If a defender is marking an attacker, that’s another way of saying he or she is matching up with the attacker and tracking him or her. It’s a term for off-ball defending.

  • We’ll explain the offside rule in Soccer for Dummies, Part 2.


  • An own goal is a goal accidentally scored by a player against his own team. Or at least we’d hope it was an accident. Otherwise, that’s match-fixing.

  • Golazo, wondergoal and worldie are all terms used to describe incredible goals. Oh, and there are about a dozen others, too.

  • A bicycle kick is this. (And this … Ronaldo would get mad if we didn’t link to his as well.)

  • A scorpion kick is this.

  • A volley is when a player hits a shot straight out of the air. A half-volley is when a player hits a bouncing ball.


Much of this will be expounded upon in Part 3 of this series. But, briefly …

  • You’ll hear a lot about pressing. That just means the defensive team is putting pressure on an opponent with the ball. We’ll get more into pressing in Part 3.

  • You’ll hear about high presses and low blocks, or a team defending deep. In general, high means closer to the goal a team is attacking; deep or low means closer to the goal it’s defending.

  • A counterattack is an offensive move launched immediately after a change of possession.

  • Possession refers to which team has the ball. It’s often tabulated in percentages: If Spain, for example, has had the ball 63 percent of the time it’s been in play, Spain has had 63 percent possession. Some teams play a possession-based style.


  • The referee, or ref, is the one who’s on the field of play and responsible for most or all foul calls.

  • Refs will issue yellow cards – also known as cautions or bookings – and red cards – which, in American sports terms, is the equivalent of an ejection. If a player gets a red card, he is sent off. Two yellow cards in the same game equal a red. More on these in Part 2.

  • There are two assistant referees, or ARs, or linesmen. They run up and down the sideline, midfield to endline. Their primary responsibility is offside calls.

  • The fourth official stands at midfield, holds up an electronic board to signal substitutions, and gets yelled at by both managers.

  • VAR stands for video assistant referee, but has also come to refer to soccer’s new video review system in general. Here’s more. (And here’s an argument about whether VAR sucks.)

  • Goal-line technology, separate from VAR, is an automized system that alerts the referee when the ball has crossed the goal line. It’s great. Think tennis’ Hawk-Eye system.

The World Cup

Lastly, a few words on the World Cup – on its structure, its governance, and its place in the soccer landscape.

  • If we don’t put a year in front of it, we really should be calling them the men’s World Cup and the women’s World Cup. Each occurs every four years. The latter, which features 24 teams as opposed to 32, is next summer. And the U.S. will actually – probably – be participating in that one.

  • FIFA – not to be confused with the video game – is the sport’s international governing body.

  • Six confederations, such as CONCACAF (North and Central America) and UEFA (Europe), operate underneath FIFA.

  • There’s a confusing distinction between the World Cup final and the World Cup finals. If it’s singular, it refers to the game that will decide a champion on July 15. If it’s plural, it refers to what we commonly call the World Cup. The finals distinguish the month-long event from qualifying.

  • The World Cup begins with a group stage – eight groups of four, each a single round robin. The top two in each advance to the knockout rounds. They begin with the Round of 16, when Mexico always loses. Then there are the quarterfinals, when England goes out on penalties. And finally, the semifinals and final to crown a king.

  • A king of international soccer, that is. The vast majority of soccer is played by clubs – the equivalent of American sports franchises like the Golden State Warriors or Philadelphia Eagles. So while the sport’s biggest event is contested by national teams, it’s clubs like Real Madrid and Manchester United that monopolize our attention for much of a four-year World Cup cycle, make a ton of money, and make the sport so wildly popular around the globe.

More Soccer for Dummies: Part 2 (Rules) | Part 3 (Tactics)

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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