Soccer is a sport of boundless possibilities: No matter how long you watch this game, you will find new ways to appreciate, understand, and be challenged by the sport.
Ahead of the 2018 World Cup, we thought it fitting to compile a glossary of terms for any fan of the game — from the smart, to the genius, to the brilliant, to the paradigm-shifter disrupting the soccer space. No matter how far along you are on your soccer journey, we hope you learn something new.
You like watching the Premier League and your favorite national team
Getting stuck in
Kicking a member of the opposite team, often times with two feet at once and the studs up. Occasionally the ball will be nearby, though not necessarily. See: PROPER TACKLE.
A pass to a striker that goes along the floor. Arsenal fans might tell you that this was invented by Dennis Bergkamp in 1995.
A pass not to anybody in particular, but to a notionally helpful area of the pitch. Occasionally they work. More often than not, they go out for a goal kick or throw in, at which point a nearby teammate turns around and claps the effort. Depending on how bad the pass was, the clap can look rather sarcastic.
The heart of the penalty area, a churning mass of necks and elbows and foreheads. Where corners should be sent, where crosses need to go, and where goalkeepers fear to tread.
Poking the ball through an opponent’s legs. The highest form of disrespect possible on a football pitch while still staying within the rules.
A straightforward chance to score. Invoked more in failure — “he’s missed an absolute sitter” — than success. Occasionally when a sitter is missed, a forward will turn and look at the referee’s assistant, begging them to raise their flag. Football’s a results game, so it’s okay to fail comically when it wouldn’t have counted anyway.
Either of the top corners of the goal. Putting a ball there is the most satisfying way to score, other than a PANENKA.
“Fans” who punch people. The cause of hooliganism is, depending on who you believe, a result of a depressed workforce ridden with ennui and self-loathing in post-industrialization Europe or, more likely, because these guys are just a bunch of assholes.
This is the stuff that referees put on the floor to mark the spot for a free kick. Not actually magic, but known as such to prevent arguments about whether technology is ruining football. Former England fullback and professional younger brother Phil Neville once called it invisible spray, which tells you everything you need to know about Phil Neville.
In one box, the pathetic whining of a bunch of clowns who are attempting to mislead the referee because they know they’ve got no chance of scoring fairly. In the other, a dignified intervention by well-meaning citizens, designed to assist the referee in the application of justice.
The initial cluster of four teams that compete in the early stages of the World Cup. According to former UEFA president Michel Platini, they are (or were) totally rigged.
Third Place Playoff
The second-to-last match played in the World Cup, between the two teams that lost in the semifinal, for third place. Usually the most entertaining match of the entire tournament, as no one ever remembers who finished in third place in a World Cup so the two teams just take turns trying wild shit.
Park the bus
Used to describe defending, though attacking with it would be preferable. Why would you park a bus when you could drive it top speed at your enemies? Anyway, you’ll hear a commentator use this term when one team is using all of its players to defend and making no attempt to push forward.
“Excuse me, Mr. Referee, sir, but I think, with the greatest possible respect, that you may have possibly made a slight error of judgment with that last call, and in fact that throw-in, which you awarded to that lot, should in fact have been awarded to our lot, begging your pardon, sir, Mr. Referee, sir. Thank you for your time.” That, but with a lot more expletives.
Capable of running around for 90 minutes without needing a cigarette.
The award given every World Cup to the best player of the tournament. Can never be a defender, unless he is Italian, and Italy didn’t even make the 2018 World Cup.
The award given every World Cup to the player who scores the most goals. Usually ends up with a German striker who scores 6 goals, all from within five yards of net.
The award given every World Cup to the best goalkeeper of the tournament. Though Italy did not qualify and Gianluigi Buffon has retired from international soccer, he is still the favorite to win.
The FIFA Fair Play Trophy
The award given to the team that advances to the second round with the least amount of yellow and red cards issued. Typically goes to a “nice lot” who barely advance out of the group stage then get smacked in the first knockout game.
You’ve played FIFA and Football Manager.
“We were lacking that bit of class today”
What one says when one’s team was utter dog shit. Usually said by managers after a 3-0 defeat.
To take a penalty by chipping it gently down the middle. Named for Antonín Panenka, who scored one to win the 1976 European Championship, the cheeky so-and-so. Cool as anything when it goes right. Utterly humiliating when it goes wrong.
Take your leg. Wrap it around the back of your other leg. Kick a football with it. Fall over. Grab your shin, which you kicked rather hard. Swear. Admire professional footballers for being able to do so without falling over or swearing. Wonder why on earth they bother.
How many defenders a team starts with. Back threes usually come with a pair of associated wingbacks (See: WINGBACK), meaning they can become back fives at moments of high pressure. Very few teams play a true back five. A back four — the defensive shape you’ll see most often at the World Cup — is composed of two central defenders, a right back and a left back.
If you’re feeling cynical, they’re defenders that can’t defend, but aren’t good enough in attack to be wingers. If you’re not cynical, they’re the glue that holds the whole back three/five system together: versatile, capable of occupying an entire flank, and monstrously hard-working. They usually attack more aggressively than the fullbacks do in a back four.
The Goldilocks scale of midfield ambition. Traditionally, the No. 6 does all the donkey work, the No. 8 is expected to work hard but may be permitted a small amount of excitement in their lives, and the No. 10 is the fancy playmaker. You’ll often hear commentators use these numbers to refer to where a midfielder plays as well — No. 6 plays deepest, No. 8 right in the middle, and No. 10 close to the strikers. They’re terms that came from an era of soccer when teams always fielded Nos. 1-11, but squad numbering is more liberal these days.
Also referred to as an out-and-out striker or a center forward. In the English imagination, they are the only proper strikers permitted: seven feet tall, addicted to headers, haven’t really existed since the 1990s. This may explain why the English are such a wistful people.
Traditionally the midfielder who stays back a bit to help the defense, the term can be both used to describe a midfielder who runs around a great deal (N’Golo Kante) or one who can’t run at all (late-period Andrea Pirlo).
A midfielder who runs around a great deal. See: MIDFIELD ENGINE.
When you jam a bunch of players midfield and hopes it mucks things up enough that the other team can’t do anything.
A shot from 40 yards away that has no chance at all at going in, and is usually sailed well over the bar. See: HAVING A GO.
“It’s just starting to come down a bit now”
A torrential downpour, as described by an English TV announcer.
You can explain how Francesco Totti (and the 2006-07 Roma quad) changed the sport.
Can either refer to a tactical style that stresses high pressing all over the field and uses inverted wingbacks, or describe a nightmarish person who can’t be worked with. Both meanings derived from the last name of influential Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa.
How English pundits refer to a white guy who can’t dribble.
How English pundits refer to a white guy who can’t dribble and who also injures other people.
How English pundits refer to a tackle that injures someone; usually made by a white guy who can’t dribble. See: GETTING STUCK IN.
A withdrawn striker, as utilized by Austria in the 1930s, Hungary in the 1950s, and Barcelona in more recent times, but you knew all that already. A false 9 will drop deep to force defenders to step up, opening space for teammates to run into. The most important modern innovator of the role was Francesco Totti, and Lionel Messi was moved into the position shortly afterward. False 9 also functions as a handy conversational shibboleth that lets readers of Inverting the Pyramid identify one another at a moment’s notice.
A footballer that plays in the disputed territory between midfield and attack, and as such is expected to both create and score. Usually the most skillful and creative player in a side. English speakers should give thanks, incidentally, for the wholesale theft of the term trequartista. The alternative is “in the hole,” and there’s only so many times a person can hear the words “in the hole” without starting to giggle. This is why golfers dress the way they do. An endless sartorial war against the forces of innuendo.
A partnership of two midfielders with significant defensive responsibilities. Their discipline in the center of the field allows the creative players in front of them a bit more freedom. Often used as a euphemism for boring teams as well; “double pivot” sounds a lot better and more interesting than “sticking two holding midfielders next to each other.”
High line/offside trap
A defense pushed as far up the pitch as possible, intending to squeeze the opposition. Rather than keeping defenders in front of them, teams employing this strategy aim to stop attacks by catching opponents offside. Frequently paired with a sweeper-keeper, who roams around in the open spaces pretending to be a real footballer. Many excellent teams defend like this, and it can be very effective. It can also, if it goes wrong, be very funny. See: MANUEL NEUER.
German goalkeeper who believes himself to be a midfielder. Frustrating for many teams because he could probably start at midfielder for a fair number of international sides.
The tactical art of sitting all of your players deep on defense and hoping to catch your opponent in a counter-attack. See: TACTICAL, PARKING THE BUS.
The theory that states that a team, when they lose the ball, should frantically attempt to win the thing back within a few seconds. If successful, the freshly recaptured ball can be used to launch an attack against a potentially opponent. Counter-pressing also saves modern coaches from having to teach all that boring stuff about defensive positioning.
Fluid teams, like the mighty ocean, break and swell and move around whatever they encounter. Rigid teams, like the noble mountain, hold their shape no matter what the provocation.
Imagine a football pitch from above, with the goals to the left and right side. Now, divide that pitch lengthways into five equal strips, running from byline to byline. The central strip is the middle; the two edge strips are the wings. And the ones between them? Those are the half-spaces, among the most potent and exploitable spaces on a football pitch. Watch any excitingly modern football team, and you’ll see them doing excitingly modern things in these parts of the pitch. Pep Guardiola’s a fan, while Jurgen Klopp loves them, and would live in them if he could.
When teams play formations without wingers, you might hear a midfielder referred to as a shuttler. This player’s job is to make up for the lack of wide players by covering a lot of space side-to-side, while still retaining some midfield responsibility as well.
You have a 37-slide PowerPoint presentation explaining why Peter Crouch is actually better than Lionel Messi.
When a generational player is chastised for trying too hard to get his teammates involved as opposed to just dribbling the entire opposing team by himself. See: LIONEL MESSI.
An Argentine soccer player who hasn’t won any tournaments. See: TOO TEAM-ORIENTED.
Italian for “door bolt,” catenaccio is a way to sound very fancy indeed while describing a team that sits everyone back on defense and hopes to win on penalties. Unwatchable for casual fans, “breathtaking” for cosmic appreciators of the defensive arts. Commentators who grew up watching successful Italian teams often refer to any ultra-defensive tactic as catenaccio.
A system of soccer created by Dutch manager Rinus Michels and made famous by legendary striker Johan Cruyff, in which no one has any position and everyone just runs around a bit and makes beautiful soccer happen. Lots of good attacking teams draw principles from it, though no one has really replicated it. In its purest form, it has worked with exactly one team in soccer history, and even they lost to Germany.
A system of soccer created by the Spanish where people have some positions but everyone runs around a bit and makes beautiful soccer happen. They do this by making small passes, roughly one million per game. It has worked with exactly two teams in soccer history.
How to describe a coach who sticks all his players back on defense and lets the other team shoot the ball off his players’ faces. See: CATENACCIO.
Having a go
Shooting from a preposterous distance and/or angle, with little chance of it going in. See: SPECULATIVE EFFORT.
Popularized by announcer Ray Hudson, this word can mean absolutely anything you want it to mean, as long as it is describing something generally positive. Synonyms can include: Brilliant, breathtaking, calm, casual, classy, debonair, energetic, fantastic, great, huge, languid, nice, otherworldly, smart, terrorizing, unusual. See: LIONEL MESSI.
A player in the center of the field who has solid passing skills and never stops running. See: BOX-TO-BOX.
Heartbeat of the midfield
A midfield engine who can’t run.
Take the game to them
A more sophisticated way of saying that a team should try to get the ball and attempt to score goals. Can be said sagely, with a nod, to imply great understanding of a tactical adjustment a team needs to make.