Soccer 101

Stumped by the terminology of “the beautiful game’’? We’re here to help.



A flop is not necessarily a failure. A friendly is no such thing. A pitch has nothing to do with music, baseball or high-pressure sales. And of all the athletic endeavors in the world, only one goes by this nickname: the beautiful game.

If all that makes perfect sense to you, congratulations and off you go. You have just tested out of the official Orlando magazine Soccer 101 Snap Quiz. 

The rest of you might want to sit still long enough to browse your way through what is actually an abbreviated glossary of soccer terms we have cobbled together for the occasion of the Major League Soccer debut of the Orlando City Soccer Club, which will play its first regular season match in the league this month. 

Our goal here—or should we elevate our voice a few decibels and say our “Goooooaaaaaaalllllll!” here—is to convey a sense of the personality and peculiarities of the game, along with an admittedly cursory look at its nuts, bolts and bylaws.

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME: This reverential nickname for the sport was popularized by Brazilian superstar Pelé, who dubbed it o jogo bonito in his 1977 autobiography. Roughly 3.5 billion soccer fans on this planet share the love—soccer is the most popular form of athletic competition in the world. Second place, just in case you were wondering, is cricket. And it isn’t even close. 

CARDS: Pick a card. Any card. NO, NO, NOT THAT ONE! We forgot to tell you: In soccer, a card, any card, is bad news. It means you are being penalized, usually for unnecessarily rough play. There are only two cards in soccer, one yellow and one red. A yellow card flashed at a player by a referee is a “caution”—you’re hereby on probation, bub. Two yellow cards in the same match and you’ll be ejected. A red card means you’ve done something so egregious that you’re not even getting a second chance: You’re summarily ejected from the match.

KICKS: You’ve heard the old bromide about how Eskimos have dozens of words for different variations of snow. Well, kicks are to soccer what snowflakes are to the Inuit. The only players who can handle the ball while it is in play are the goalies, so kicking is the primary way for the other 10 players on each team to maneuver it down the field, pass it back and forth to teammates, and launch it past the opposing goalie and into the net for a score. Among the numerous variations of soccer kicks are those that occur after a penalty: a free kick, direct free kick and penalty kick. Strategic kicks during play include the rainbow kick, which has an arching trajectory; and the bicycle kick, which can provide one of the game’s most elegant moments of finely tuned athleticism. A player who executes it properly launches himself into the air as if to make a backward somersault, only to hover in midair at the halfway point, backside toward the turf, and kick the ball overhead, looking a bit like a rider pedaling an invisible, upside-down bicycle through the air. It is a unique, balletic, and, yes, beautiful maneuver. 

PITCH: In soccer it’s a noun, not a verb, and it is used to denote the playing field in a soccer match. The word itself goes back to Middle English, when “pitch” described the act of thrusting a stake into the ground. When soccer became popular about a thousand years later, driving stakes became one method of marking off the field where the match would be played. (It also accounts for why campers are said to “pitch” their tents.)

FLOP: You’ve probably seen basketball players trying to dupe referees into calling a foul on an opponent by acting as if the opposing player has elbowed them, knocked them over or otherwise done them wrong. The same strategy is used by some soccer players, except the level of showmanship in the charade far exceeds anything you’ve ever seen on a basketball court. A flop, also known as a dive, can result in a free kick for the faker and one of those cards we just spoke of being issued to the supposed perp—although the presentation of an Oscar would probably be more appropriate.

FRIENDLY: In soccer it’s a noun, not an adjective. It refers to what other sports would call an exhibition game: a match whose result does not count toward a team’s record. 

NIL: If you do not know this word, it’s  a sign you know zero about soccer, because that is what it means: zero. If a team is ahead of another, one to nothing, the score is said to be “one-nil.”

PLAYOFFS: This is one word in the sport that applies only to Major League Soccer, which was established in the United States and Canada in 1993. Its regular season is followed by playoff games that culminate in a championship final in December. European soccer leagues do not have playoffs; the sentiment is that it would diminish the significance of and enthusiasm for regular season games. 

STOPPAGE TIME: In soccer, even when play stops for a penalty or an injury, time marches on. At least it does according to the indomitable game clock, which continues to tick away, regardless of any pauses in the action. It starts at zero at the beginning of each half. When it gets to 45 minutes, it stops. At that point, the referee, who has kept tabs on any breaks in the action caused by injuries, penalties or any other delays, will add on a few minutes to compensate. This is called stoppage time. 

The discretionary power that stoppage time bestows on the official may seem odd and even heretical to Americans, accustomed as we are to seeing human judgment overturned by electronic devices that literally second-guess referees in crucial moments and parse out the game time accordingly. Not surprisingly, soccer’s stoppage-time tradition precedes instant replay by, oh, a century or so. It is said to go back to an 1891 British match when a crafty player whose team was leading 1-0 simply punted the one and only game ball out of the arena near the end of the game. Time ran out before the ball could be retrieved.

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