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All You Need to Know About Soccer
By Michael Lewis

Brazilian soccer star, Pele
Brazil's soccer star Pelé kicks the ball over his head during a game in September 1968.
(Photo: AP Wide World)
The urge to kick a ball has long possessed human beings. Here's a quick rundown of the sport, past and present.

Some History

Nobody knows when soccer was actually invented, but plenty of cultures seem to have had the idea. Over 3,000 years ago, the Chinese played a game called "tsu-chu" by booting a leather ball into a net held up by bamboo canes. They played it to celebrate the emperor's birthday.

Early variations of the game were also played in Japan, Greece, Rome, and South America. Some ancient, warlike societies played a grim version of the game . . . using the head of a rival king.

The modern version of soccer, called football, arose in England. But it took a while, because kings and queens kept banning it. Some kings thought it distracted people from practicing archery, which was good practice for war; other royals just didn't like it.

But kids liked to play it, and in the 19th century, many schools saw soccer as a way to keep their students fit. Clubs formed, and finally, in 1863, the owners of several soccer teams wrote the laws of the game. Soccer was on its way.

The World Cup

The World Cup is soccer's championship tournament, and it's played once every four years. The next one is scheduled for the summer of 2006 in Germany, where 32 teams will compete.

The men's reigning champs of soccer are the Brazilians. About 1 billion people watched Brazil top Germany, 2-0, to win the 2002 World Cup. The World Cup began as a 13-team tournament in the South American country of Uruguay; the 2002 Cup was the 17th tournament. Brazil has triumphed five times, more than any other country.

The U.S. soccer team made the quarterfinals in 2002 before losing to Germany 1-0. It was the U.S. team's best showing since 1930.

The Women's Game

Girls and women also have gotten into the act over the past 20 years. In fact, the American women have excelled at the sport, winning two world championships (1991 and 1999) and two Olympic gold medals (1996 and 2004).

No women's soccer star has been greater than Mia Hamm. She scored a world-record 158 goals in international competition—50 more than any other player, male or female—before retiring in 2004. Other legends include scoring star Michelle Akers, one of the "early" American heroes; Kristine Lilly, who has played more international matches (288) than anyone else on the planet; and midfielder Julie Foudy, whom many considered the heart and soul of the U.S. Women's National Team.

Abby Wambach, who scored the winning goal in overtime in the Olympic gold-medal win over Brazil in Athens in August 2004, is expected to become a star in the next generation of American players.

Men's Stars

Of all the men's soccer stars, two have shined brightest. One of those stars is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known to the world as Pelé (peh-lay). The Brazilian legend led his team to three championships (1958, 1962, and 1970). He was so popular that in 1967, two sides fighting a civil war in Nigeria agreed to a two-day cease-fire so they could watch Pelé play a game in the nation's capital.

Soccer's other great is Diego Maradona, nicknamed El Diego. He led Argentina's national team to victory in 1990, outrunning nearly the entire English team downfield to score one amazing goal. He nearly led the Argentine team to a second World Cup in 1994, losing 1-0 to Germany.

Basic Rules

Soccer is a very simple game. There are 11 players: one goalkeeper, four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards. A goal—worth one point—is scored when the ball is kicked into the net. The ball must pass completely over the goal line to be a goal. So if the ball hits the top of the net and falls on the goal line, it is not a goal, and is still in play.

Here are three main rules of play:

  • No Hands. Only the goalkeeper may use his or her hands. Other players may use any part of their body EXCEPT the area from the tips of their fingers to their shoulder to move the ball.
  • Throw-ins. When the ball crosses the sideline and leaves the field, the team that did NOT touch it last throws it back in. The player throwing the ball back in play must keep his or her feet on the ground and throw the ball with both arms over his or her head.
  • Corner Kicks and Goal Kicks. When the ball crosses the end line and leaves the field, a corner or goal kick is awarded. If the offensive team kicks the ball out, the other team is granted a goal kick. A goal kick is kicked from inside the goalie box. If the defensive team kicks it out, the other team gets a corner kick. A corner kick is booted from the corner nearest to where the ball left the field.
A typical adult game lasts 90 minutes, divided into two 45-minute halves. Youth games are shorter, depending on the age of the players.

The other rule: If you're playing soccer, you should try to have fun.