Six big differences between World Cup football and American sports: a beginner’s guide

US sports fans used to baseball, basketball and American football will have a few things to get used to if they intend to enjoy the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Here are some of the important things to remember

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2018, 5:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2018, 6:14pm

Despite the United States not qualifying for this edition of the World Cup, which is set to kick off in Russia this week, interest in the event is expected to be high in North America.

Soccer, as it’s known to some, is growing in popularity in the US where it’s vying for a slice of the audience pie from other staple sports such as American football, baseball and basketball.

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Football is considered by many Americans as the sport of Europeans and Latin Americans, where most of the famous teams and players originate, so it will come as little surprise to those Stateside that the culture and rules of Association Football are unusual. Here are some of the main departures from staple sports in the US.

Game duration

In actual playing time, an NBA game is 48 minutes long – four quarters of 12 minutes – while American football is divided into four 15-minute quarters.

That is pretty short compared to the 90 minutes split into two halves in football. Several minutes of injury time is also added where necessary at the end of each half.


The commercial culture in the US means there are specific “TV breaks” offering teams additional chances to discuss strategy. This also allows for more advertisements, with some slots worth millions of dollars depending on how important the game is. Viewership for these advertisements is high in American sports.

In football, ad times are scheduled leading up to the kick-off and during the half-time break, although this is when fans visit the loo or get refreshments, making the commercials much less effective. In American football, there’s nothing more than the team name, player number and the jersey maker on display. Meanwhile in the NBA, they only recently allowed companies to advertise on jerseys with a small patch on the top left.

Refereeing and technology

American audiences are used to action replays during broadcasts – and they benefit both the fans and the referees. American sports culture is reliant on video refereeing to reduce controversy, but that is generally not the case in football where technology has been used sporadically, most notably goal-line technology in the wake of a number of disallowed or erroneously allowed goals.

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The most controversial incident was during the 1986 World Cup when Argentina’s Diego Maradona scored a critical goal against England by using his hand. It was to become known as the “Hand of God” goal.

However, goal-line technology was introduced at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and referees will again have this tool in Russia. The referee will also have a VAR (video assistant referee) system, which will be in use for the first time at a World Cup. Here the VAR will check decisions on four sorts of incidents: goals, including “missed” attacking offences in the build-up; penalties awarded and not awarded, including “missed” attacking offences in the build-up; direct red cards; and cases of mistaken identity where the wrong player is shown a red or yellow card.


From a stamina standpoint, football is more about endurance while American team sports is about bursts of intense action, making them more explosive and fast-paced by comparison. Unable to take regular breaks, football players have to ration their energy more.

The advantage rule

In American team sports, when a foul, no matter how big or small, is called, the clock and play is stopped. That is not the case in football where the advantage rule comes into play. This means a referee can use his discretion to allow play to go on if the team that has been fouled hasn’t suffered a loss of possession and still may have an advantage.

Low scoring vs high scoring

American audiences accustomed to frequent scoring might find the low scoring or even no-scoring outcome of a football match rather boring.