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What is VAR and other questions answered about the World Cup

Denis Cheryshev celebrates Russia scoring its second goal against Saudi Arabia in the opening game of the 2018 World Cup Thursday in Moscow. Reuters photo

Soccer is a simple sport. Two teams try to knock a ball into their opponent's net without using their hands. The team scoring the most goals wins.

It's accessible, and that's why it's the most-popular sport on earth.

And yet every four years, when the World Cup is held, casual observers have a lot of questions about the game and the tournament.

Here's an attempt to answer some of them:

Q. How are World Cup teams chosen?

A. What you are seeing on TV now is the World Cup Finals. This tournament actually started a couple years ago. More than 200 national teams in each of six world regions began playing within their region to determine which teams would represent their region at the finals in Russia this summer. The finals consist of the 31 best teams and the host team, or 32 total. The finals will increase to 48 teams starting in 2026, when North America hosts the big event. That was announced Wednesday. Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City may be our closest game venue.

Q. Why can a team lose and still keep playing?

A. In a lottery drawing, the 32 teams in the finals are broken into eight groups of four teams. Each team in a group of four plays each other. A team is awarded three points for a win, one point for a tie and zero points for a loss. At the end of this "Group Stage," the two teams in the group with the most points advance to the "knockout round," or the Round of 16. At that point, a team must win to keep advancing.

Q. Is this why some games end in ties?

A. Yes. Teams can tie in the Group Stage. In the knockout rounds, there must be a winner.

Q. How are ties settled in the knockout round?

A. If two teams are tied after the regulation 90 minutes (two 45-minute halves), they play 30 minutes of overtime (two 15-minute halves) even if one team scores. If it's still tied after overtime, the teams take "kicks from the mark," in which five players from each team alternate trying to score from the penalty spot 12 yards from goal. If this doesn't settle it, each team alternates back and forth until one team gains an advantage.

Q. What is "extra time," "added time" or "stoppage time," and why does the game clock count up rather than down?

A. While the game consists of two 45-minute halves, the referee determines when each half is done. He is to take into account time lost to injury, substitutions or timewasting. This "added time" is communicated to his assistant referees toward the end of each half. The game clock counts up rather than down because of tradition and because the game's duration is somewhat subjective.

Q. With all that running, why don't teams substitute players more often?

A. World Cup teams are afforded only three substitutions during a game. Once a player is substituted, he cannot return to the game. If a team makes three substitutions and a player gets hurt and cannot play, that team plays shorthanded.

Q. What does a yellow card or red card mean?

A. A yellow card is shown by a referee to a player for misconduct. Just as its color indicates, it is meant as a warning. A red card can be shown if the misconduct rises to a more serious level. Two yellow cards can also equal a red card. A red card means the player is ejected from the game and his team plays with one fewer player. In that sense, a red card punishes that player and his team.

Is there anything new about this year's World Cup?

Yes. New this year is VAR, or video assistant referee, which allows referees in a video control room to make final calls regarding officiating errors in game-changing situations. The use of this new tool is expected to be highly controversial, especially among traditionalists who feel it could break up the free flow of play and cause delays in "the beautiful game."

Q. What is FIFA?

A. FIFA stands for the Federation Internationale de Football Association, or worldwide governing body of soccer. FIFA is in charge of the World Cup, the final of which is July 15 in Moscow.

Q. When are the games on TV?

A. Most games early in the tournament are live at 7 a.m., 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. CDT, but there are some exceptions, like this Saturday, when the games are 5 a.m., 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. CDT. Most games are on FS1 or Fox.

Von Pinnon, editor of The Forum, has officiated soccer for 24 years and attended the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Matthew Von Pinnon

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum.

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