It’s officially that time again! After two weeks of uninterrupted World Cup action, soccer fever has once again taken hold worldwide.

Every four years, fans from all backgrounds and countries come together to celebrate the beautiful game and watch the brightest stars that the sport has to offer on the biggest stage in all of sports.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the sport, the World Cup is an international soccer tournament that takes place just once every four years. Out of 211 national teams, just 32 nations qualify for the tournament, which is currently being held in Russia.

The best part about the World Cup is that it’s a perfect opportunity for those who might not be completely familiar with the sport to learn more about the game itself and find players and countries to root for.

If you’re watching the sport for the first time or perhaps haven’t paid much attention to the game since the last World Cup, we’ve got you covered with five basic things you should know.

1. The Tournament Format

The World Cup started out with 32 teams divided into eight groups of four. The first round of the tournament, which is called the Group Stage, ended on Thursday. This means that moving forward from this point, any team that loses will be eliminated. However, if you haven’t started watching the tournament just yet, now is a perfect time to get in on the action as the games are all high stakes “do or die” affairs.

The schedule for the upcoming games is as follows:

Round of 16: Saturday, June 30 – Tuesday, July 3
Quarterfinals: Friday, July 6 & Saturday, July 7
Semifinals: Tuesday, July 10 & Wednesday, July 11
Consolation Round (Winner Gets Third Place): Saturday, July 14
Finals: Sunday, July 15

2. Team Construction

Unlike club soccer, the World Cup features national teams which are comprised solely of players eligible to represent a particular nation – either by birth or by heritage. FIFA rules state that a player is eligible to represent any officially recognized country provided they hold citizenship for that country. With very few exceptions, players are not allowed to switch allegiances, so national teams aren’t able to poach players off of other teams.

Each World Cup squad features 23 players, which includes 3 goalkeepers and 20 outfield players. For each game, a team fields 11 players – 10 outfield players and a goalkeeper.

3. There Are Two Halves of Non-Stop Action

Soccer is unlike any other of the main sports we see stateside, as it’s comprised of two 45-minute running time halves. This makes the game great to watch for a neutral viewer as there’s plenty of non-stop action. In a day and age where seemingly 80 percent of an NFL broadcast is commercials, soccer represents a refreshing breath of fresh air as there is only 15 minutes of downtime. Games are usually completed about two hours after the opening kickoff, which isn’t too bad of a time investment.

4. VAR

If you’ve been watching some of the group stage games, you’ve probably heard about “VAR”, which is a new system implemented by FIFA for this World Cup. VAR stands for Video Assistant Referees, who watch the game from a remote location and can help the officials on the field with potential game-changing decisions. The system itself has drawn the ire of fans already but it represents a fantastic opportunity to improve the fairness of games with the VAR being able to help with penalty and disciplinary decisions, goal-line technology and cases of mistaken identity.

5. The “Can’t Miss” Players

Even if you haven’t followed the sport at all, you have likely heard of Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) and Lionel Messi (Argentina). They are widely considered to be the two best players in the World and are thought to be some of the best players in the history of the sport.

Other players worth tuning in to see are: France’s creative midfielder Paul Pogba, Brazil’s flashy forward Neymar, England forward (and current tournament goal leader) Harry Kane, Uruguay’s tenacious striker Luis Suarez and Denmark’s superb attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen.

(Cropped image courtesy StefSince1985 via Flickr.)