We don't know much about football, but we know what we like, and, frankly, men in shorts and an excuse for a party sounds all right to us. Read on for Cole Moreton's Bluffer's Guide to the World Cup

THERE'S NO avoiding the question. A line has been drawn in the sand, and it's time to decide which side you're on. When the World Cup starts on Wednesday, half the nation will be full of joy at the thought of more than a month of football. The other half will shriek in horror and run for the nearest video shop.

It used to be easy to know your place: the men were supposed to rub their hands in glee, the women to run (which, when you thought about it, was a lot like life in general). But since football became a middle-class passion, the two sides have ceased to be defined by gender. If you know you hate the game, then fine - move to the Outer Hebrides for a while. But if you're even the tiniest bit intrigued by this enormous international festival, why not go with the flow for a while? Sooner or later a friend or partner is going to drag you down the pub to watch a match on the big screen.

So what do you need to know? Firstly, never get your face painted in the colours of the national flag. No scarves, no hats, no kilts, and no horrible nylon replica shirts, please. Real fans, the ones in the know, wear 100 per cent cotton versions of the kit their country wore in its finest hour. For England that means a red jersey from 1966, the one and only time we won the World Cup. For Scotland it means... well, actually, given the country's dismal failure over the years, perhaps a modern shirt will have to do.

Secondly, refuse to be intimidated. Some sad cases will tell you that the knowledge acquired through years of watching football cannot be replicated in a few minutes. That's rubbish. A few choice phrases and the right names to drop will get you through. Before we get into those, let's get the basics right:

l The World Cup takes place every four years.

l France '98 is the biggest World Cup ever, with 32 countries taking part.

l They will be split into eight groups for the first round. Each will play the other three in their group once. They'll get three points for a win, one if the scores are even at the end of the game, and nothing if they lose.

l The top pair from each group will go on to knockout rounds, which will halve the numbers until only two teams are left to face each other in the final.

l That takes place in a new stadium at Saint-Denis on 12 July.

So Who's Going To Win?

If you've got a Brazilian granny, now is the time to dig out the old sepia photographs of her and claim dual nationality. They are the champions, the favourites and the team everybody wishes they could support. According to the bookmakers, the other teams with a strong chance of winning the cup are the ones who already have, like Germany, Italy, Argentina and England. France are also in the running, because of their home advantage. For a good outside bet, try Spain, Holland or Nigeria. Countries like Scotland and South Africa might get a few surprising results, but won't win the whole thing. As a general rule, countries you wouldn't normally associate with football - like the USA, South Korea and Japan - have got no chance.

How Do I Sound Like An Expert?

Being a football pundit is all about having a fine command of the cliche. Racial stereotyping is compulsory - this is a world in which all Germans are ruthlessly efficient, Italians are stylish but hot-headed, Argentineans have a fiery Latin temperament and Brazilians play like the ragamuffins on the beach at Rio. That's taken care of the top teams. To help you match the bar-room bore, here's a handful of off-the shelf opinions about some of the more interesting also-rans:

France Fact to mention: Home advantage can turn an ordinary host team into champions. Particularly when their own fans have been given all the tickets.

Cliche to spout: "Full of gallic flair".

Nigeria Fact: Pele predicted an African team would win the World Cup by 2000. If he's right it will be this team, this year

Cliche: "Skilful but suspect".

Jamaica Fact: Coached by a Brazilian, and sponsored by Joe Bloggs, so they'll look good as they get beaten.

Cliche: "Smiling through defeat".

South Korea Fact: No hopers, but it'll be fun hearing Brian Moore get his chops around names like Seo Dong-Myung.

Cliche: "Not so good in the air".

What About The British Teams?

British? Are you Welsh or something? (For those who don't know, Wales hardly ever qualify, and Northern Ireland are not much better.) Both Scotland and England have left very talented players languishing on the beach this summer - Duncan Ferguson because he's a big hothead who has fallen out with the boss and Matthew Le Tissier because Glenn Hoddle is mad. Here's what you need to know about the rest of our brave boys:

England David Seaman is the world's best goalkeeper, despite a very dodgy moustache. Tony Adams is a recovered alcoholic and a fine defender. Paul Ince was England's first black captain (for one game only) and has skill to match his hot temper. Alan Shearer is one of the all-time great strikers. These four form what is known as the spine of the team. The rest of the squad are a pretty mediocre bunch. Gazza was fat and unfit but he had a touch of genius - and now that he has been sent home in disgrace, England may be very dull. Look out for a young striker called Michael Owen who is fast on his feet and might become a world star overnight. Glenn Hoddle, the manager, was the most talented player of his generation but may become the next Graham "Turnip" Taylor.

Scotland Andy Goram was the Scottish Gazza, and pulled out of the squad after tabloid revelations about his private life, so his place in goal will be taken by the 150-year-old Jim Leighton. Colin Hendrie is big, blond and hard as nails in defence. John Collins plays for Monaco and has what is popularly known as "a cultured left foot" (which means its good for passing). Kevin Gallacher will be facing a lot of pressure, because the Blackburn striker is the only Scot capable of scoring goals. Scotland play Brazil in the opening game of the tournament, but despite this may still have their best ever chance of getting past the first round, thanks to a very good defence. Craig Brown, the manager, is a very nice man.

So What Are The Rules?

You probably know that the game is played between two teams of eleven men, and lasts 90 minutes. The object is to put the ball in the opponent's goal more times than they manage to do the same to you. Simple, really.

l The tricky bit comes when the scores are level at the end of 90 minutes. That's OK in the first round, when draws are allowed, but thereafter we need a winner. The latest solution to this problem is the "golden goal". The teams play on, and the first side to score wins.

l If neither has got a goal after two halves of 15 minutes each, it is time for the dreaded penalty shoot out. (Actually, it's only dreaded by the English, who lost on penalties to Germany in the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup and Euro '96.) Each side takes five penalty kicks (shots from a spot 12 yards out from goal) and whoever scores the most wins. If the scores are still level (yawn) after five, the first team to miss loses. Step forward Gareth Southgate, whose lame shot killed off England's hopes two years ago.

l Don't worry about offside - nobody understands it. If your team has a goal disallowed because the player who scored it was deemed offside, just raise your eyes to the ceiling and shout, "Linesman!" If it's the opposition, smile smugly.

l When one player tackles another he is supposed to win the ball. Get it wrong and he may get a yellow card. If this happens to one of your team, shout "Oi! Referee! Nev-ah!" Yellow cards used to be given for serious offences like spitting at the opposition player or taking his legs away from under him. Now they've all gone soft, and cards are given out for silly offences - like accidentally smashing someone's knee into tiny pieces. Do that twice, or something really wrong like questioning the referee's parentage and you get shown a red card, which sends you off the field of play to an early bath.

What If I'm Rumbled?

The game is over, the pub is closing, and one of your new friends says, "So how did you get into football then?" Close your eyes and eulogise about the beautiful game, comparing it to a cross between chess, ballet and warfare. If that impresses, follow it up with the theory that World Cup football is actually a clash between good and evil, light and dark. Every four years a team emerges that captures the popular imagination, burns brightly and then loses, usually to the Germans.

A Clash Between Good and Evil

The exception was 1970, when Brazil beat Italy in the final. This Brazilian team included Pele and was the greatest of all time, the one on which so many footballing fantasies have been based: the classic yellow shirt, the effortless skill, the samba band, the gorgeous fans in bikinis. In 1974 it was a wildly romantic Dutch team led by the temperamental genius Johann Cruyff, beaten in the final by West Germany. In 1978 the Dutch failed again, this time to the host nation, Argentina. Four years later in 1982 France were the New Romantics, going 3-1 up against Germany in the semi-finals before losing. Diego Maradona dominated the tournament in 1986, beating the England goalkeeper with his fist. That goal is what people mean when they talk about the Hand of God. He then spoiled the good versus evil analogy by weaving through the entire defence to prove he could play like an angel. Gazza famously broke into tears in 1990 after being booked against Germany in the semi-final. England lost on penalties after a miss by Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce. In 1994 the roles were reversed. A dull Brazilian side beat the more exciting Italians on penalties. Roberto Baggio, a Buddhist with a ponytail, was left standing alone in desolation after missing the crucial kick.

You may have noticed an absence of Scotland from this potted history. The Tartan Army has had its moments of cheer - the little bearded Archie Gemmill beating the entire Dutch defence in 1978, and David Narey thumping a shot from yards out to put them 1-0 up against Brazil in 1982 - but they were always followed by defeat. Maybe this time it will be different, but dinnae hold yer breath.

The Unmissables

These are the players to look out for. Not necessarily the best eleven, but certainly the funkiest, with the relevant phrases to use when they come on screen.

Campos (Mexico): "Crazy colours, crazy guy." The latest in a long line of lunatic South American goalies, Jorge designs his own psychedelic jerseys.

Maldini (Italy): "In the side on merit." His dad is the coach, but Paulo is a class act.

Fish (South Africa): "Can you smell something funny?" Mark is a favourite with the fans, who wave dead fish in his honour (honest).

Lalas (USA): "Is it real?" Custer-style ginger beard and rock star hair make Alexei stand out in defence. Shame he's rubbish.

West (Nigeria): "Won't that puncture the ball?" A defender, Taribo wears dreadlock beads in the colours of his team Inter Milan. A cult hero in Italy.

Nakata (Japan): "The Gazza of the Far East." Hugely skilful, dyes his hair to attract attention, dressing room joker, loved by the media. Still only 21. Let's hope Hidetoshi keeps off the kebabs.

Valderrama (Colombia): "Yeah, but will he have the last laugh?" Famously ludicrous frizzy blonde hair and dodgy moustache. At 37 Carlos can't run any more, but still has the skill to wipe the smile off England's face.

Stoichkov (Bulgaria): "Cheer up mate." If you like 'em mean, moody and hairy, Hristo's your man. Has talent to match his arrogance, but he's another one who's nearly knackered.

Bergkamp (Holland): "Thank God for the Chunnel." Fear of flying prevented Dennis from travelling to a European away game with Arsenal last season. Still voted Player of the Year in England. Blond, charming and very, very cool.

Salas (Chile): "Don't forget Wembley!" Scored a fabulous volley against England in a friendly a couple of months ago. Not even Man United could afford Marcelo, whose knickname is The Killer.

Ronaldo (Brazil): "It must be the money." Goofy, gawky and shy but has a gorgeous girfriend. Oh, and he's the best player in the world by a mile.

And Finally... Parlez-vouz Football?

It's early doors (the game is yet young). He's the water carrier (can't pass, but runs around a lot). He's playing in the hole (links midfield with attack). They need someone to put his foot on the ball (it's a bit frantic out there, isn't it?). If you're good enough, you're old enough (he looks about 12). There are no easy games at this level (we're 3-0 down to Iran). They've shut the door (the other side will never get through that defence. Time for a curry).