The FIFA World Cup, often simply called the World Cup, is an international association football competition contested by the senior men’s national teams of the members of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the sport’s global governing body.
The championship has been awarded every four years since the inaugural tournament in 1930, except in 1942 and 1946 when it was not held because of the Second World War.
The current format involves a qualification phase, which takes place over the preceding three years, to determine which teams qualify for the tournament phase. In the tournament phase, 32 teams, including the automatically qualifying host nation(s), compete for the title at venues within the host nation(s) over about a month.
The World Cup has been won by eight national teams so far. Brazil have won the cup a record five times, and are the only team to have featured in every tournament. The other World Cup winners are Germany and Italy, with four titles each, followed by Argentina, France, and inaugural winner Uruguay, with two titles each. England and Spain complete the list with one title each.
The World Cup is the most prestigious association football tournament in the world, as well as the most widely viewed and followed sporting event in the world, exceeding even the Olympic Games.
17 countries have hosted the World Cup. Brazil, France, Italy, Germany, and Mexico have each hosted twice, while Uruguay, Switzerland, Sweden, Chile, England, Argentina, Spain, the United States, Japan and South Korea (jointly), South Africa, and Russia have each hosted once. Qatar will host the 2022 tournament, and 2026 will be jointly hosted by Canada, the United States, and Mexico, which will give Mexico the distinction of being the first country to host games in three World Cups.
Previous international competitions
The world’s first international football match was a challenge match played in Glasgow in 1872 between Scotland and England, which ended in a 0–0 draw. The first international tournament, the inaugural British Home Championship, took place in 1884.
As football grew in popularity in other parts of the world at the start of the 20th century, it was held as a demonstration sport with no medals awarded at the 1900 and 1904 Summer Olympics (however, the International Olympic Committee has retroactively upgraded their status to official events), and at the 1906 Intercalated Games.
After FIFA was founded in 1904, it tried to arrange an international football tournament between nations outside the Olympic framework in Switzerland in 1906. These were very early days for international football, and the official history of FIFA describes the competition as having been a failure.
At the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, football became an official competition. Planned by The Football Association (FA), England’s football governing body, the event was for amateur players only and was regarded suspiciously as a show rather than a competition. Great Britain (represented by the England national amateur football team) won the gold medals. They repeated the feat at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm.
With the Olympic event continuing to be contested only between amateur teams, Sir Thomas Lipton organised the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy tournament in Turin in 1909. The Lipton tournament was a championship between individual clubs (not national teams) from different nations, each one of which represented an entire nation.
The competition is sometimes described as The First World Cup and featured the most prestigious professional club sides from Italy, Germany and Switzerland, but the FA of England refused to be associated with the competition and declined the offer to send a professional team. Lipton invited West Auckland, an amateur side from County Durham, to represent England instead. West Auckland won the tournament and returned in 1911 to successfully defend their title.
In 1914, FIFA agreed to recognise the Olympic tournament as a “world football championship for amateurs”, and took responsibility for managing the event. This paved the way for the world’s first intercontinental football competition, at the 1920 Summer Olympics, contested by Egypt and 13 European teams, and won by Belgium.
Uruguay won the next two Olympic football tournaments in 1924 and 1928. Those were also the first two open world championships, as 1924 was the start of FIFA’s professional era.
World Cups before World War II
Due to the success of the Olympic football tournaments, FIFA, with President Jules Rimet as the driving force, again started looking at staging its own international tournament outside of the Olympics. On 28 May 1928, the FIFA Congress in Amsterdam decided to stage a world championship itself.
With Uruguay now two-time official football world champions and to celebrate their centenary of independence in 1930, FIFA named Uruguay as the host country of the inaugural World Cup tournament.
The national associations of selected nations were invited to send a team, but the choice of Uruguay as a venue for the competition meant a long and costly trip across the Atlantic Ocean for European sides. Indeed, no European country pledged to send a team until two months before the start of the competition.
Rimet eventually persuaded teams from Belgium, France, Romania, and Yugoslavia to make the trip. In total, 13 nations took part: seven from South America, four from Europe, and two from North America.
The first two World Cup matches took place simultaneously on 13 July 1930, and were won by France and the US, who defeated Mexico 4–1 and Belgium 3–0 respectively.
The first goal in World Cup history was scored by Lucien Laurent of France. In the final, Uruguay defeated Argentina 4–2 in front of 93,000 people in Montevideo and became the first nation to win the World Cup.
After the creation of the World Cup, FIFA and the IOC disagreed over the status of amateur players, and so football was dropped from the 1932 Summer Olympics. After the IOC and FIFA worked out their differences, Olympic football returned at the 1936 Summer Olympics but was now overshadowed by the more prestigious World Cup.
The issues facing the early World Cup tournaments were the difficulties of intercontinental travel and war. Few South American teams were willing to travel to Europe for the 1934 World Cup and all North and South American nations except Brazil and Cuba boycotted the 1938 tournament.
Brazil was the only South American team to compete in both. The 1942 and 1946 competitions, which Germany and Brazil sought to host, were cancelled due to World War II and its aftermath.
World Cups after World War II
The 1950 World Cup, held in Brazil, was the first to include British participants. British teams withdrew from FIFA in 1920, partly out of unwillingness to play against the countries they had been at war with, and partly as a protest against foreign influence on football, but rejoined in 1946 following FIFA’s invitation.
The tournament also saw the return of 1930 champions Uruguay, who had boycotted the previous two World Cups. Uruguay won the tournament again after defeating the host nation Brazil, in the match called “Maracanazo”.
In the tournaments between 1934 and 1978, 16 teams competed in each tournament, except in 1938, when Austria was absorbed into Germany after qualifying, leaving the tournament with 15 teams, and in 1950, when India, Scotland, and Turkey withdrew, leaving the tournament with 13 teams.
Most of the participating nations were from Europe and South America, with a small minority from North America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. These teams were usually defeated easily by the European and South American teams.
Until 1982, the only teams from outside Europe and South America to advance out of the first round were: USA, semi-finalists in 1930; Cuba, quarter-finalists in 1938; North Korea, quarter-finalists in 1966; and Mexico, quarter-finalists in 1970.
Expansion to 32 teams
The tournament was expanded to 24 teams in 1982, and then to 32 in 1998, also allowing more teams from Africa, Asia and North America to take part.
Since then, teams from these regions have enjoyed more success, with several having reached the quarter-finals: Mexico, quarter-finalists in 1986; Cameroon, quarter-finalists in 1990; South Korea, finishing in fourth place in 2002; Senegal, along with USA, both quarter-finalists in 2002; Ghana, quarter-finalists in 2010; and Costa Rica, quarter-finalists in 2014.
Nevertheless, European and South American teams continue to dominate, e.g., the quarter-finalists in 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2018 were all from Europe or South America and so were the finalists of all tournaments so far.
200 teams entered the 2002 FIFA World Cup qualification rounds; 198 nations attempted to qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, while a record 204 countries entered qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Expansion to 48 teams
In October 2013, Sepp Blatter spoke of guaranteeing the Caribbean Football Union’s region a position in the World Cup.
In the edition of 25 October, 2013 of the FIFA Weekly Blatter wrote that: “From a purely sporting perspective, I would like to see globalisation finally taken seriously, and the African and Asian national associations accorded the status they deserve at the FIFA World Cup. It cannot be that the European and South American confederations lay claim to the majority of the berths at the World Cup.”
Those two remarks suggested to commentators that Blatter could be putting himself forward for re-election to the FIFA Presidency.
Following the magazine’s publication, Blatter’s would-be opponent for the FIFA Presidency, UEFA President Michel Platini, responded that he intended to extend the World Cup to 40 national associations, increasing the number of participants by eight. Platini said that he would allocate an additional berth to UEFA, two each to the Asian Football Confederation and the Confederation of African Football, two shared between CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, and a guaranteed place for the Oceania Football Confederation.
Platini was clear about why he wanted to expand the World Cup. He said: “[The World Cup is] not based on the quality of the teams because you don’t have the best 32 at the World Cup… but it’s a good compromise… It’s a political matter so why not have more Africans? The competition is to bring all the people of all the world. If you don’t give the possibility to participate, they don’t improve.”
In October 2016, FIFA president Gianni Infantino stated his support for a 48-team World Cup in 2026. On 10th January 2017, FIFA confirmed the 2026 World Cup will have 48 finalist teams.
Since the second World Cup in 1934, qualifying tournaments have been held to thin the field for the final tournament. They are held within the six FIFA continental zones (Africa, Asia, North and Central America and Caribbean, South America, Oceania, and Europe), overseen by their respective confederations.
For each tournament, FIFA decides the number of places awarded to each of the continental zones beforehand, generally based on the relative strength of the confederations’ teams.
The qualification process can start as early as almost three years before the final tournament and last over a two-year period.
The formats of the qualification tournaments differ between confederations. Usually, one or two places are awarded to winners of intercontinental play-offs.
For example, the winner of the Oceanian zone and the fifth-placed team from the Asian zone entered a play-off for a spot in the 2010 World Cup. From the 1938 World Cup onwards, host nations receive automatic qualification to the final tournament.
This right was also granted to the defending champions between 1938 and 2002 but was withdrawn from the 2006 FIFA World Cup onward, requiring the champions to qualify. Brazil, winners in 2002, were the first defending champions to play qualifying matches.
The current final tournament has been used since 1998 and features 32 national teams competing over the course of a month in the host nation(s). There are two stages – the group stage followed by the knockout stage.
In the group stage, teams compete within eight groups of four teams each. Eight teams are seeded, including the hosts, with the other seeded teams selected using a formula based on the FIFA World Rankings and/or performances in recent World Cups, and drawn to separate groups.
The other teams are assigned to different “pots”, usually based on geographical criteria, and teams in each pot are drawn at random to the eight groups. Since 1998, constraints have been applied to the draw to ensure that no group contains more than two European teams or more than one team from any other confederation.
Each group plays a round-robin tournament, in which each team is scheduled for three matches against other teams in the same group. This means that a total of six matches are played within a group. The last round of matches of each group is scheduled at the same time to preserve fairness among all four teams.
The top two teams from each group advance to the knockout stage. Points are used to rank the teams within a group. Since 1994, three points have been awarded for a win, one for a draw and none for a loss (before, winners received two points).
If one considers all possible outcomes (win, draw, loss) for all six matches in a group, there are 729 (= 36) outcome combinations possible. However, 207 of these combinations lead to ties between the second and third places.
On 10 January 2017, FIFA approved a new format, the 48-team World Cup (to accommodate more teams), which consists of 16 groups of three teams each, with two teams qualifying from each group, to form a round of 32 knockout stage, to be implemented by 2026.