The World Cup is one of the most important sporting occasions on the planet, with the finals taking place once every four years and attracting a huge global audience. In 2018 it is estimated that well over one billion people watched the final between France and Croatia. That is a far cry from the tournament’s humble origins in Uruguay in 1930, when just 13 nations took part and the hosts were victorious.
The hosts won again four years later in Italy, the finals expanding to 16 teams, and the Italians defended their crown in 1938. For many years the World Cup alternated between European and Latin American hosts and from 1954 to 1978 inclusive the finals involved 16 nations. As the game became more global the World Cup moved to the USA in 1994, Asia (Japan and South Korea) in 2002 and South Africa in 2010. In 1982 the finals grew to 24 nations, then 32 in 1998 and will reach 48 in 2026. The beautiful game is as popular as ever and the World Cup is its crowning glory.
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World Cup Structure & Format
Despite some recent talks about trying to make the World Cup take place every two years, football’s greatest show remains a quadrennial spectacular, which is to say it is held once every four years. The first-ever World Cup was held in 1930 and aside from a lengthy gap between 1938 and 1950 caused by the Second World War, it has been played every four years since then.
Note that much of the information that follows is based on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with any stats and facts based on all World Cups up to and including Russia 2018. One key exception to this concerns the dates, however, with 2022 making a break from the norm when it comes to scheduling.
World Cup Finals Dates
As we shall discuss shortly, the 2022 World Cup will be held in the northern hemisphere winter due to the (in-no-way-corrupt or financially motivated) decision to hold it in the oil-rich desert micro-state of Qatar… nothing to see here! However, in general, the World Cup is held in June and July, with the dates varying slightly over the years and the tournament lasting longer as the number of teams at the finals has grown (see the history section below for more on that).
The 2018 World Cup, for example, ran from the 14th of June to the 15th of July, with Brazil 2014 starting on the 12th of June and ending on the 13th of July. The 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, actually began on the 31st of May, the final kicking off on the 30th of June. Mexico ‘86 also got underway in May, ending in June, whilst the 1978 World Cup in Argentina was notable in that it began and ended in the same month – June. Earlier World Cups tended to last for around three weeks, rather than the month we see now, with England’s victory over Germany in 1966 coming on the 30th of July, just 19 days after the Three Lions opened the tournament with a draw against Uruguay.
The 2022 tournament will start on the 20th of November and end on the 18th of December but this is an anomaly. Almost all football nations fit into the standard calendar which leaves, more or less, June and July free for major tournaments.
World Cup Finals Format
We will look at qualifying shortly and past formats in due course but for now, let us take a look at what a side will need to do to lift the World Cup trophy in Lusail on the 18th of December, 2022. 32 teams were divided into four pots based on FIFA rankings, with hosts Qatar put in the top pot despite a ranking of 51. The teams are drawn into eight groups of four teams, with certain restrictions limiting who can be drawn against each other (for example no group will contain more than two European sides, or two from any other single confederation).
The group stage will see all four teams play each other once, with the top two sides from each group progressing to the last 16. Sides are divided in what we would consider the most normal way – points total first, then goal difference, goals scored, head-to-head points, then down through various other minor tiebreakers with the last resort being the drawing of lots. In the second round of the competition the winners of each group will play the runners-up from another pre-assigned group.
From this point on, the World Cup follows a standard knockout formula along a pre-determined draw. So, for example, the winner of Group A will face the runner-up in Group B; the winner of that clash will then play the winner of the game between the group C winners and Group D runners-up; and so on, all the way through to the final. The day before the final the two losing semi finalists will contest a third-place play-off match.
FIFA World Cup Awards
The nation that wins the tournament overall claims the prosaically named FIFA World Cup Trophy, which replaced the Jules Rimet Trophy that Brazil earned the right to keep when they won their third World Cup in 1970. Sadly that earlier trophy was stolen in 1983 and is believed to have been melted down, with it having been made of 18 karat gold.
Players, coaches and management also receive a gold medal, whilst the winning federation will receive huge prize money in excess of $40m. In addition, awards are also made for the Golden Boot (top scorer), the Golden Ball (best player, as determined by FIFA technical committee and members of the media), the Golden Glove (for the best goalkeeper as decided by FIFA’s Technical Study Group), the self-explanatory Best Young Player (under 22 years of age) and the FIFA Fair Play Trophy. This latter award is granted to the side with the best fair play record that reached at least the second round of the World Cup.
World Cup Qualification Structure
The structure and format of World Cup qualifying is a lengthy, dry and dense topic but in brief, we can boil it down as such:
- Each of the six FIFA confederations run their own qualifying tournaments.
- Hosts qualify automatically.
- Confederations receive different numbers of places, with Europe (UEFA) having by far the most. Europe had 13, 10 given to winners of groups during the lengthy qualifying tournament and three via a play-off pathway that included group runners-up and some who qualified via the Nations League.
- CAF (Africa) had five spots, AFC (Asia) had five or six (six qualified), CONCACAF (North America) had three or four (four qualified), CONMEBOL (South America) had four or five (four qualified) and Oceania (OFC) had at best one but in reality zero.
- The uncertainty of some confederations is due to the use of intercontinental play-off matches. This meant, for example, that Costa Rica qualified at the expense of New Zealand and thus Oceania has no representatives in Qatar.
History of the World Cup
International matches had taken place between England and Scotland as early as 1872, whilst football featured as a demonstration sport at the first two Olympics of the 20th century. FIFA was established in 1904 and so it seemed a natural step for the game’s global governing body to establish an international tournament. Sadly it took some time for this to happen, and the first World Cup was not held until 1930.
Football did become an official, full Olympic sport in 1908, the hosts winning in London and retaining their title four years later. Football continued at the Olympics and was successful and, so eventually, thanks to the persistence of then-President, Jules Rimet, FIFA managed to get the World Cup off the ground, agreeing to stage a world championship in 1928. The tournament was scheduled to be in Uruguay in 1930, the venue chosen because Uruguay had won the gold at the Olympics in 1924 and 1928 and would also be celebrating 100 years of independence in 1930.
Early tournaments were limited by the difficulty of long-distance travel, with just 13 nations taking part in 1930, seven of those coming from South America (plus four from Europa, along with USA and Mexico). The hosts won and overall the tournament was a success, but due to FIFA and the International Olympic Committee wrangling over the amateur status of players, the sport was dropped from future Olympic Games.
More crucially as far as the World Cup itself is concerned though, a repeat tournament was agreed, to be staged in Italy in 1934. The quadrennial nature of the World Cup was in line with the Olympics and made sense with the difficulty and relative expense of travel back then. Italy beat Czechoslovakia 2-1 after extra time in the final in 1934 in an expanded tournament that saw 16 teams compete.
The 1938 World Cup was held in France and this decision was controversial as South American nations felt it should have alternated between their continent and Europe. A number of teams from the Americas boycotted the tournament for this reason, with Brazil the notable exception. This meant that just 15 teams played in the finals.
Due to WWII, the next edition of this great tournament was not until 1950, with Brazil hosting and British teams playing for the first time. The World Cup continued to prove a success and grew in terms of the number of teams trying to qualify, though the number of teams in the finals was kept at 16 as standard until 1982.
For a long time it did indeed alternate between Latin America and Europe, though the latter once again held consecutive tournaments in 1954 (Switzerland) and 1958 (Sweden). In 1994, USA hosted but the mould was well and truly broken in 2002 when Japan and South Korea co-hosted, the first time that there had been multiple hosts and also the first time the tournament was held outside Europe or the Americas.
In 1998, the tournament had expanded to 32 teams and this allowed for more nations from outside the main football strongholds to take part. Cameroon had done well at the World Cup back in 1990 but we now saw sides such as Senegal, Ghana and Cost Rica making the last eight. More history was made in 2010 when South Africa became the first nation from the continent to host the World Cup, whilst that year a record 204 countries attempted to qualify.
In general terms the history of the World Cup has been one of success and growth, with more people playing football and more nations wanting to take part in this extravaganza. That is predicted to continue, with the 2026 World Cup set to see 48 nations at the finals. Some feel this move is cynical and designed simply to make more money but there is also no doubt it will help grow the game in some lesser footballing nations by giving them the chance to compete on a truly global stage.
Key Changes to Tournament Organisation
There have not really been any huge changes in the way the World Cup functions, beyond wider rule changes that have applied to football more generally, tweaks to the finals structure as more teams have taken part, and other minor changes, such as the allocation of places at the finals. In addition we have seen small things, such as the occasional use of golden goals to decide games, tweaks to the bidding process to stage the World Cup and slightly different group stages prior to the knockout rounds.
One of the bigger changes was short-lived, with the 1950 World Cup having just two rounds. In the first there were four groups, strangely that included two groups of four nations, one with three and one with just two teams (after some countries withdrew). The best four then qualified for a mini-league, playing each other with the World Cup awarded to the side that topped this second group phase. Uruguay drew with Spain but beat Brazil and Sweden to prevail, albeit with a goal difference eight inferior to second-placed Brazil.