It’s the biggest soccer show on Earth and this year’s World Cup promises to be bigger than ever. The best players on the planet will converge on Qatar in November to do battle for the coveted golden World Cup trophy in search of personal and national glory.
While the modern World Cup is a global, multi-media event, the tournament itself has a long and fascinating history, going all the way back to the original event in 1930. Whether you are betting on the games using the best sportsbook promotions or watching the matches as a fan, having a sense of the World Cup’s history can enhance and deepen your understanding. So how has the World Cup changed?
Number of teams
When the first World Cup was staged, in Uruguay, there was no qualification tournament. Instead, every nation affiliated with the world’s football body FIFA was invited to take part and given a deadline to accept the invitation. The tournament had been planned around an entry list of 16 teams, but in the end, only 13 nations accepted the invitation, leading to a lopsided tournament structure.
For the 1934 and 1938 tournaments, there were 16 and 15 entrants respectively, but for the 1950 World Cup – the first staged after the Second World War – the number of participants dropped to 13 again and the future of the competition was in some doubt.
Since then, however, the World Cup has continued to expand. It featured 16 teams from 1954 to 1978, and then expanded to 24 from 1982, and the current 32-team event started in 1998. The next World Cup, in 2026, is set to be expanded even further, with 48 teams expected to take part.
The essential World Cup format has remained unchanged since 1998. Teams are divided into groups of four, with the winners and runners-up progressing to the knockout phase, leading to the final.
Prior to that, however, there were a number of different formats as the organizers attempted to find the correct blend between a proper test of footballing skill and entertaining knockout drama. They haven’t always got it right – the 1934 and 1938 tournaments were run as straight knockouts, which meant half of the teams involved only played one game in the tournament.
By contrast, the 1950 tournament ended up with a final group of four, which was probably fairer on the participants, but meant that the World Cup lacked an official final. Between 1974 and 1982, FIFA combined an initial group stage with a subsequent group stage, leading to semifinals and a final, but that often resulted in top teams being knocked out before the latter stages, as happened in 1982, when Italy, Brazil and Argentina were all in the same second-round group and only Italy went through.
Since 1986, however, the current blend of a group round followed by knockout stages has remained the same and has provided the right balance, ensuring that every team will play at least three games.
Expanding the football family
Europe and South America have always been the strongholds of global soccer, but FIFA has from the start attempted to expand the football family – and with increasing success.
The first eight tournaments were held either in South America or Europe. The first change from that formula came in 1970, when Mexico were the hosts. Mexico again hosted the tournament in 1986, but FIFA wanted to go further. Since 1994, the tournament has been staged in the USA (1994), Japan and South Korea (2002), South Africa (2010) and this year, it will be held in Qatar.
The World Cup has become an increasingly global experience in terms of performances on the pitch. The expansion to 24 and then 32 teams has given nations from Asia and Africa in particular the chance to show what they can do on the biggest stage. Three African nations: Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 have reached the quarterfinals and there have been a number of strong performances from Asian nations, most notably South Korea’s semifinal qualification in 2002.
The World Cup has survived through numerous international conflicts, controversy, rule changes, scandals and expansions, and will continue to face challenges, but it remains unbeaten as the world’s best soccer tournament. This year, tens of millions of soccer fans will tune in to see the greatest sports show on Earth, and some of the world’s best players will have the chance to enter the history books.