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A Complete History of the FIFA World Cup

The FIFA World Cup is THE preeminent sports competition in the world.

As an event that takes place every four years, just like the Olympics, the preceding years serve as the qualification phase. Teams from over 200 countries have a chance to qualify before the field is eventually narrowed down to the 32 teams that compete in this prestigious event.

Millions of people attend World Cup matches, and billions more watch on television in countries that circle the globe. It’s a unifying event that puts the spotlight on national pride through soccer, the world’s leading sport with an estimated four billion loyal fans.

The World Cup has put players on the map and created memorable moments throughout its 88-year run that began in 1930. Russia will be playing host to the June 2018 edition of the tournament, the 21st of its kind.

As you can imagine, an event that involves more than 200 national member associations around the world is a significant undertaking. But when and where did this tournament get started? And how did it grow into such a major event?

We’ll answer these questions and more right here on this page. Below is a look at some of the most newsworthy moments the World Cup has produced. We’ll explore the road that’s traveled from Uruguay to Russia and all of the stops in between.

The Early Years

The first World Cup may not have been held until 1930, but international soccer got started long before that. The first match between two countries was held in the 19th century, when Scotland and England faced off in 1872.

The early 1900s prompted a surge in popularity for the sport and a subsequent increase in national associations. In 1902, for example, Uruguay and Argentina competed in Montevideo. This would also happen to be the site of the first World Cup some 28 years later.

1904 – FIFA Is Created

The international matches were exciting, and it was apparent that the fan base would support them. So, in 1904, FIFA (Fedération Internationale de Football Association) was founded in Paris.

The first members included France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. The FIFA committee was devoted to attracting England to the group as soon as possible and was eventually successful in 1905. Scotland, Wales, Ireland, as well as Germany, Austria, Italy, and Hungary followed suit shortly after that.

While some of the earlier competitions proved to be disappointing, the organization kept moving forward, and the Olympics served to be their training ground.

FIFA and the Olympics

In 1908, FIFA supervised the participation of international soccer teams in the Olympics, with the English Football Association given the responsibility of organizing the teams. In 1914, though, FIFA took over the reins entirely for subsequent Olympic competitions.

The problem with the structure was the Olympic requirement of amateur status. Professional teams were popping up, so a new format was necessary.

The World Cup: From 1930 to Present Day

In 1928, Jules Rimet, FIFA’s president at the time, had the idea for the organization to host its own international tournament.

The timing was ideal, as the upcoming 1932 Summer Olympics were to be held in Los Angeles, and soccer was eliminated. The sport wasn’t embraced in the United States as it was in other parts of the world.

As Uruguay had claimed two official world championships in earlier FIFA competition and was also celebrating its 100 years of independence in 1930, it was designated as the first host country of the inaugural FIFA World Cup.

While the plans were sensible and the timing seemed to be ideal, the first competition only included 13 nations. Many European countries were opposed to the long, expensive trip, and only four eventually agreed to participate.

More than 93,000 people were in attendance for the final match in Montevideo to witness Uruguay become the first-ever nation to win the World Cup.

Expansion to 16 Teams

In 1934, the World Cup not only moved to Italy but also integrated a qualifying phase into the tournament, similar to what still takes place today.

The second World Cup event was notable for having 16 teams qualify and a boycott by Uruguay. Just as many European teams didn’t wish to participate in the 1930 event, Uruguay opted to decline travel to Europe for 1934’s.

Last Pre-War Cup

The 16-team format was repeated in 1938 and remained intact until 1982. The European-South American controversy continued when France was given hosting rights.

Uruguay once again boycotted and was this time joined by Argentina in protest of another European-held finals.

This last event before World War II’s cancellations was notable for adding automatic qualification for the host’s team. But even though France was given the nod to participate, it didn’t follow suit with a win for the home team.

Hiatus Until 1950

World War II prompted two cancellations. Both the 1942 and 1946 events were abandoned. Germany was incidentally supposed to be the host for the 1942 event as it was determined six years prior.

While the 1946 event could have technically been held, the war depleted FIFA’s resources, so it couldn’t turn around an event within one year without the financial backing needed.

The British Are Coming

Not only did the World Cup resume in 1950, but it would finally include British teams for the first time. While England was initially a part of FIFA in its early years, it withdrew in 1920 due to World War I contention with participants.

The 1950 matches were best known for England’s upset by the United States in a shocking 1-0 loss that no one saw coming.

Uruguay returned to competition, but in 1950, Eastern European countries would be no-shows due to the political climate at the time.

World Cup on the Small Screen

In 1954, the World Cup made history when it was televised from its Switzerland location. The Soviet Union backed out because of its less than stellar performance in the 1952 Summer Olympics.

TV viewers not only witnessed a West German victory but several record-setting moments, including Hungary as the highest-scoring team and Austria with the most goals in a single match.

Pelé and 1958

You don’t have to be a soccer fan to know the name Pelé. In 1958, he not only led the Brazil team to victory but did so as the youngest player to ever appear in a final match at the time, at just 17 years of age.

Pelé would continue to be a part of Brazil’s victories in 1962 and 1970 as well.

Brazil was also noteworthy for claiming the first World Cup championship outside their home continent, as the 1958 competition was held in Sweden.

England and Mexico

In 1966, England hosted the World Cup for the first time, and marketing was the name of the game. The event not only adopted a logo but a mascot for the first time.

England Logo and Mascot 1966

Mexico hosted in 1970, and Brazil claimed its third and record-breaking victory. The Jules Rimet trophy that had been awarded annually on a temporary basis was permanently bestowed to Brazil for their accomplishments.

FIFA World Cup Trophy

Now trophy-less, the organization needed to come up with something new. So, the FIFA World Cup trophy emerged in 1974 and was awarded to West Germany, who beat the Netherlands in the final match.

FIFA World Cup Trophy

The Military Coup Didn’t Halt Competition

Two years before the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, the country was subject to a military coup that surprisingly didn’t deter any participation. The home team took the championship, but the Dutch impressed as second-year runners-up.

Up to 24

Since the second World Cup event, the finals featured 16 of the best teams. In Spain’s 1982 competition, eight teams were added to result in 24 total participants divided into six groups of four.  The top two teams advanced, and then the winner of each of the four groups became semi-finalists.

The 1982 matches were highlighted by an incredible 10-1 victory by Hungary over El Salvador. It was the only time that a team had scored ten goals in any World Cup match.

Repeat Hosts

Mexico played host again in 1986, and Italy in 1990. But 1986’s host couldn’t participate in Italy due to sanctions resulting from youth championship age fraud.

The United States returned to competition for the first time since 1950, when it finally qualified again in 1990.

The United States

The US played host in 1994 and set an attendance record of 3.6 million in total attendance for the final tournaments. But the Americans weren’t able to take a home turf victory as Brazil claimed yet another World Cup championship.

The 1994 competition was also notable as England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales were all non-qualifiers.

Bump to 32 and a First for Asia

When France hosted the World Cup again in 1998, the field expanded once again to the 32-team format that is still used currently.

In 2002, the World Cup was jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan. It was the first time that Asia accommodated the tournament final. Five-time winner Brazil didn’t allow for an Asian victory, though, beating out Germany in the final match.

New Qualification and Host

For the 2006 World Cup in Germany, it was decided that the previous year’s winner, Brazil in this case, would need to qualify. They would no longer receive a free ride based on possession of the trophy.

The 2010 matches were held in South Africa for the first time. Even though Spain lost its opening match to Switzerland, the team still went on to World Cup victory.

Too Hot in Brazil

In 2014, Brazil hosted the World Cup for the second time, with the extreme temperatures prompting new cooling breaks for players during matches.

This tournament will perhaps be remembered best for the incredible semi-final between Germany and Brazil. The Germans beat the hosts convincingly, recording a 7-1 scoreline.

Germany beat Argentina by 1-0 in the finals and has been the reigning trophy winner until the 2018 edition.

The Host Cities

From the 1930 inaugural event in Uruguay to the 2018 competition scheduled in Russia, the FIFA World Cup has been embraced worldwide.

Some locations like France, Italy, Mexico, and Brazil have been two-time hosts.

The following is a complete listing of all 20 World Cup finals and the region where they were each held.


Participating Teams:32
Goals Scored:171
Average Attendance:52,918
Final Match:Germany 1 – Argentina 0 (AET)

Host:South Africa
Participating Teams:32
Goals Scored:145
Average Attendance:49,669
Final Match:Spain 1 – Netherlands 0 (AET)

Participating Teams:32
Goals Scored:147
Average Attendance:52,491
Final Match:Italy 1 – France 1 (won on penalty kicks)

Host:South Korea/Japan
Participating Teams:32
Goals Scored:161
Average Attendance:42,268
Final Match:Brazil 2 – Germany – 0

Participating Teams:32
Goals Scored:171
Average Attendance:43,517
Final Match:France 3 – Brazil 0

Host:United States
Participating Teams:24
Goals Scored:141
Average Attendance:68,991
Final Match:Brazil 0 – Italy 0 (won on penalty kicks)

Champion:West Germany
Participating Teams:24
Goals Scored:115
Average Attendance:48,388
Final Match:West Germany 1 – Argentina 0

Participating Teams:24
Goals Scored:132
Average Attendance:46,039
Final Match:Argentina 3 – West Germany 2

Participating Teams:24
Goals Scored:146
Average Attendance:40,571
Final Match:Italy 3 – West Germany 1

Participating Teams:16
Goals Scored:102
Average Attendance:40,678
Final Match:Argentina 3 – Netherlands 1 (AET)

Host:West Germany
Champion:West Germany
Participating Teams:16
Goals Scored:97
Average Attendance:49,098
Final Match:West Germany 2 – Netherlands 1

Participating Teams:16
Goals Scored:95
Average Attendance:50,124
Final Match:Brazil 4 – Italy 1

Participating Teams:16
Goals Scored:89
Average Attendance:48,847
Final Match:England 4 – West Germany 2 (AET)

Participating Teams:16
Goals Scored:89
Average Attendance:27,911
Final Match:Brazil 3 – Czechoslovakia 1

Participating Teams:16
Goals Scored:126
Average Attendance:23,423
Final Match:Brazil 5 – Sweden 2

Champion:West Germany
Participating Teams:16
Goals Scored:140
Average Attendance:29,561
Final Match:West Germany 3 – Hungary 2

Participating Teams:13
Goals Scored:88
Average Attendance:47,511
Final Match:Uruguay 2 – Brazil 1

Participating Teams:15
Goals Scored:84
Average Attendance:20,872
Final Match:Italy 4 – Hungary 2

Participating Teams:16
Goals Scored:70
Average Attendance:21,352
Final Match:Italy 2 – Czechoslovakia 1 (AET)

Participating Teams:13
Goals Scored:70
Average Attendance:32,808
Final Match:Uruguay 4 – Argentina 2

Beckham and Pelé

Soccer (aka football) has been a tough sell in the United States. Football is American football, and the knowledge of famous players is quite limited.

The following, though, are two memorable World Cup players with names that are instantly recognizable, even to Americans.

David Beckham and the 1998 Leg Flick

Time changes everything, as David Beckham has become one of soccer’s biggest names and most loved players. But in 1998, Beckham was a four-letter word with most fans after he flicked his leg, causing Diego Simeone to trip. The incident earned Beckham a red card and left England one man short in a tied game against Argentina.

England lost the win in penalties, and the blame was directed toward Beckham.

The media changed their tune in 2002, though, when Beckham scored a penalty in a 1-0 victory against Argentina once again. The jeers were replaced by cheers, and Beckham’s famous career continued until his retirement in 2013, although his move to the US created more English jeers than cheers all over again.

The World Is Introduced to Pelé

He may now be considered to be one of the best soccer players ever. But in 1958, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka Pelé, was just 17 years old and a newcomer to the game. His age didn’t prove to be a hindrance, though. Not only was the 1958 tournament a success for Brazil, but Pelé was an integral part of the 1962 and 1970 winning Brazilian teams as well.

He’s the only player in World Cup history to be a three-time winner.

In his 1958 inaugural appearance, Pelé scored two goals in the finals victory against Sweden. By the time the 1962 tournament came around, Pelé had established himself as the top-rated player in the world. He was known for his ability to make effective, powerful shots with either foot.

World Cup Memorable Moments

Books have been filled with memorable moments in FIFA World Cup history. So, we won’t be covering everything here.

But here are a few that are noteworthy in the 88-year history of this premier global tournament.


FIFA is founded in Paris.


FIFA President Jules Rimet proposes a FIFA-run international tournament.


Uruguay plays host to the first-ever World Cup competition featuring 13 teams.


Italy hosts the second World Cup and a 16-team format with a new qualification phase that remains until 1982.


The 1942 and 1946 events are canceled due to World War II.


The 1946 South American Championship showcases an Argentinian win over Brazil and an unsuccessful attempt by South America to claim it as a World Cup event.


The first World Cup is held post-war and includes Britain for the first time.


The US team defeats England in a shocking outcome.


The World Cup is televised for the first time, and Switzerland is the chosen location.


The Miracle of Bern match features West Germany defeating current Olympic championship team, Hungary, overturning a two-point deficit.


17-year-old Brazilian player Pelé makes his World Cup debut appearance.


The match between Italy and Chile is called the Battle of Santiago as players from both sides deliberately try to injure their opponents.


This year features the only goal scored directly from a corner kick by Colombia’s Marcos Coll to Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin.


The World Cup launches a mascot and official logo through new marketing initiatives.


The Jules Rimet trophy is permanently awarded to the three-time winner, Brazil, and is replaced with a new FIFA World Cup trophy.


The Total Football system is made famous by the Dutch, allowing an outfield player to take the role of another player.


The 16-team format is expanded to 24 teams.


France’s Patrick Battiston is taken off the field on a stretcher, unconscious and three teeth short after one of the most brutal tackles in Cup history by German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher.


A new FIFA rule requires all final group games to be held simultaneously.


David Beckham’s first World Cup appearance isn’t a positive one as his “foot flick” penalty may have cost England the win.


The current 32-team format is adopted with teams determined from two years of qualification events.


Asia hosts the World Cup for the first time, with both South Korea and Japan sharing the responsibility.


The rules change, so the previous winner no longer receives a free ride to the following tournament.


Brazil is destroyed in its first home tournament since 1950 in a 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-finals, essentially a career-ending outcome for many.


Russia hosts the 21st FIFA World Cup tournament.

FIFA World Cup Best of the Best

The World Cup has hosted legends, created an ever-changing record book, and provided a means of putting the best of the best soccer players in the world in front of billions of fans over the years.

Just as the memorable moments would take books to do them justice, so would the stand-out teams and players. But we wanted to provide you with at least a few of the record holders that have a permanent place in World Cup history.

It’s a team effort, so let’s start with the team records over the years.

Team with the Most Victories

Brazil took the number-one World Cup spot in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, and 2002, with the superstar player, Pelé, on the field for the first three out of five.

Two teams come runner-up to Brazil in terms of number victories.

Italy was the champion in the second and third-ever World Cup competitions in 1934 and 1938, as well as 1982 and 2006. Germany’s victories were spread out over the years starting in 1954 and including 1974, 1990, and 2014.

Highest-Ranking Team

Over the past 80+ years, Brazil has played 104 matches and recorded a 70-17 win-loss record with 17 draws. Brazil’s point-ranking is 227. Germany follows behind with 106 matches and a 66-20-20 record and 218 points.

Incidentally, the United States comes in at 23 with 33 matches and an 8 and 19 record with six draws. The US has 30 points.

The Team with the Most Cards

Within 77 matches, Argentina has received 120 total cards, including 111 yellow. Germany follows with 117 cards (110 yellow) in 106 matches, and Brazil has 108 cards (97 yellow) in 104 matches.

Now let’s look at the FIFA World Cup’s most notable players.

Player Appearing in the Most World Cups

This is a three-way tie between Antonio Carbajal, Lothar Matthaus, and Gianluigi Buffon.

All three players have been a part of five World Cup tournaments. Carbajal is from Mexico and was a team member in 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, and 1966. He made 32 appearances with a 17-9 win-loss record and seven draws.

Matthaus played in 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, and 1998 for Germany. He made 36 appearances, scored ten goals, and recorded a 22-6 record with eight draws. He went on to record a 10-match coaching history with four wins, 4 losses, and two draws.

Buffon made his debut for Italy in 1993 in the FIFA U-18 World Championship in Japan. He appeared in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014 World Cups. His record is 27-15 with ten draws in 52 matches.

Youngest Player in the FIFA World Cup

While Pelé initially broke the record for the youngest player, he was knocked down to the fifth position over the past few decades. Norman Whiteside from Northern Ireland now holds the record. In the 1982 competition, he was 17 years, one month, and ten days old. Pelé was 17 years, seven months, and 23 days in 1958.

Oldest Player in the FIFA World Cup

Colombian Faryd Mondragon participated in the 2014 tournament in Brazil. At the time, Mondragon had just turned 43 years of age.

Player Who Scored the Most Goals

Germany’s Klose recorded 29 goals in 43 tournament appearances. His win-loss record is 30 and 5 with eight draws. He participated in 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014 World Cups, including qualifiers in 2002, 2010, and 2014.

Most Goals in One Match

In 1994, Salenko broke the World Cup record that still holds up today by scoring five goals in Russia’s match versus Cameroon. His record-breaking appearance ended up being his last wearing Russian colors, as the new head coach replaced most of the team with younger players. Before Salenko, six players were tied with four goals each.

Player with the Most Cards

Three players from 1994 through 2014 are tied with six cards each. France’s player and, later, coach, Zinedine Zidane received four yellow and two red cards in his three tournament appearances between 1998 and 2006.

Rafael Marquez from Mexico participated in four World Cups from 2002 to 2014 with five yellow and one red card.

Cafu from Brazil played in 20 matches in 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006 World Cups with six yellow cards over the years.

The World Cup and the Olympics

It’s easy to find the parallels between the World Cup and the Olympics, starting with them both scheduled for every four years. In the early days of FIFA, the Olympics were the primary international platform for football competition.

While both events are global and prestigious, there are some notable differences. So, the following is a comparison of the FIFA World Cup to the Olympics.


There are 206 participating National Olympic Committees compared to the 209 FIFA member associations.

Those 209 are whittled down to 32 teams through the qualifying process.

The Price of Admission

If you go to a ticket broker, you could be paying more for either event. But regular ticket prices will run you between $141 and $1,739 for various Olympic events. The World Cup matches are priced at $105 up to $1,100.

Televised Events

This may be a surprise to you, but it’s almost a tie when you look back at TV viewership for both.

Broadcasting reaches more than 200 territories for both the Olympics and the World Cup. Viewership exceeds three billion for each as well. The Olympics slightly edges out the World Cup with more spectators, but it’s relatively close for the two global events.

Other Comparisons

The trophy for the World Cup teams is made of 18 karat gold, but it’s a loaner. You have to return it before the next tournament. Winning Olympians receive gold medals that they keep and show off without any time limit.

While the United States has shown off its expertise in a plethora of summer and winter Olympic events, it has never fully embraced the soccer phenomenon that has captured the attention of fans everywhere else.


The World Cup is a global event. Many of its milestones and memories have revolved around the participating countries, including politics and the global climate. Nations have popped in and out of participation and qualification, with new participants joining the ranks of premier teams from Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Spain, and Germany.

Qualifiers for the 2018 event include newcomers Panama as well as Iceland, the smallest populated nation to ever participate in the World Cup.

The World Cup has elevated players to star status in their home countries and prompted national enthusiasm around the world. The tournament brings out commonality in fans around the globe who love soccer, as they take pride in their country and its accomplishments.

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