Every four years, the biggest sporting event on Earth brings together the best soccer national teams. But it means so much more than that. The World Cup is not just for the diehard soccer fans, it’s for everyone.
World soccer may have a lot to be entertained with every season. Champions League, Premier League, La Liga, MLS, you name it. But those tournaments can’t match the excitement that comes with a World Cup year. Fans from every corner of the globe, regardless of their country or the club they support, are always looking forward to this event that happens every four years.
The World Cup is the flagship tournament of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). FIFA defines: “taking place quadrennially, the FIFA Men's World Cup sees 32 nations compete against each other for the prize. With continental qualification pathways leading to an exciting finals event, it brings fans together around the passion and love for the game”.
It’s more than just a tournament. We’re talking about countries being united, fans connecting with each other, and people from different generations sharing experiences that stick for life—let alone for those who get to attend the games.
Nothing comes close to what the World Cup means for the soccer community. Not even the Olympic Games or other major competitions that take place only once in a while. Seeing your national team failing to qualify is one of the hardest feelings a soccer fan can experience. But even with all the pain that comes with that, no one wants to miss it.
The first FIFA World Cup in history was played in 1930 in Uruguay, with the host nation securing the first World Cup trophy at stake. Since then, the tournament has taken place every four years—except for 1942 and 1946.
The space between each tournament not only gives teams enough time to prepare properly for each edition, but also helps to create excitement and make the World Cup such a highly anticipated event for millions of people around the globe.
Since its inception in 1930, the FIFA World Cup has been played every four years—except in 1942 and 1946, when it stopped because of World War II.
The qualification for the FIFA World Cup is played by continent—FIFA decides how many berths are given to each confederation—and starts two years before the final tournament, with over 200 countries involved in the qualifiers. The host country automatically qualifies, while the rest 31 berths are up for grabs throughout the qualifying process. The number of teams that qualify for the World Cup has increased through the years, while its format has also gone through changes.
From 1998, the World Cup format included 32 teams split in eight groups of four, with the first two of each group making it to the knockout stage, played as one-off playoffs. However, Qatar 2022 will be the last edition under this format, as the 2026 World Cup will be expanded to 48 teams.
Argentina is the latest national team to win a FIFA World Cup, having emerged victorious at Qatar 2022. La Albiceleste are among the eight countries that have won the tournament at least once, and are the only team with three titles to their name—though they are not the winningest nation.
Brazil is the most successful national team in World Cup history, winning the coveted trophy an impressive five times. Still, it’s been more than two decades since its last triumph, which came in the 2002 World Cup played in South Korea and Japan.
Since the 1982 World Cup, the Golden Ball award has been given to the best player of the competition. The winner is determined by vote of media members. Additionally, the players who finish second and third in the voting receive the Silver Ball and Bronze Ball, respectively.
The Golden Boot is awarded to the top scorer of the World Cup. Though its introduction came in 1982, FIFA retrospectively applied this prize to all previous tournaments. The second and third top goalscorers are also recognized with the Silver Boot and Bronze Boot, respectively.
Goalkeepers also have an opportunity to be recognized with the Golden Glove, the award to the best goalie of the World Cup. Previously known as the Yashin Award to honor the legendary Soviet goalkeeper, it was introduced in 1994 and is given by the FIFA Technical Study Group.
The Best Young Player Award goes to the best player in the World Cup aged 21 or younger at the start of the calendar year. Also decided by the FIFA Technical Study Group, it was first awarded in 2006.
Since 1978, sportsmanship has also been rewarded in the World Cup with the FIFA Fair Play Trophy. It is given to the team with the best record of fair play according to the point system and criteria of the FIFA Fair Play Committee. Yellow cards and red cards are considered at the time of deciding which team deserves this recognition.
The public also has a say in the World Cup awards by voting for the Most Entertaining Team of the tournament. Introduced in 1994, a poll of the general public determines which nation has entertained the most in the World Cup.
In 1946, the World Cup trophy was renamed Jules Rimet Trophy in honor of the FIFA president who organized the first edition of the tournament. With their third title in 1970, Brazil were given the Jules Rimet Trophy permanently and a new trophy—called the FIFA World Cup Trophy—was created.
Unfortunately, the Jules Rimet Trophy was stolen in 1983 and has been missing since then (it is believed that it was melted down as it has yet to be recovered). However, since 1974 the trophy given to the world champion is the FIFA World Cup Trophy—though the team only holds the solid gold original trophy for the post-match celebrations, after that it receives a gold-plated replica.
Just like Brazil are the winningest national team in the World Cup history, Brazilian legend Pelé is the player with the most World Cup titles won. Pelé is the only player who has won the tournament on three occasions (1958, 1962, and 1970), while another 20 have won it twice.
Before the first official World Cup in 1930, the most important tournament at the international level was the soccer competition that was part of the Summer Olympics. The inception of the World Cup, however, is a result of soccer’s transition to the professional era, which wasn’t aligned with the Olympic spirit.
FIFA had been founded in 1904 but it wasn’t until the late 1920s that the organization decided to organize a World Cup. On May 26, 1928, the soccer governing body announced its intention to organize the first edition of what would eventually become one of, if not the most significant sports event in the world. Two years later, the first FIFA World Cup ever was played.
From that first edition in Uruguay, the FIFA World Cup has seen several changes to its format, including the number of participant teams as its popularity increased through the years. From 1998 to 2022 there have been 32 participants, but in 2026 the World Cup will be expanded to 48 teams.
Driven by FIFA president Jules Rimet, the governing body staged its first World Cup in 1930. Uruguay was given the hosting rights to the inaugural edition to honor its centenary of independence and its two championships in the Olympic era.
Rimet convinced Belgium, France, Romania, and Yugoslavia to travel to Uruguay. Consequently, seven nations from South America, four from Europe, and two from North America competed in the tournament. The hosts eventually secured the first ever World Cup trophy by beating Argentina in front of 93,000 fans in Montevideo.
Many teams in the Americas were unwilling to make the trip to Europe for the 1934 World Cup, but it still had 16 participant nations. Once again, the host country emerged victorious. In this case, Italy grabbed its first World Cup trophy.
All North and South American teams—except for Brazil and Cuba—boycotted the 1938 World Cup, which had 15 participants instead of 16 as Austria was absorbed into Germany. The Italian national team won its second consecutive title.
After a twelve-year absence because of World War II, the World Cup returned in 1950 with the introduction of British teams for the first time. The withdrawal of India, Scotland, and Turkey left the tournament with 13 participants. Uruguay won the cup after boycotting the last two editions in a memorable “Maracanazo” win over the host country.
In Switzerland 1954, a historic Hungary side fell just short of the ultimate glory against West Germany, who won its first ever World Cup. There was a total attendance of nearly 769,000 fans.
The number of venues in this tournament doubled the ones in Switzerland, with 12 different stadiums for the 1958 Sweden World Cup. Brazil began a string of two consecutive titles by taking down the hosts in the final.
Only four venues were selected for the 1962 World Cup in Chile, in which Brazil confirmed its dominance by winning the tournament in great fashion. Pelé took the spotlight again, confirming he was the world’s best.
England finally got its hands on the coveted trophy in its first edition as the host country. A total attendance of over 1,500,000 people surpassed the over 1 million mark set in Brazil.
Pelé won his third and last World Cup title in Mexico 1970, where the number of attendees overtook those of the previous tournament.
The World Cup’s popularity kept on increasing as nearly 2 million people attended the tournament in West Germany. As it happened before, the host nation won the trophy.
Argentina’s wait for a World Cup title ended in 1978, when it hosted the competition for the first time ever. Unfortunately, terrible things were happening in the country while the tournament was being played because of the military dictatorship.
The number of attendants surpassed the 2 million mark for the first time in Spain 1982, where the tournament was also expanded to 24 teams—which allowed more teams from Africa, Asia, and North America to participate.
Mexico 1986 was highlighted by Diego Armando Maradona’s fantastic tournament, in which he led Argentina to its second World Cup triumph in memorable fashion. Additionally, this was the last World Cup to have over 100,000 fans in the final.
Italy 1990 was the first World Cup to have a total attendance in excess of 2,500,000. West Germany beat Argentina in a controversial final.
With more than 3,500,000 people attending the tournament, 1994 United States remains the World Cup with the largest number of attendance.
The 24-team format came to an end when FIFA decided to expand the World Cup to 32 teams for France 1998. France won its first title on home soil.
The 2002 World Cup was the first to be played in Asia, and also the first to have two hosts: South Korea and Japan.
This World Cup had a high number of attendees again, with nearly 3,400,000 fans witnessing the tournament held in Germany.
Africa’s turn to host a World Cup finally came in 2010, when South Africa held the sport’s most anticipated tournament. That year, the world got to know the noisy vuvuzelas.
After decades of wait, the World Cup finally returned to South America when Brazil was given the hosting rights for the 2014 World Cup.
The last World Cup before Qatar was won by France, who claimed its second title by beating Croatia 4-2 in the grand final.
In one of the most memorable World Cups in recent history, the wait came to an end for Lionel Messi and Argentina. La Albiceleste lifted the trophy for the third time after taking down then reigning champs France in a dramatic shootout win.
Though there have already been 22 editions of the prestigious tournament, only eight national teams know what it’s like to taste the ultimate glory. Brazil are the most successful team, while Netherlands are the nation with the most finals played without a single title. These are the all-time World Cup winners.
Teams with most FIFA World Cup titles and finals:
All 22 editions of the World Cup had a final match to determine the winner. Some of them went to extra time, while on other occasions the champion was decided on penalties.
Throughout World Cup history, there have been many iconic moments that will live long in the fans’ memory. Some will make the teams or players in question prouder than others, but all of them will always be remembered regardless.
Fifty-one minutes into the Argentina-England game in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup, Diego Maradona scored a handball goal to give his side the lead. The referees didn’t have a clear view and thought he scored with his head, therefore making the goal legal. After the game, Maradona said the goal was scored “a little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God.”
But there was room for another iconic moment in that memorable game. Four minutes after his ‘Hand of God’ goal, Maradona scored a breathtaking solo goal dubbed the “Goal of the Century.” The Argentine star took the ball in his own half, started a 60-yard run, left behind five English players—including goalkeeper Peter Shilton—and sent the ball to the empty net to extend Argentina’s lead. His team ended up winning 2-1.
Zinedine Zidane made big headlines after the 2006 World Cup final but for the wrong reasons. With 10 minutes left in extra time, France and Italy were tied 1-1. Shockingly, Zidane left his team down to ten men for headbutting Marco Materazzi. The Italian defender later revealed what happened between them: “After a third clash between us, I frowned and he retorted: 'I'll give you my shirt later.’ I replied that I'd rather have his sister than his shirt.”
In the opening game of the 2010 World Cup, Siphiwe Tshabalala gave South Africa the lead over Mexico with an absolute stunner. That goal was celebrated by an entire continent, and the celebration was also an iconic moment of that tournament.
The stakes were higher than ever when Uruguay and Ghana met in the quarterfinals of South Africa 2010. With the game tied 1-1 after 120 minutes, Luis Suarez’s handball prevented Ghana from securing the win at the death. Asamoah Gyan missed his spot-kick and Uruguay went on to win on penalties—with a memorable panenka from Sebastian Abreu—to advance to the semi-finals.
Only 28 minutes into the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and Netherlands, Nigel de Jong was booked for landing an ugly kick on the chest of Xabi Alonso.
The Uruguayan striker was once again in the eye of the storm for biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in the 2014 World Cup. Suarez later received a four-month suspension from all soccer competitions.
In the quarterfinals of Brazil 2014, penalties seemed inevitable as Netherlands and Costa Rica were goalless in extra time. In the 121th minute, Dutch coach Louis van Gaal pulled off a shock by switching goalkeepers: Jasper Cillessen was subbed off for Tim Krul. The move paid off, as Krul saved two penalties to help Netherlands win. Van Gaal didn’t do the same in the semi-finals against Argentina and his side had to settle with a third-place finish.
The FIFA World Cup is so much more than just a soccer tournament where the best national teams face each other. While it’s undoubtedly the most anticipated tournament for fans of the beautiful game, the World Cup is also of interest to the general public.
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