Soccer Academy 105: World Cup 101 (Beginners Guide)

The fact that the World Cup is the most-watched single-sport sporting event in the world should tell you all you need to know about this historic tournament. Over half of the global population tunes in to the competition and the winner of the tournament is dubbed the world champion of soccer for the next four years. Here is the what, how, who, where, when, and why of one of the greatest sports tournaments in the world, the FIFA World Cup.

What is the World Cup? How does it work?

The FIFA World Cup is an international men’s soccer competition that takes place every four years. The first World Cup took place in 1930 after FIFA decided to create a world championship soccer tournament separate from the soccer tournament in the Olympics. Only 13 teams total partook in the first World Cup in 1930 in Uruguay. The 13 teams included seven South American countries, two North American countries, and four European countries, and the tournament was eventually won by the host nation. Despite early difficulties that the competition faced, most notably intercontinental travel and war, the World Cup quickly overshadowed Olympic soccer as the main international soccer competition. The first-ever World Cup matches occurred simultaneously and were won by France and the United States.

From 1934 to 1978, the norm was that 16 teams would take part in the World Cup, barring any late withdrawals or international vagaries. The 1982 World Cup was the first to include 24 teams, and the competition finally expanded to the current format of 32 teams in 1998. These expansions allowed more countries outside of Europe and the Americas to qualify for the tournament. However, no country outside of Europe or South America has ever made it to the final. The World Cup is set to expand a third time to include 46 teams, a change that will take effect for the 2026 tournament.

The 32 teams that qualify enter into eight groups of four teams. The teams in each group play a round-robin tournament, in which a win earns a team three points, a draw earns a team one point, and a loss earns a team no points. After each team has played each other, the top two teams in each group advance to the single-match knockout stage. The round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals, and final all go into extra time and then penalties in the event of a tie.

Who plays in the World Cup?

Any nation that is a member of FIFA, of which there are over 200, can participate in World Cup qualification. World Cup qualifiers begin three years prior to the tournament, and each continental zone has its own format of qualification, all of which include groups of teams that take part in a tournament. FIFA determines how many countries from each continental zone, or confederation, can qualify for the tournament. UEFA (Europe) usually receives 13 berths, while CAF (Africa) receives five, CONMEBOL (South America) and AFC (Asia) receive four or five, CONCACAF (North America) receives three or four, and OFC (Oceania) receives zero or one. A few teams from AFC, CONMEBOL, AND CONCACAF enter into a tournament with the winning team from OFC’s qualifiers, and two teams advance in that way, which is why the exact number of teams that qualify from those confederations isn’t exact. In total, 31 teams will advance to the tournament through qualifiers, and the host nation receives an automatic berth, totaling 32 teams in the tournament. However, these numbers will increase after the 2022 World Cup due to FIFA’s planned expansion of the tournament to 48 teams.

When is the World Cup?

The World Cup started in 1930 and takes place every four years. The tournament usually takes place during the summer due to the fact that most leagues in the world are between seasons at this time. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar, however, will take place in November and December due to the intense summer heat in that region.

Where does the World Cup take place?

The World Cup changes location every tournament. Nations apply to host the World Cup years in advance. The last three World Cups have been in South Africa, Brazil, and Russia, while the 2022 World Cup will be in Qatar and the 2026 World Cup will be in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The 2026 World Cup will be the first World Cup hosted by three nations.

Why is the World Cup so popular?

The World Cup is the most popular sport’s most important tournament. Soccer is the most popular sport in the majority of the world’s countries, and for a country that loves a sport to have the chance of being represented by its best players of that sport on a global stage kindles an immense amount of pride. Nations dream of qualifying for the World Cup, let alone winning it, because the pride of rooting for one’s nation brings people together and reminds people that we’re all the same at the end of the day.

World Cup Results

YearHost NationWinnerRunner UpThird PlaceFourth PlaceGolden Ball (MVP)Golden Boot (top scorer)Golden Glove (best goalkeeper)
1930UruguayUruguayArgentinaUnited StatesYugoslaviaJosé Nasazzi (Uruguay)Guillermo Stábile (Argentina)Enrique Ballestrero (Uruguay)
1934ItalyItalyCzechoslovakiaGermanyAustriaGiuseppe Meazza (Italy)Oldřich Nejedlý (Czechoslovakia)Ricardo Zamora (Spain)
1938FranceItalyHungaryBrazilSwedenLeônidas (Brazil)Leônidas (Brazil)František Plánička (Czechoslovakia)
1950BrazilUruguayBrazilSwedenSpainZizinho (Brazil)Ademir (Brazil)Roque Máspoli (Uruguay)
1954SwitzerlandWest GermanyHungaryAustriaUruguayFerenc Puskás (Hungary)Sándor Kocsis (Hungary)Gyula Grosics (Hungary)
1958SwedenBrazilSwedenFranceWest GermanyDidi (Brazil)Just Fontaine (France)Harry Gregg (Northern Ireland)
1962ChileBrazilCzechoslovakiaChileYugoslaviaGarrincha (Brazil)Flórián Albert (Hungary), Valentin Ivanov (Soviet Union), Garrincha (Brazil), Vavá (Brazil), Dražan Jerković (Croatia), Leonel SánchezViliam Schrojf (Czechoslovakia)
1966EnglandEnglandWest GermanyPortugalSoviet UnionBobby Charlton (England)Eusébio (Portugal)Gordon Banks (England)
1970MexicoBrazilItalyWest GermanyUruguayPelé (Brazil)Gerd Müller (West Germany)Ladislao Mazurkiewicz (Uruguay)
1974West GermanyWest GermanyNetherlandsPolandBrazilJohan Cruyff (Netherlands)Grzegorz Lato (Poland)Sepp Maier (West Germany)
1978ArgentinaArgentinaNetherlandsBrazilItalyMario Kempes (Argentina)Mario Kempes (Argentina)Ubaldo Fillol (Argentina)
1982SpainItalyWest GermanyPolandFrancePaolo Rossi (Italy)Paolo Rossi (Italy)Dino Zoff (Italy)
1986MexicoArgentinaWest GermanyFranceBelgiumDiego Maradona (Argentina)Gary Lineker (England)Jean-Marie Pfaff (Belgium)
1990ItalyWest GermanyArgentinaItalyEnglandSalvatore Schillaci (Italy)Salvatore Schillaci (Italy)Luis Gabelo Conejo (Costa Rica), Sergio Goycochea (Argentina)
1994United StatesBrazilItalySwedenBulgariaRomario (Brazil)Oleg Salenko (Russia), Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria)Michel Preud'homme (Belgium)
1998FranceFranceBrazilCroatiaNetherlandsRonaldo (Brazil)Davor Šuker (Croatia)Fabien Barthez (France)
2002South Korea, JapanBrazilGermanyTurkeySouth KoreaOliver Kahn (Germany)Ronaldo (Brazil)Oliver Kahn (Germany)
2006GermanyItalyFranceGermanyPortugalZinedine Zidane (France)Miroslav Klose (Germany)Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
2010South AfricaSpainNetherlandsGermanyUruguayDiego Forlán (Uruguay)Thomas Müller (Germany)Iker Casillas (Spain)
2014BrazilGermanyArgentinaNetherlandsBrazilLionel Messi (Argentina)James Rodríguez (Colombia)Manuel Neuer (Germany)
2018RussiaFranceCroatiaBelgiumEnglandLuka Modrić (Croatia)Harry Kane (England)Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)

World Cup Winners

Nation# of World Cup Wins
Win, lose, or tie, Chelsea 'til I die, keep the blue flag flying high. Born and raised in New York City and an avid viewer of the English Premier League. Besides playing and watching soccer, I love to bike and write songs.

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