Inside Soccer City in Johannesburg, South Africa, during a match at the 2010 FIFA World Cup (Photo: Steve Evans).
Inside Soccer City in Johannesburg, South Africa, during a match at the 2010 FIFA World Cup (Photo: Steve Evans).

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The Football World Cup in historical perspectives

The World Cup is the main product of FIFA. FIFA tried to shape it differently with the rise of nations playing football, the rise of the audience and the way the event is consumed and experienced. Last December, football fans experienced an iconic FIFA World Cup for many reasons. The first played in an Arabic country. The first played in winter (from the Northern Hemisphere side). Furthermore, there were justified controversies about human rights and sustainability, but it also crowned one of this sport’s greatest players: the Argentinian Lionel Messi.

Roots of the competition

In 1930, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) organized its first-ever World Cup, after 5 world-class tournaments were played at the Olympics between London in 1908 and Amsterdam in 1928. During the interwar period, football in many countries became a professional sport. This made the playing of a top-tier tournament at the Olympics complicated as the IOC (International Olympic Committee) refused any athlete to compete for money. From this moment onwards, the Olympics stopped getting the participation of the best players, which will eventually become the pinnacle of this sport.

But the transition between the Olympics and the World Cup also marks a change in the format. Until 1928, participating teams were drawn into a bracket where the last team not to lose won the whole tournament and the gold medal. It was a spectacular scenario where fans could more often fear for their heart than their team. But players could also cross the World to play only one game, especially if they sorted a top team early in the competition. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be the last hope of the nation as many other athletes were competing in other sports during the Games.

The start of the World Cup

The FIFA World Cup is about national selections, not clubs. There is no time for playing home and away games a season long. It lasts a month in a single country. In 1930 twelve teams could afford the trip to Uruguay to play the first-ever edition of the World Cup with a hosting country in a mixed format. Each team played at least two games in this tournament. This meant fewer knockout games. Finally, this uneven number of participants drew four teams to play one more game in Group 1 than the others who couldn’t play each day (by being 3 per group), meaning a different time of recovery from their opponent. This imperfection made way for the Olympic format to come back in the next two editions in Europe (Italy 1934 and France 1938).

A format for economics purposes

After WWII, with the cancellation of the 1942 and 1946 World Cups, FIFA landed back in South America, this time in Brazil in 1950. Same continent, same format. Almost, but this time the four pool winners qualify for a new group stage, (round-robin) instead of a knockout stage. This formula allowed for better monetizing of more games. Ironically, the last game of the last round opposed the two teams who didn’t lose their two previous games. 

It was then an unofficial final where Brazil only needed a draw thanks to the tie between Uruguay and Spain. We know the end of the story; Brazil will lose in their home stadium of Rio de Janeiro 1-2 after leading 1-0 in what will be called the Maracanaço (The Maracanã Smash). It would have been the last time a group stage would determine the World champion.

Exploration routes

Four years later, Switzerland hosts the most disputed World Cup since 1934, which sees 16 nations competing for the highest honour in football. Sixteen competitors can be seen as a perfect format because of the power of 2 (2, 4, 8, 16, 32). This results in four pools of four teams where the winner and the runner-up advance to the quarter-finals.

In the end, the competition was not shorter as a playoff was needed to decide between West Germany and Turkey in Group B and Switzerland and Italy in Group D who would advance to the knockout stage. The four teams were levelled on points but not on the goals difference, which has not been used as a tie-breaker. Last but not least, every showdown was between opposing teams which previously played each other. In both cases, the playoff will have offered the same outcome. This edition is also known as “the Miracle of Bern”, where West Germany will get its first-ever star against the undefeated golden team from Hungary led by Ferenc Puskas (3-2).

Explorations of formats

The 1974 World Cup, in West Germany, saw Pelé retire from the Brazilian national team, and FIFA introduced a second round-robin stage again in 1950. This time, however, the two first teams from the first round could qualify. The two pool winners advanced to the final game. This change added 6 games to the whole tournament and sacrificed 6 entertaining games (quarter-finals and semifinals) for better securing a final between the two World’s best teams. This game is the most important of the tournament, the most broadcasted, and it was in colour for the second time in history. It’s also the first time seven games were needed to reach the final.

Including more of the world

FIFA then expanded the tournament to eight more teams in 1982, and each confederation (except Oceania) is now represented. For the very first time, the number of pools in the first round (when there is a round-robin) is not a power of two, but six. The World’s reigning body first planned to introduce a 2nd round with groups of 3 which meant different times of recovery between meeting teams as in every round-robin with an odd number of competitors. This brought together the future champions Italy, the title holders and future 1986 winners Argentina, and Brazil.

Then in 1986, 1990 and 1994, FIFA changed its policy by qualifying the four best 3rd placed teams to the last round of sixteen. For the first time since 1938, four knockout rounds were used after playing a group stage. It meant 54 games overall, including 16 entertaining games for a competition now more followed on television than on radio or newspapers. 1986 will forever be remembered for the “Hand of God” of Maradona against England in the quarter-finals before Argentinians eventually defeated West Germany 3-2 in the final.

A new expansion for a better format

In 1998, France hosted their first edition in 60 years, and for the first time, 32 teams qualified in a tournament played the same way as in Qatar in 2022 with 64 games. Every team plays each day, and as many countries got out of each pool, something not seen for 20 years. Two teams can’t meet again before the final, and we secure a more even competition between the two halves of the bracket.

Thinking Points

After the Qatari World Cup, FIFA, with over 200 member associations, has worked to expand the amount of groups and games. Wherein lies the balance of the needs of the spectators for entertainment and the need of the athletes for healthy competition?

Educators would work with learners to discuss:

  • What are the driving elements behind the expansion and changes in the World Cup format?
  • What might be a good way to strike a balance between the amount of games and the health of athletes?
  • What is a fair way to organise a World Cup?

Moreover, the FIFA World Cups can each be studied through a variety of lenses, including the ways in which countries followed, celebrated and/or mourned their nations’ performances, the financial dimension of commercialisation and the dark side of labour rights, exploitation and corruption.

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Inside Soccer City in Johannesburg, South Africa, during a match at the 2010 FIFA World Cup (Photo: Steve Evans).
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