Evolution of the World Cup

Updated by Greg Lea verified symbol on November 30, 2022

The World Cup 2022 is fast approaching, with the action set to get underway on November 20. This will be a unique edition of the tournament: it is the first to be held in the middle of the European club season and the first to be staged in the Middle East. 

The choice of Qatar as the host nation was controversial, but the tiny emirate is now ready to welcome 32 teams from across the globe for a month-long festival of football.

This will be the 22nd edition of the World Cup, a competition which has grown exponentially in terms of size and prestige since the inaugural event 92 years ago. Ahead of the big kick-off in Qatar, we have taken a look at the history of the tournament.

The Evolution of the World Cup (1930 to Present)

Creation of Tournament

The World Cup has its origins in the Olympic games, the first global competition that pitted national teams against each other. FIFA took over the running of football at the Olympics in 1914, and because the event proved to be so popular, the governing body decided to launch its own tournament.

The inaugural edition of the World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930 (more on this below). There were two more tournaments that decade before the Second World War prompted a pause.

World War Era

Germany and Brazil showed an interest in hosting the World Cups scheduled for 1942 and 1946, but both were ultimately cancelled due to the outbreak of war

Very few teams would have been able to compete at those events, while it would have been almost impossible to stage them as war raged across the planet. 

There was a danger that the 1950 edition would not go ahead either, with most European nations incapable of hosting it so soon after the conclusion of the war. But Brazil stepped forward in 1946, with their application to host the tournament gratefully received by FIFA four years later.

Post-War Era

Since 1950 the World Cup has been held on a quadrennial basis without exception. FIFA has made it its mission to bring the tournament to different parts of the planet. In 1994 the United States was awarded hosting rights. Eight years later, in 2002, Japan and South Korea staged the first World Cup in Asia.

History was once again made in 2010 when South Africa welcomed the biggest sporting event in the world to Africa. The Middle East is now set to experience a World Cup in its region for the first time ever.

Expansion to 24 Teams

Only 13 teams competed at the 1930 World Cup, despite FIFA’s intention to have a 16-team tournament. That number was reached in 1934, but only 15 took part four years later after Austria withdrew following its annexation by Germany. In 1950, 12 sides made the trip to Brazil in addition to the host nation.

The World Cup featured 16 teams between 1954 and 1978, before FIFA decided to add eight extra spots for the 1982 tournament in Spain. That decision mostly benefited Africa and Asia, which had three qualification places between them for the first time.

Expansion to 32 Teams

Mathematically speaking, 24 teams is an awkward number for a tournament - as UEFA is now discovering with the enlarged European Championship. FIFA approved an expansion to 32 sides in time for the 1998 World Cup in France. 

The number of Asian teams doubled compared to the previous edition in the United States, while African representation rose from three to five. 

The CONCACAF region, which covers Central America, North America and the Caribbean, was given three berths, while Europe went from 13 places to 15, and South America increased from four to five.

Expansion to 48 Teams

The World Cup 2022 will be the last edition to feature 32 teams. From 2026 onwards, no fewer than 48 nations will take part in the biggest sporting competition on the planet.

Europe will be guaranteed 16 places at the tournament, followed by Africa with nine; Asia with eight; North America, Central America and the Caribbean with six; South America with six; and Oceania with one. The two remaining spots will be awarded to play-off winners.

Rather than the current format of eight groups each with four teams, the 2026 World Cup will have 16 groups of three. The top two will advance to the knockout phase, which will contain an additional round.

The latest expansion means it will be very difficult for a single country to host future World Cups. Indeed, the 2026 tournament will be split between the United States, Canada and Mexico. Spain-Portugal-Ukraine and Uruguay-Argentina-Chile are planning to bid for the rights to host the 2030 edition.

Overview of Every World Cup

World Cup 1930

Number of Teams13
Top ScorerGuillermo Stabile (Argentina)

World Cup 1934

Number of Teams16
Top ScorerOldrich Nejedly (Czechoslovakia)

World Cup 1938

Number of Teams15
Top ScorerLeonidas (Brazil)

World Cup 1950

Number of Teams13
Top ScorerAdemir (Brazil)

World Cup 1954

Number of Teams16
WinnersWest Germany
Top ScorerSandor Kocsis (Hungary)

World Cup 1958

Number of Teams16
Top ScorerJust Fontaine (France)

World Cup 1962

Number of Teams16
Top ScorerGarrincha (Brazil), Vava (Brazil), Leonel Sanchez (Chile), Florian Albert (Hungary), Valentin Ivanov (Soviet Union), Drazan Jerkovic (Yugoslavia)

World Cup 1966

Number of Teams16
Top ScorerEusebio (Portugal)

World Cup 1970

Number of Teams16
Top ScorerGerd Muller (West Germany)

World Cup 1974

HostsWest Germany
Number of Teams16
WinnersWest Germany
Top ScorerGrzegorz Lato (Poland)

World Cup 1978

Number of Teams16
Top ScorerMario Kempes (Argentina)

World Cup 1982

Number of Teams24
Top ScorerPaolo Rossi (Italy)

World Cup 1986

Number of Teams24
Top ScorerGary Lineker (England)

World Cup 1990

Number of Teams24
WinnersWest Germany
Top ScorerSalvatore Schillaci (Italy)

World Cup 1994

HostsUnited States
Number of Teams24
Top ScorerHristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria), Oleg Salenko (Russia)

World Cup 1998

Number of Teams32
Top ScorerDavor Suker (Croatia)

World Cup 2002

HostsJapan and South Korea
Number of Teams32
Top ScorerRonaldo (Brazil)

World Cup 2006

Number of Teams32
Top ScorerMiroslav Klose (Germany)

World Cup 2010

HostsSouth Africa
Number of Teams32
Top ScorerDavid Villa (Spain), Diego Forlan (Uruguay), Thomas Muller (Germany), Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands)

World Cup 2014

Number of Teams32
Top ScorerJames Rodriguez (Colombia)

World Cup 2018

Number of Teams32
Top ScorerHarry Kane (England)

Team and Player Achievements

Most Successful World Cup Nations

TeamWorld Cup Wins
Brazil5 (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
West Germany/ Germany4 (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)
Italy4 (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)
Argentina2 (1978, 1986)
France2 (1998, 2018)
Uruguay2 (1930, 1950)
England1 (1966)
Spain1 (2010)

Most World Cup Appearances

TeamWorld Cup Appearances
West Germany/ Germany20

Most World Cup Goals

Player and National TeamWorld Cup Goals
Miroslav Klose (Germany)
Ronaldo (Brazil)
Gerd Muller (West Germany)
Just Fontaine (France)
Pele (Brazil)
Sandor Kocsis (Hungary)
Jurgen Klinsmann (West Germany/Germany)
Helmut Rahn (West Germany)
Gary Lineker (England)
Gabriel Batistuta (Argentina)
Teofilo Cubillas (Peru)
Thomas Muller (Germany)
Grzegorz Lato (Poland)

World Cup Controversial Moments

Italy’s Black Shirts (1938)

Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator, made it clear to Vittorio Pozzo and his national team players that victory was a must when they hosted the 1934 World Cup. The Azzurri duly got the job done on home turf, then retained their crown four years later.

Their presence in France for the 1938 tournament was not appreciated by many locals, who held anti-fascism demonstrations throughout the country. Italy did not exactly play their identity down: their players, wearing an all-black kit, gave the fascist salute before their quarter-final against France.

Pozzo’s side went on to lift the trophy for a second time courtesy of a 4-2 victory over Hungary in the final.

Battle of Santiago (1962)

To get a flavour of Chile 2-0 Italy at the 1962 World Cup - otherwise known as the Battle of Santiago - BBC commentator David Coleman described it as “the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game.”

Two players were sent off in a match which featured more violence than football, with the Chilean police forced to intervene on four separate occasions. Chile won the game 2-0, but no one remembers the goals scored by Jaime Ramirez and Jorge Toro.

The most probable cause of the violence was the actions of two Italian journalists, who had written depictions of Santiago that were not exactly flattering. This incensed the host population, including the 11 players chosen to face Italy.

Argentina 6-0 Peru (1978)

The decision to allow Qatar to host World Cup 2022 has been contentious, largely due to the questionable treatment of migrant workers to build the stadiums. There was also plenty of controversy over Argentina’s hosting of the tournament 44 years ago following the 1976 coup d'etat and subsequent installation of a military junta.

In the second group phase, Argentina was staring an early exit in the face. Going into their last game, they needed to beat Peru by four clear goals to advance to the final at the expense of Brazil - a tall order indeed.

Yet the hosts ran out 6-0 winners against their fellow South Americans, prompting accusations that the match had been fixed.

Disgrace of Gijon (1982)

Algeria’s 2-1 victory over West Germany in their first game of the 1982 World Cup remains one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history. The North Africans proceeded to lose 2-0 to Austria, but a 3-2 triumph over Chile in their final group match put them within touching distance of the second round.

The next day, Group 2 concluded with West Germany vs Austria. The Nationalelf had to beat their neighbours to qualify, and a loss by a single goal would be enough to send Austria through with them. The match duly ended 1-0 to West Germany, with neither team making an effort to score the second goal of the game.

Algeria were sent home, and West Germany and Austria were heavily criticised for their collaboration. Whether it was tacit or explicit does not really matter.

Hand of God (1986)

Just four years before the 1986 World Cup, England and Argentina fought a 10-week war over the Falkland Islands. At that tournament, the two national teams, both among the favourites to triumph in Mexico, were drawn to face each other in the quarter-finals.

Diego Maradona opened the scoring in the 51st minute with what appeared to be a header. England players protested wildly, and television replays showed that the forward had actually used his hand to punch the ball into the net. But as none of the match officials saw the offence, the goal was allowed to stand and Argentina went on to win 2-1, with Maradona scoring a sensational second just moments later.

The opener was "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God,” Diego said afterwards.

FIFA Corruption Case (2015)

Allegations of corruption had dogged FIFA for decades, and it all came to a head in 2015. Federal prosecutors from the United States indicted numerous officials, accusing them of crimes such as money laundering, racketeering and wire fraud.

Seven members of FIFA were arrested at a hotel in Switzerland in May, while others handed themselves over in other locations. Sepp Blatter, the long-serving president of the organisation, stepped down, while high-profile officials like Alejandro Burzaco, Chuck Blazer and Jeffrey Webb entered guilty pleas.

Unfortunately, history seems to keep repeating itself as the tournament in Qatar faces criticism from all corners on a number of issues, including the deaths of workers related to the event, as well as ongoing civil and human rights issues.


FIFA World Cup History - (Wikipedia.com)

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