World Championship History
The origins of the World Cup || Uruguay 1930 || Italy 1934 || France 1938 || Brazil 1950 || Switzerland 1954 || Sweden 1958 || Chile 1962 || England 1966 || Mexico 1970 || FRG 1974 || Argentina 1978 || Spain 1982 || Mexico 1986 || Italy 1990 || USA 1994 || France 1998 || South Korea/Japan 2002 || Germany 2006 || South Africa 2010 || Brazil 2014 || Russia 2018
THE ORIGINS OF THE WORLD CUP
The idea of creating a World Championship was, as many of the best ideas in football, conceived in France. In this case, the parents of the World Cup were Jules Rimet (after whom the competition was eventually named), President at the same time of the French Federation (1919-1945) and FIFA (1921-1954), and Henri Delaunay, Secretary General of the French Federation (1919-1956). These two men complemented each other: Rimet was the persuader, the diplomat, sometimes intransigent but always devoted to the game; Delaunay was the hard worker, visionary and energetic. In a few words, Rimet and Delaunay were the pioneers of French football, European football and the World Cup.
The very first meeting of FIFA took place in Paris in 1904, and the football body decided that they alone had the right to organize a world championship. But this right was not to be exercised for 26 years. In 1920, at FIFA’s Antwerp congress, concurrent with the Olympic Games, the idea of a World Championship (previously much debated) was accepted in principle. In 1924, at the Paris Olympics, the FIFA meeting discussed this project in more serious detail, and in the next Olympic meeting (Amsterdam 1928) Delaunay’s resolution that the World Cup be set on foot at once was adopted.
There were five aspirants to organize the first edition of the World Championship: Italy, Holland, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay. In the end, it was the American nation who put the best bidding upon the table: they would pay all travelling and hotel expenses for the visiting teams, and they would build a new stadium for the tournament. Not only did the rest of disappointed aspirants withdraw, but they refused to participate in the first World Cup after considering the long journey from Europe to Uruguay (which in those days took a wearying three weeks by ship).
After being officially allotted the first World Cup at FIFA’s 1929 congress in Barcelona, Uruguay started building their magnificent Centenary Stadium in central Montevideo, which was scheduled to be finished after eight months and would commemorate Uruguay’s independence centenary. But in 1930, the first problem for the organizers was that, two months before the beginning of the tournament, there were no European entrants. In addition to the four nations which withdrew the year before (Italy, Holland, Spain, Sweden), others like Austria, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia also refused to participate; England was at that time out of FIFA; Belgium, Romania, Yugoslavia and France were not sure either (although the French couldn’t refuse after Rimet’s appointment to the FIFA presidency). Whith the only confirmed presence of France as European representation, the South American federations took this massive refusal as an insult and threatened to withdraw from FIFA. In the end, after some pressures, Belgium and Romania at last adhered (in the case of the East European country, it was King Carol who picked the squad himself and brought pressure on the companies which employed the players to give them time off for Uruguay). Yugoslavia also agreed to go, so there would be four European entrants, although by no means did they belong to the elite.
The rest of contenders in the first edition of the World Cup were all American: Argentina (traditional rivals of Uruguay in Copa América), USA (who were one of the teams seeded in the four qualifying pools, which had been set up only when the organizers realized that there wouldn’t be enough countries to make a knock-out competition possible), Brazil (not yet the powerful team they would become in years to come, as it was not long since the gates had been opened to black players), Chile, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay. The thirteen teams were distributed in four qualifying pools, and the four group winners would go into the semifinals.
Uruguay were unquestionably the favorites, not only in their condition of hosts but because they won the Olympic Tournament in 1924 and 1928. The four European teams, whose boat had picked up the Brazilians en route, were tumultuously welcomed in Montevideo, though none of them had been seeded head of a group (a distinction reserved for Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and USA). The Centenary Stadium was still unfinished because the rain season had delayed the construction works, and early matches had to be played on the grounds of Peñarol (Pocitos) and Nacional (Parque Central).
On Sunday afternoon, July 13, France and Mexico opened the tournament. When, on July 30, Uruguay defeated Argentina in the final, the first eighteen games in the history of the competition had been played. As some curiosity, the first edition of the World Cup was the only one played in a single city (Montevideo), and Lucien Laurent was the first scorer of the tournament.
The second edition of the World Championship was altogether more competitive than the first one, but for the first and only time the holders did not defend. Uruguay, still piqued by the refusal of European powers in 1930, and also plagued by a strike of players, stayed at home.
The tournament had been assigned to Italy at the 1932 FIFA Congress in Stockholm. It was realized by then that the World Cup could no longer be confined to a single city, nor to a country without infrastructures and resources. And it was then when the Italian Federation offered their candidature, backed by the magnificent stadiums of the country and, most of all, by the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, who wanted to use the World Cup for his political propaganda.
This time, the competition format was knock-out rounds with sixteen teams in the first round. After some early surprise exits (like Argentina and Brazil), Italy and Czechoslovakia reached the final. The bigger stamina of the Italians overcame the skill and subtlety of the Czechs, and in the end Mussolini could celebrate the victory of his team in an atmosphere of intense fanatism.
At FIFA’s 1936 congress in Berlin, it was decided that the third edition of the World Cup would be organized by France. But, as well as in the two previous editions, political and logistic problems plagued the preparation of the event. By 1938, before the tournament, Europe was in turmoil. The “Anschluß” (annexation) of Austria by Nazi Germany on March 13 had disintegrated one of the best football teams in the Old Continent, and many Austrian players were selected to play for the German national team. Another big name, Spain, was on the edge of a civil war. On the other side of the Atlantic, Uruguay was still piqued by the European refusals of 1930 and troubled by a continuing crisis of professionalism of their players, so on this occasion they also declined to come to Europe. Argentina also refused to participate as a way of protest because their candidature to organize the World Cup had been rejected in 1936. On the other hand, the tournament included new entrants like Poland, Norway, Cuba and Dutch East Indies (former Indonesia). Once more, despite distances and early eliminations, the competition was to follow the same knock-out system as in the previous edition of 1934.
In the final, Italy found almost no opposition in Hungary, although the Magyars had very good players and the French crowd was on their side. After the success of the third edition of the World Cup, Argentina, Brazil and Germany hurried to present their candidatures for the next edition, which was scheduled to take place in 1942. But the outbreak of World War II made it not possible, and the tournament had to wait twelve years for the next edition.
The 1950 World Cup (now known officially as Jules Rimet Cup, to honor one of the creators of the competition) was notorious in many respects: the tournament was coming of age and it was seen not only as a major sport event, but also as a ludicrous business. In Brazil, a country that lived for football, the expectation was so great that the organizers had to build the largest football stadium in the world: Maracanã, in Rio de Janeiro, with a capacity for more than 200,000 spectators. However, in spite of the great sport success of the event, the organization was poor (the construction works in the stadiums were not finished on time and the teams had to cover huge distances to travel from one city to another). Brazil 1950 also produced one of the finest climaxes, as well as one of the greatest shocks, in the history of the World Cup, as the super-favorite and host Brazil lost to Uruguay and left a whole country in a state of mourning and desperation.
As in previous editions, there were some defections and withdrawals in the tournament, but also some new faces like England (who had returned to FIFA in 1946). As before, the refusals were of various kinds: Scotland announced before their qualifying group (known as the British Championship) that, unless they won this title, they would not compete in Brazil (as it happened), although the runners-up also had a spot reserved; Argentina repeated their peevish behavior of 1938 and sourly pulled out of the tournament when they knew their candidature had been rejected; France, first eliminated in their group and later invited to replace Scotland, originally accepted to participate, but later refused when they knew they had to play one qualifying game in Porto Alegre and the next one in Recife (two thousand miles away!!!); Germany were still excluded from FIFA as a result of World War II; Hungary, still a big name in Europe, were for the moment lurking behind the Iron Curtain.
There is no doubt that the tournament schedule greatly and grossly favored Brazil, who played every one of their six matches but the second in the same venue (Rio de Janeiro), while the other teams were obliged to travel exhaustingly around the whole of this huge country. Moreover, the humid climate of Rio was certainly a handicap to visiting teams. In the end, only thirteen teams confirmed their presence in Brazil, and they were distributed in four uneven groups with no geographical criteria whatever.
The competition was given a spectacular start at Maracanã. When Brazil came onto the field for their opening game with Mexico, they were greeted by a twenty-one gun salute and fireworks let off by the crowd. Toy balloons floated into the air, Brazilian soldiers released 5,000 pigeons and a cascade of leaflets dropped from an airplane onto the pitch. After the preliminary round, the four group winners (Brazil, Spain, Sweden, Uruguay) entered a final round in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Brazil and Uruguay were the only two teams that reached the final competition day with options to be winners, with four and three points, respectively. That meant that a draw would be enough for Brazil to become world champions. With this atmosphere, no one really thought the Brazilians could lose “their” final. But then the unexpected happened: Uruguay won 2-1 and Brazil mourned for a trophy they were almost touching with their hands.
The neutrality of Switzerland during World War II was instrumental for FIFA to choose this nation as hosts of the fifth edition of the World Cup, since the Swiss stadiums had not been destroyed by war and the country enjoyed a period of economic welfare. Besides, FIFA was celebrating their 50th anniversary in 1954, and since 1932 their headquarters were in Zürich.
Although FIFA retained the league stage system for the preliminary round of the World Cup, they added two innovations for this edition: 1) instead of each team playing all the others in the group, two teams were seeded and would play only the two non-seeds; 2) since equality on points became highly probable with this double-seed system, it was laid down, first, that teams level at full-time would play an extra-time, and second, that if at the end of the group two teams were still level, they would play a tie-break. In addition, the quarterfinal pairings would be decided on a free draw, instead of the usual system of group winners playing against runner-ups. From the technological point of view, Switzerland 1954 was the first World Cup to be fully broadcasted on TV.
If the outcome of the 1950 edition of the World Cup was a shock, that of the 1954 was a cataclysm. Never before this tournament had had such a stronger favorite as Hungary was in 1954. Their statistics before the championship were impressive: 121 goals scored in their last 30 matches, crushing world-class teams like Czechoslovakia (5-0), Italy (3-0), Sweden (6-0) and England (7-1), but most of all giving a memorable football lesson against England at Wembley (3-6), becoming the first foreign country to win in English soil. The Hungarians introduced some genuine tactical innovations, like the deep-lying center-forward (so hard to mark), the near-post crosses and a system based on moving triangles. In addition, they had some of the best players of the world: Grosics in goal, the smooth Bozsik in midfield, Hidegkuti as center-forward, Czibor on the wing and their great front men: Kocsis and Puskás (who scored 159 international goals between them). The first phase of Hungary was spectacular, with demolishing victories over South Korea (9-0) and Germany (8-3). In the final they had again an impressive start (2-0 in only eight minutes), but the Germans demonstrated their resilience and came back to win the final with a goal in the last minutes of the game. Against all odds, the almost invincible Hungary lost a World Cup that no one thought could escape them, and Germany became champions in what was later known as "The Miracle of Bern."
After the death of Jules Rimet, founder of the World Cup, in 1956, the edition of Sweden in 1958 had the highest number of entrants so far, with 53 countries. During the qualifying stage there were two important surprises, namely the elimination of Italy and Spain. A new power in European football, the Soviet Union, entered the competition for the first time, after winning the gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.
The final stage in Sweden had some minor changes in the competition format, such as the elimination of team seeding. Although the general level of football was not too high, Brazil showed the most billiant play of the competition, and introduced to the world one of the best players ever: Édson Arantes do Nascimento (aka Pelé), who started to make his name in Sweden at the early age of 17 years. All in all, Sweden 1958 can be considered as the turning point of football into the modern times, not only for the development of new tactics (like 4-2-4), but also for the presence of the first worldwide stars (Kopa, Fontaine, Charlton, Yashin, Garrincha, Vavá…).
After the two major disappointments of 1950 and 1954, Brazil came to Sweden ready to show the whole world that they were the best team, and for the first time in the history of the competition the top favorites lived up to the general expectations. In the final, the "samba-football" of Brazil overwhelmed the experience and strength of hosts Sweden, and Jules Rimet Cup flew for the first time to Brazil.
The election of Chile as organizers for the VII edition of the World Cup was surprising (to say the least), because nobody thought this Andean country had enough sport infrastructures (only one stadium of any size) nor hotels enough to host such a big event. Besides, Chile was still recovering from a series of earthquakes that devastated the south of the nation two years earlier. Yet, the president of the Chilean Football Association, Carlos Dittborn, argued that they had to have the World Cup “because we have nothing.” He died just before the tournament and the stadium of Arica was named after him.
Fifty-six countries entered the qualifying stage, in which Austria refused to participate for not having a competitive team and France (third qualified in the previous edition) was eliminated at the hands of Bulgaria. The final stage in Chile had a major competitive novelty: the supression of tie-breaks for teams level on points at the end of the group stage, replaced by goal average as decisive factor. The games of the final stage didn’t reach the quality of previous editions, because in the early 60s football was becoming a more physical than technical sport. Tough game prevailed in most matches and the number of expulsions increased, not to mention some brawls among players (like the one in the game between Chile and Italy, known as “The Battle of Santiago”). In the final, Brazil (without Pelé, injured early in the competition) imposed their style against Czechoslovakia, but were also fortunate because the Czech goalkeeper Schrojf made some mistakes in the goals. The Central European squad, with a slow and defensive play, had been the underdogs of the competition, defeating Hungary in quarterfinals and then Yugoslavia in the semifinals. They even opened the score in the final, but Brazil came back to become World Cup champions for the second time (the same number of titles as Uruguay and Italy).
As a curious note, it should be mentioned that Chile 1962 produced the fastest goal in the history of the competition: Václav Mašek needed only 15 seconds to score for Czechoslovakia in their game against Mexico.
In order to commemorate the centenary of the English Football Association in 1963, FIFA assigned the organization of the 8th World Cup to England. A new record of seventy teams entered the qualifying stage, which for the first time was open to the five continents. But FIFA only assigned a qualifying group to the representatives of three continents (Africa, Asia, Oceania), which resulted in a massive protest led by the African nations, who withdrew from the competition (together with South Korea in Asia), so in the end only North Korea and Australia fought for this single berth in a neutral venue. The only major surprise in the rest of qualifying groups was the elimination of Czechoslovakia, runners-up in the previous 1962 edition.
The England World Cup of 1966 was the first major sport event to be broadcasted worldwide, thanks to the coverage made by BBC. Color images replaced black and white footage, and for the first time the tournament had an official mascot: Willie the Lion. A curious event happened before the tournament, when Jules Rimet cup was stolen during its public exhibition in London, only to be found some days later by a dog called “Pickles” in the garden of a house south of the city.
England 66 was a passionate and controversial World Cup, distinguished by the triumph of the local team for the first time in thirty-two years, the collapse of Brazil, the astonishing prowess of North Korea, the turbulence of Argentina and the absolute superiority of the Europeans over the South Americans (who cried conspiracy and threatened mass withdrawal in future editions). There were two major surprises in the preliminary round of the final stage: one was the elimination of Brazil, and the other was que qualification of North Korea. This time, Pelé was not the decisive player for Brazil, as he was injured during the first game, missed the next one for this reason, and suffered again the physical European game in the last match (he had to leave the pitch due to a knee injury). On the other hand, Portugal was one of the big names of the tournament. Under the leadership of Eusébio, they reached the semifinals in their first participation in the final stage of a World Cup, although their technical and beautiful play was cancelled by the more physical English game. In general, England 1966 was the tournament which marked the turning point from skill to physical strength as the dominant factor in football.
The final between England and West Germany was played in a fully packed Wembley stadium. In spite of the six goals scored, it was a bad game in terms of quality, in which defenses clearly overcame attacks. At the end of regulation time, the game was tied 2-2, so it was necessary to play a thirty-minute overtime. Near the end of the first half, one of the most controversial goals in the history of the World Cup finals happened when a shot by Hurst hit the crossbar and bounced on the goal line. The referee, after consulting one of his linesmen, allowed the goal among German protests. A new goal by Hurst in the last minute secured the English victory. At the end of the game, Queen Elizabeth II showed the cup to the English captain, Bobby Moore.
Following FIFA’s decision in 1970 to celebrate the World Cup alternatively between Europe and America, the organization of the IX edition of the tournament was awarded to Mexico, which had built and reshuffled stadiums for this event (in particular the impressing Azteca Stadium, in Mexico D.F., with a capacity for 115,000 spectators). However, the main worry for FIFA was the altitude of the venues (in some cases as high as 2,680 m over sea level), which would certainly influence the physical aspect of the games. From the competitive point of view, Mexico 70 offered two novelties: the introduction of white (later yellow) and red cards to penalize foul play and two regulated players’ substitutions for each team during a game.
Seventy-one countries entered the qualifying stage of the tournament, in which some of the surprising eliminations where those of Portugal (third qualified in England 66), Yugoslavia (European runner-up in 1968), Hungary (Olympic champion in 1968) and Argentina. After the creation of a single qualifying group for Africa, Morocco became the first member of CAF (African Football Confederation) to participate in the final stage of a World Cup.
Whether due to weather conditions or the introduction of cards to penalize violent game, the quality standards of Mexico 70 improved considerably with respect to previous editions, and it was in this tournament when some of the best games in the history of the competition took place (especially the impressive semifinal between Italy and Germany, with five goals in overtime). On the other hand, football had become a mass TV show, and this forced the competition to meet the demands of the channels which had bought the broadcasting rights. For this reason, all the games were scheduled at noon or early evening (which was night prime time in Europe), a time of the day when it wasn’t advisable even to walk in the Mexican cities. The intense heat and the extreme altitude were factors that affected the physical display of most teams.
In order to make the four groups of the preliminary league stage, four teams were unofficially “seeded” (England, FRG, USSR and Uruguay) and the rest were drafted. There were no surprises in this stage and all the favorites qualified for the quarterfinals. After the disappointment in England 66, Brazil had again one of the best teams in their history, with players like Pelé (who had made up his mind to join the national squad after he declared he would never do so four years ago), Tostão and Jairzinho. The two teams that qualified for the final were Brazil and Italy, so it was clear before the game that the winner would keep Jules Rimet Cup (a right earned by those teams that win the World Cup in three editions). The Brazilians started the final repressed by the Italian man-marking, but soon realized that they only had to be patient and use their immense skill to open the gaps for the attackers to find the way to the Italian goal. After a 1-1 draw at halftime, the second period was completely dominated by Brazil, and three new goals added to a 4-1 victory and further celebration of the thousands of Brazilian fans in the Azteca Stadium. As a curiosity, Jairzinho became the first player who scored at least one goal in all the games played by the World Cup winner.
After Brazil, as three-times World Cup champions, were allowed to keep permanent possession of Jules Rimet Cup, FIFA decided to create a new trophy for the 1974 edition: the present FIFA World Cup, designed by Italian Silvio Gazzaniga, made of solid gold and depicting two athletes holding the world. This new trophy is not awarded to the winning nation permanently, but they can retain it until the next edition of the World Cup and are awarded a gold-plated replica rather than the solid gold original.
Ninety-six countries entered the qualifying stage of the competition in which, as usual, there were some surprises, like the elimination of England by Poland or the qualification of Haiti instead of the ever-present Mexico. On the other hand, Australia became the first representative of Oceania in the final stage of a World Cup.
The competition system of the tournament was altered again to allow for a second league stage instead of the rounds of quarterfinals and semifinals. The main technical novelty in the German edition was the full introduction of color TV. The team everyone was talking about was definitely Holland. The “Clockwork Orange,” led by Johan Cruijff, displayed an attractive yet practical game which started to be known as “total football,” in which all players defend and attack with the same intensity. Soon, this style became a standard in world football. Another pleasant surprise was that of Poland, with top scorer Grzegorz Lato.
The final between West Germany and Holland started with a spectacular play of the Dutch, who moved the ball during the first minute of the game without any German player even touching it, until Cruijff was brought down in the area for a clear penalty. After Neeskens converted it, the Dutch team seemed to give up their attacking intentions and the Germans started to exert a continuous pressure. Breitner (from the penalty spot) and “Torpedo” Müller managed to overturn the score before halftime. The second half saw a constant but fruitless Dutch attack trying to equalized the game, but Maier and Beckenbauer kept them at bay.
The participation of many teams in the 1978 World Cup edition was seriously endangered by a boycott threat against Videla’s military junta, responsible for many deaths and disappearances in Argentina since 1976. Even under such circumstances, a new record of 105 nations registered for the preliminary stage of the competition, in which there were no remarkable surprises and all the group favorites qualified.
In the final stage, held in different cities of Argentina in stadiums barely finished before the start of the competition, it was clear from the beginning that Argentina and Holland where the most in-form squads and the favorites to make it to the final (although the locals had to score six goals in their last game against Peru to qualify on goal average and the Dutch didn’t have their star Cruijff, who refused to join the competition as a way of protest for the violation of human rights in Argentina). The final was a very colorful show in the stands of Monumental Stadium of River Plate (with General Videla in the VIP stand and plenty of toilet paper and sheets raining onto the pitch) and also a very controversial match, with favoring refereeing for the locals in the previous games, a circumstance which was also expected in the final. It wasn’t a remarkable game in quality, but instead was hardly fought and exciting until the end. “Matador” Kempes scored first for Argentina, and the locals let Holland take the initiative during all the second half, waiting for a counterattack to finish off the game. Nanninga finally equalized for the Dutch with only eight minutes left, sending the game into an overtime. In the extra period, Kempes was again decisive for his team, scoring the key goal after a powerful attacking move. Near the end, Bertoni sealed the Argentinian victory. After the final whistle, the streets of Argentina were flooded with fans celebrating their first World Cup.
In spite of the increase from sixteen to twenty-four teams in the final stage, some big names couldn’t make it through the qualifying stage, such as Netherlands and Uruguay. Spain, who had eighteen years to prepare their World Cup (FIFA designated them in 1964), had a very disappointing participation: they narrowly made it through the first stage, and in the second they were quickly eliminated.
The first stage, with six groups of four teams each, didn’t bring about many surprises, although the match between West Germany and Austria was highly controversial and received many accusations of unsportsmanlike conduct, with both players giving up their attacking intentions after a 1-0 score which qualified them both at the expense of Algeria. The Northern Ireland striker Norman Whiteside went down in history as the youngest player to participate in a World Cup final stage, with only 17 years and 42 days. Another landmark was the 10-1 victory of Hungary against El Salvador, the biggest so far.
If the first stage of the tournament was mostly unsubstantial, the second stage brought about some very interesting games, especially Italy-Brazil (3-2), with a hat-trick by Paolo Rossi, and the semifinal West Germany-France (3-3 and penalty shoot-out), one of the most dramatic games in the history of the competition. The final between Italy and West Germany was easily won by the former, who outplayed their rivals with a combination of quality and defensive order. The game will always be remembered for the vivid celebration of Tardelli after his goal and also the joy of the Italian president Sandro Pertini on the VIP balcony, congratulated by the Spanish king Juan Carlos I after each Italian goal. With this title, Italy matched Brazil with three World Cup championships.
Mexico was elected as the organizers of the XIII World Cup after Colombia, who had been originally appointed, had to give up in 1983 unable to meet FIFA’s requirements. However, this election was controversial, as many claimed that the main reason why FIFA wanted to take the World Cup back to Mexico, with all the problems caused by height and heat as in 1970, was the economic aspects (Emilio Azcárraga, owner of Televisa Mexicana and the Spanish International Network in the USA, had been instrumental to convice FIFA’s President João Havelange, who was also Azcárraga’s personal friend). Therefore, Mexico became the first country to host twice the final stage of the tournament. In the event, the World Cup of 1986 was a good one, despite the weather conditions, the altitude, the unusual kick-off times and some shocking pitches in Monterrey and Mexico City.
A record 121 countries took part in the classification stage, and there were no major surprises (excepting the elimination of Netherlands). Some months before the beginning of the final stage, Mexico was shaken by a series of earthquakes which caused more than 20,000 casualties and jeopardized the celebration of the tournament. Once again, FIFA decided to alter the competition format, with six qualifying groups and then knock-out rounds leading to the final.
Mexico 1986 was the World Cup of Maradona in many respects. Never before had this tournament been dominated by a single player as the Argentinian crack did. Against England, he scored an incredible goal (taking the ball in the midfield and dribbling one player after another before scoring) and a controversial one (the famous “Hand of God”). In the final, Argentina were heavy favorites over West Germany, and despite they took a 2-0 lead, allowed the Germans to equalize near the end of the game. Just when the extra-time seemed unavoidable, Burruchaga scored the winner after being assisted by Maradona.
Following the non-written rule of continental rotation between America and Europe, the organization of the 1990 World Cup was assigned in this occasion to a European country. The chosen one was Italy, which modernized their main stadiums for the event.
Although the participants in the qualifying stage were less in number than in the previous edition (only 112), there were again some remarkable surprises, such as the elimination of Denmark, Portugal and France, or the qualification of Costa Rica in their first participation ever in a World Cup.
Italy 1990 will go down in history as one of the worst World Cups in quality of the games and scoring average. Many games in the final round had to be decided on penalty shoot-outs. One of the most positive aspects though was the reivindication of African football, thanks to the excellent play of Cameroon and Egypt. Not even the final could avoid the general mediocrity of the tournament, and only a penalty goal by Brehme near the end decided the title in favor of West Germany over Argentina, whose players were over-excited and earned two sendings-off. The Germans, even without playing at full throttle, joined Brazil and Italy as tri-champions of the world. The main figures of the final stage were Cameroon veteran Roger Milla (38-year-old) and Italian Salvatore “Totò” Schillaci (top scorer of the tournament with 6 goals, although he started the competition with only one international cap and coming from the bench).
The XVth World Cup was hosted by the United States, a country where football (or soccer), in spite of the growing interest, was still a minor sport. In addition to FIFA’s wish to take the competition to the five continents, the commercial success of the tournament seemed guaranteed. The engine behind North America’s bid for the World Cup and their subsequent preparation was a Californian lawyer called Alan Rothenberg, a dynamic organizer, who in 1990 had become President of the United States Soccer Federation with FIFA’s backing.
A new record of 145 teams entered the qualifying stage. During the game San Marino vs. England, the local player Davide Gualtieri scored the fastest goal in the history of the World Cup, only 8.3 seconds into the game (and it was England who made the kick-off!!!). The main surprises during the qualifying round were the eliminations of England and France (the latter were almost qualified, but incredibly lost their last two home games against Israel and Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian winning goal was scored in the last minute by Emil Kostadinov).
The main competition novelty introduced in USA 1994 was the application of the new FIFA rule to grant three points per victory. As in Italy 1990, the Cameroonian striker Roger Milla (now 42) became the oldest goalscorer of the World Cup. On the negative side, the tournament was also remarkable for the expelling of Maradona after a positive in a drug control, and the murder of the Colombian defender Andrés Escobar after the competition (in connection with a gambling affair of the local drug lords).
The tournament was heavily handicapped by the unusual afternoon and early evening schedules and the intense heat and humidity of some venues, as a result of the European television demands. At this juncture, it was surprising the high number of goals scored, the quality of most games, and the great attendance in the stadiums (the highest average in the history of the competition). In the game Russia vs. Cameroon, the Russian striker Oleg Salenko went down in history as the player who scored most goals in a single match (five).
The surprises started in the elimination rounds, first in eight-finals with the defeat of Argentina by Romania (thanks to a superb performance by Gheorghe Hagi) and then in quarterfinals, when a surprising Bulgarian team eliminated the title holders Germany.
The final was a clash between two world giants, Brazil and Italy, who had won the tournament three times each before. The South Americans had played at a great level in the previous games, whereas the Italians had a quite shaky progress until the final (in particular the game against Nigeria, which they won coming from behind with one man less). The Canarinha had a superclass attacking duo in Romário and Bebeto, in addition to a very young Ronaldo on the bench (although he didn’t play a single minute). The main weapon of the Italians was Roberto Baggio, who could do almost anything in a moment of inspiration. After the brilliant games before, everyone expected a great final, but in the end it was a disappointing match, more physical than technical, and for the first time in the history of the competition no goals were scored in a final. So, also for the first time, the decisive game went to the penalty kicks. Roberto Baggio, the Italian hero, missed the crucial shot and Brazil became the first nation to win the World Cup four times.
The qualifying stage of World Cup 98 brought about two new records: number of participants (172 nations) and goal difference in a game (Iran defeated Maldives by 17-0, with seven goals scored by Karim Bagheri). For the first time in the tournament, thirty-two squads entered the final stage. As expected (not only for the high number of participants but for the defensive and excessively tactical play of the teams) it was a mediocre World Cup, and the nation who played the best football of the tournament, Holland, were short of luck to reach the final once more.
The group phase developed as expected, with the only remarkable surprise of the early elimination of Spain, seeded team in their group and one of the favorites to win the World Cup before the competition. In the round of eight-finals, Argentina and England played one of the best games of the tournament, and the South Americans advanced in the penalty shoot-out. Croatia emerged as the greatest surprise, making it to the semifinals in their first World Cup participation thanks to the goals of Davor Šuker, top scorer of the competition with six targets (in spite of his mediocre season with Real Madrid). The game France vs. Paraguay was the first to be decided with a “Golden Goal”, a controversial novelty introduced in this edition of the World Cup: the first team to score a goal in extra-time wins the game. A much more useful change introduced by FIFA was to hold up a board near the end of each match to show how much injury-time was added. The idea of punishing any foul tackle from behind with sending off, already tried and failed in the United States four years earlier, was no more successful in France, as most referees’ sheer common sense restrained them from expelling players in such doubtful circumstances.
Four times champion Brazil, in spite of their unconvincing style and poor defense, made it to the final, where they faced host France, who had one of the best teams of all time, with a very solid defense which compensated their chronic scoring problems. The final was marked by the pre-match seizure of Ronaldo. Rumor has it that he either had an epilectic fit or suffered the psychosomatic consequences of the immense pressure of the final. The truth about Ronaldo’s problem was never known, but the only fact is that the Brazilian star was just a shadow of the player he had been during all the tournament, and his teammates seemed affected by this. France had a final easier than expected against a rival who never was such, and won 3-0 with two goals from Zinédine Zidane.
For the first time in the history of the competition, the World Cup would be hosted in a continent different from Europe or America, thanks to the joint organization of South Korea and Japan (two countries with not especially good relations who tried till the end to have the exclusive organization of the event).
The never-ending qualifying stage (with 198 teams) brought about several new records to the competition: Souleymane Mamam became the youngest player to ever participate in a World Cup qualifier when he played for Togo against Zambia at the age of 13 years and 310 days. Australia defeated American Samoa by both the highest number of goals and the biggest margin: 31-0 (also in this game, the Australian Archie Thompson scored a record 13 goals). In the African group, the Egyptian Abdel Hamid needed just 177 seconds to score against Namibia the fastest hat-trick in the history of the World Cup. Among the whole teams that failed to qualify, Holland were likely to be the most sorely missed.
In the final stage, the most shocking surprise was the early elimination of title holders France, handicapped by the absence of Zinédine Zidane for injury and the physical and mental exhaustion of their players after a lengthy season in Europe (which had also left a long list of injured players missing the finals: Steven Gerrard, Igor Tudor, Robert Pirès, Paulo Sousa, Josep Guardiola…). Portugal and Argentina also failed to advance to the elimination round. On the contrary, the most positive surprise was co-hosts South Korea who, backed by their incredibly supporting fans (and also some favorable refereeing), advanced to semifinals after defeating teams such as Portugal, Italy and Spain. Turkey, finishing in the third position, was another surprise, but somehow their performance was not especially impressive, as they didn’t have to beat any of the big favorites in their way.
Brazil and Germany, in spite of their almost permanent presence in the final stage of the World Cup, met for the first time in the final. The Brazilians were heavy favorites, but the match was balanced until a mistake by Kahn (perfect until then, with only one goal received in all the tournament) allowed Ronaldo to open the score. In the consolation final, Hakan Şükür scored the fastest goal in the World Cup finals, only eleven seconds after kick-off. Ronaldo was the top scorer of the tournament with eight goals.
Italy won their fourth World Cup thanks to a brilliant defensive line (they only received two goals, one an own-goal, the other from the penalty spot) who also showed an attacking attitude. On this occasion, the Italians seemed to forget their traditional catenaccio defense and replaced it for a “total football” with secure defense and efficient attack. Their rivals in the final were France who, with an ageing team, didn’t start the tournament as one of the favorites. Zinédine Zidane seemed to live a second youth during the tournament and helped Les Bleus to defeat favorites Spain and Brazil on their way to the final. However, the dreamy end of the French midfielder before his retirement from football was marred by a red card after headbutting Materazzi’s chest.
Germany won the bid for the 2006 edition of the World Cup, ahead of South Africa, England and Morocco. A new record of 204 teams entered the competition in the qualifying stage. For the first time in the history of the competition, the title holders were not granted automatic qualification for the final stage, so Brazil had to earn their ticket to the final stage in the South American group. Only hosts Germany were granted automatic qualification. The remaining thirty-one final places were divided among the six continental confederations: Thirteen places were contested by UEFA teams (Europe), four by CONMEBOL teams (South America), three by CONCACAF teams (North and Central America and Caribbean), four by AFC teams (Asia) and five by CAF teams (Africa). The remaining two places were decided by playoffs between AFC and CONCACAF and between CONMEBOL and OFC (Oceania). For the first time since the 1982 World Cup, all six confederations were represented at the final stage.
Although Germany failed to win the Cup, the tournament was considered a great success for Germany in general. The stadiums and transportation systems were state-of-the-art, and the German people were lauded for their hospitality and enthusiasm and gained new friends worldwide (as the tournament logo claimed). Despite early success by Australia, Ecuador and Ghana, the tournament marked a return to dominance of the traditional football powers. Four years after a 2002 tournament in which teams from North America (United States), Africa (Senegal), and Asia (South Korea) made it deep into the knock-out stages and Turkey finished third, all eight seeded teams progressed to the knock-out stages, and none of the quarterfinalists were from outside Europe or South America. Argentina and Brazil were eliminated in the quarterfinals, leaving all-European semifinals for only the fourth time (after the 1934, 1966 and 1982 tournaments).
In comparison to earlier World Cups, the tournament was notable for the number of yellow and red cards given out, breaking the record set by the 1998 World Cup. Players received a record-breaking 345 yellow cards and 28 red cards, with the Russian referee Valentin Ivanov handing out 16 yellow and 4 red cards in the round of 16 match between Portugal and the Netherlands. The tournament also saw English referee Graham Poll mistakenly hand out three yellow cards to Croatia's Josip Šimunić in their match against Australia.
The final started with each side scoring within the first twenty minutes. Zinédine Zidane made the opener by converting a controversial seventh-minute penalty kick, which glanced off the underside of the crossbar and into the goal. Marco Materazzi then levelled the score in the 19th minute following an Andrea Pirlo corner. Both teams had chances to score the winning goal in normal time: Luca Toni hit the crossbar in the 35th minute for Italy, later having a header disallowed for offside, while France were not granted a possible second penalty in the 53rd minute when Florent Malouda went down in the box after a cover tackle from Gianluca Zambrotta. France appeared to be the side with better chances to win because of the higher number of shots on goal. They were unable to capitalize, however, and the score remained at one goal each. At the end of the regulation ninety minutes, the score was still level at 1-1, and the match was forced into extra-time. Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon made a decisive save in this period when he tipped a Zidane header over the crossbar. Further controversy ensued near the end of extra-time, when Zidane headbutted Materazzi’s chest in an off-the-ball incident (apparently after some verbal abuse of the Italian defender) and was sent off. Extra-time produced no further goals and a penalty shoot-out followed, which Italy won 5–3. France's David Trézéguet, the man who scored the “Golden Goal” against Italy in Euro 2000, was the only player not to score his penalty; his spot kick hit the crossbar.
The German tournament brought about some individual surprises, both positive and negative. Among the former, players like Miroslav Klose (top scorer with five goals), Fabio Cannavaro or Ronaldo (who became the top scorer in the history of the World Cup, with fifteen goals); among the latter, Ronaldinho (the Golden Ball, as the rest of his Brazilian teammates, didn’t live up to the expectations) and Zinédine Zidane (who was sent off in the final and failed to retire with honors). One of the most curious records of the tournament was established by the Brazilian central defender Lúcio, who completed 386 minutes without committing a single foul.
Africa, the eternal promise of international football, finally was chosen to organize the Final Stage of a World Cup, as FIFA continued its rotation among continents after the initial monopoly of Europe and America. Three African nations offered to host the 2010 World Cup, and South Africa won the bidding ahead of Morocco and Egypt.
A new record of participants (205) joined the qualifying stage, in which, as in the previous edition of the tournament, the title holder (Italy) was not given an automatic berth. Although South Africa were already qualified for the Final Stage as World Cup hosts, they entered the preliminary round because this tournament also served as qualifying stage for the 2010 African Cup of Nations. During the European play-off match France-Ireland, a major controversy arose when French captain Thierry Henry handled a ball and allowed France to score the goal they needed to qualify. The Irish team complained bitterly, asking for a replay of the game and even to increase the number of participants in the Final Stage to 33, but it was the French who finally advanced.
During the group stage, the most shocking surprises were the eliminations of France (with a major revolt of players against coach Raymond Domenech, which ended up in a training boicott, the expulsion of Anelka for misbehavior and an unprecedented scandal back in France) and title holders Italy (who were a shadow of the 2006 team and exited without winning a single match). Although not a surprise by any means, South Africa became the first host nation in the history of the competition who failed to advance out of the group stage. Much was expected from the emerging African football in this edition of the World Cup, but in the end only Ghana carried the hopes of a whole continent into the knock-out stages, and it didn’t progress beyond quarterfinals. Brazil and Argentina were also eliminated early in the knock-out rounds (despite the efforts of in-form Lionel Messi), and the semifinals featured two expected contestants at the beginning of the tournament (Germany and Spain) together with two unexpected ones (Holland and Uruguay). In the end, it was Spain who won their first World Cup ever after one of the most dramatic finals in recent history, marred by crude tackles and protests. The hero of the night was Andrés Iniesta—humbleness itself in a football world full of superstars and egos—, who scored a late winner in extra-time to settle an ill-tempered game which saw referee Howard Webb brandish a record 14 yellow cards (plus a red one for Johnny Heitinga).
Although the World Cup final failed to live up to everyone’s expectations, Spain was a deserved winner of the tournament. After a very frustrating defeat against Switzerland in the opening game, Del Bosque’s men remained faithful to their trademark football style (tiqui-taca) and, with their newly acquired winning mentality after Euro 2008, La Roja, perennial underachievers, sent a whole nation into rapture. On the other hand, for Holland there was frustration again at the end of the road, as the Dutch team lost their third World Cup final (after 1974 and 1978).
As in 2002, the tournament was also marred by a series of very polemic refereeing decisions (especially in the game Germany-England, with a Lampard shot that hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced clearly beyond the goal line, with the Uruguayan referee Larrionda waving play on), and FIFA was under heavy pressure to introduce new technology in the World Cup, such as instant replay and a fourth official behind the goal line.
Besides football, the 2010 World Cup will be remembered by a series of elements and circumstances that gave the tournament its own personality:
• The vuvuzela. The incessant noise of this instrument served as musical background for every single game of the World Cup. Even though TV technicians devised ways to reduce the terrible racket made by the vuvuzela chorus and FIFA tried to ban it from the stadiums, many fans and journalists ended up with buzzing ears after the games.
• Larissa Riquelme. The Paraguayan model and actress rose to fame during this World Cup for her “enthusiastic” support of the South American team and her promise of running naked in the streets of Asunción if Paraguay became world champions.
• Paul the Octopus. The cephalopod fortune-teller from Oberhausen became internationally famous after correctly predicting the outcome of all the Germany games in the tournament, as well as the final (which turned Paul into a culture icon in Spain). Although another animal oracle in Singapore, Mani the Parakeet, was meant to share stardom with Paul, as he picked the correct winners in all the quarterfinal games and the Spain-Germany semifinal, he went against the octopus in the final, thus ending his streak of correct predictions.
• The Jabulani. The new ball manufactured by Adidas for the World Cup was a goalkeeper’s nightmare, with its swirling change of direction and strange bouncing.
• Waka Waka. The official anthem of the World Cup, performed by Colombian megastar Shakira, became an immediate hit for its rhythm and dance.
• Iker Casillas & Sara Carbonero. The live TV kiss of Spain’s goalkeeper to her reporter girlfriend after the final became a symbol of unbounded emotion for being the first Spanish captain to lift up the World Cup.
The World Cup hosted by Brazil marked the consecration of a generation of German players who had shown their extraordinary class over recent years and finally were fully awarded for their contribution to modern football. Joachim Löw’s team was by far the most consistent and regular side throughout the tournament, and showed all their potential in the semifinal game against hosts Brazil, who were defeated by the Germans by a conclusive 7-1 after a spectacular display of class and offensive effectiveness.
Four major events marked the development of the World Cup held in Brazil: the early elimination of reigning champions Spain in the group stage (the third time this has happened in the history of the tournament, after France in 2002 and Italy in 2010), the brilliant German victory (the first time that a European team won the trophy on American soil and the third consecutive European success), Luis Suárez's biting incident with Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini (after which the Uruguayan attacker was severely punished by FIFA, as it was his third “biting” offense) and, especially, the humiliating defeat of Brazil in the semifinals against Germany (7-1), the saddest episode in the history of the Canarinha after the infamous "Maracanazo" of 1950.
From the technical point of view, Brazil 2014’s main innovations were the use of a vanishing foam spray to mark the position where the ball is to be placed for a free kick and anchor the defending wall at the stipulated distance, the so-called “goal-line technology” (to determine whether the ball has crossed the goal line by means of electronic devices, thus avoiding the controversial ghost goals which had plagued recent editions of the tournament), and cooling breaks for the players (which the referee may call after the 30th minute of the first and second half if the temperature exceeds 32°C).
As in other editions of the World Cup, Brazil 2014 offered positive and negative surprises. Teams like Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico where among the former, whereas Argentina, Netherlands, Brazil and Belgium were more effective than spectacular and Spain, Italy, England and Portugal completely disappointed.
The Russian World Cup meant the international recognition of France, a young team full of talent with a splendorous future ahead, all of it represented in the figure of Kylian Mbappé, the 19 year old sensation who has dazzled the world with an exhibition of quality, power and determination not seen in a player of his age since the time of Pelé. Along with the teenage star of PSG, Atletico de Madrid striker Antoine Griezmann has completed a spectacular season with his club and national team. However, the success of the French squad is to be found in the quality and balance of all its lines. While all Bleu players have generally performed well above their usual level throughout the club season, special mention is due to right-back Benjamin Pavard (solid in defense and excellent in his offensive advances), central defender Samuel Umtiti (a bulwark in the French backline, despite his limited contribution to FC Barcelona’s season) and the small defensive midfielder N'Golo Kanté (solid and reliable during all the tournament, although he was not at his usual level in the final due to a gastroenteritis).
Russia 2018 was one of the most unpredictable tournaments in the history of the World Cup: the three expected favorites to win the title (Germany, Spain and Brazil) didn’t even make it to the semifinals, and the title holder (Germany) was eliminated in the group stage. On the other hand, a surprising Croatia became the smallest country ever to qualify for a World Cup final. Led by midfielder Luka Modrić, the Croats showed all their class in the group stage, then survived three extra-times and two penalty kick-outs in the knockout rounds. By continents, the Russian World Cup was tragic for Africa (who had no representation in the final rounds for the first time since 1986) and disappointing in the end for South America (none of whose teams reached the semifinals of the tournament, something that had not happened before since 1982). At the other end of the scale, the European teams confirmed their competitiveness in top tournaments by taking six of the top eight positions in the final classification. Special mention deserves Russia, the lowest ranked of all the participants, who reached the quarterfinals after eliminating former world champion Spain. On the individual level, Russia 2018 was again a disappointing World Cup for Leo Messi, unable to reproduce in the Argentine team his brilliant play at FC Barcelona. Neymar, for all his acrobatics, was not the influential player who could rescue Brazil in critical stages, and his display in the Russian tournament was marred by his antics and notorious divings, which earned him a bad reputation.
The game France-Argentina (4-3), in addition to being one of the most spectacular and entertaining matches of the Russian tournament―together with Spain-Portugal (3-3) and Belgium-Japan (3-2)―, symbolized the transfer of the scepter from the old generation (Messi) to the new one (Mbappé).
From a technical point of view, Russia 2018 saw the full introduction of VAR in international competitions, the video assistant referee who reviews decisions made on the pitch by the head referee with the use of video footage and reports back possible judgment errors and unseen incidents in calls involving goals, penalties and red cards. In addition to considerably increasing the number of penalties (as many as 22 were called in the Russian tournament), the use of VAR technology was controversial in some games due to its random use and the constant interruptions to the natural development of games.
Other anecdotes which will be remember from the Russian tournament were the dismissal of Spanish head coach Julen Lopetegui only two days before the competition start due to his secret negotiations with Real Madrid, the excellent atmosphere in the stands of all Russian stadiums (which contrasted with the irregular state of the pitch), a new case of "null combat" or tension-free match between France and Denmark (the only goalless draw of the tournament, in which neither team seemed willing to win in order to avoid Argentina in the elimination rounds), the unusually high number of own goals and the many goalkeeping mistakes (due not only to miscalculations, but to an unpredictable flight trajectory and swerving of the new Adidas Telstar 18 ball).
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