Since then, international football has been at the apex of world sport.
Starting in 1930, a quadrennial competition has been held where the greatest national teams competed to determine the world champion.
Learn more about the FIFA World Cup, its history, and the controversy surrounding it on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Before I begin, for the purpose of this episode, I will be referring to the sport in question as football, aka association football.
As I’m not talking about any other sports, there will be no confusion. So to everyone in the United States…..and Canada…..and Australia….and New Zealand….and South Africa…..and Japan….and Papua New Guinea….and Fiji, just pretend that you are traveling in Europe for the next few minutes.
That being said, in a previous episode, I talked about the origin of association football and how it originally developed with small clubs and schools. That is how it developed the name “association football.”
As the sport grew in popularity in the 19th century, it wasn’t long until national all-star teams were created to compete against other national teams.
The first recognized international match between two national teams took place on November 30, 1872, in Glasgow between England and Scotland.
The match at 4,000 fans in attendance, and the final score was a 0-0 tie….which somehow seems appropriate.
I should note that many people around the world often wonder why the United Kingdom doesn’t have a national team. Rather, their country gets split up into four teams representing England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.
On one hand, it seems to be unfair that one country gets to field four teams. On the other hand, it also means they are at a disadvantage in that they have to field four teams.
It has everything to do with history. International football started in Great Britain, where the constituent countries of the United Kingdom all had their own teams. When the sport grew internationally, those teams sort of got grandfathered in as they were already competing against other countries.
For 30 years, the “football world championship” was just a match between the champions of the English and Scottish top-level club leagues.
However, by the early 20th century, football had spread around the world.
The first international match played outside Great Britain occurred in 1902 between Uruguay and Argentina.
With growing interest in the sport, there were proposals for a world governing body for football to establish rules that everyone would recognize.
However, none of the British football associations wanted to participate in such an organization.
So, the rest of Europe just decided to make their own group. On May 24, 1904, the Fédération Internationale de Football, or FIFA, was created. Its founding members were France, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, with Germany joining later that day but not considered a founding member.
FIFA tried to run a tournament in 1906 in Switzerland, but it was a failure.
In 1908, the Olympic football competition was sanctioned by FIFA, but it was only for amatures and it was positioned as an exhibition, not an actual competition.
By the start of the first world war, the FIFA had membrer countries on four continents. However, the war basically put an end to international football competitions for the duration of the conflict.
Just prior to the outbreak of war, FIFA agreed to recgonize the Olympics as the “world championship for amateurs.” It was won by Belgium in 1920 and by Uruguay in 1924 and 1928.
The Olympics were fine, but they didn’t address the issue of a world championship for professional players. Professional leagues had become quite popular by the 1920s.
The 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles dropped the sport because of its lack of popularity in the United States and disagreements between FIFA and the International Olympic Committee over amateur rules.
So, in 1930, the first very world championship, which allowed all players, regardless of amateur status, was to be held.
FIFA decided to host the event in Uruguay as they had won the previous two Olympics and were considered the reigning world champions, and it was also the centennial of their independence.
The problem was it was a long trip for all the European teams in an era where plane travel still wasn’t common.
Two months before the tournament was to take place, no European teams had committed to attend. After some arm twisting, four European teams agreed to attend.
There were 13 countries in attendance at the first world cup. Seven were from South America, four were from Europe, and two were from North America. No one had to qualify. The eventual winner was the home team from Uruguay, who defeated Argentina 4-2 in front of 93,000 spectators.
The 1934 World Cup was a much bigger affair. It was held in Italy from May 27 to June 10.
The 1934 World Cup was the first event where you actually had to qualify.
Thirty-two teams participated, with sixteen qualifying for the tournament. Uruguay boycotted the event because so few European teams went to Uruguay.
Italy beat Czechoslovakia 2-1 in the final, becoming the first European winner. The event was marred by Benito Mussolini, using the tournament to showcase the success of Fascist Italy.
Football returned to the Olympics in 1936, but it had now taken a backseat to the World Cup as the premier international competition in football.
The 1938 World Cup was held in France, where Italy beat Hungary 4-2 in the finals. The Italian coach, Vittorio Pozzo, became the first and, to date, the only coach to have coached two world cup champions.
With the onset of world war two, there wasn’t another world cup held until 1950.
Probably the biggest international match during this period was held in 1947 when an all-British team took on an all-star team from Continental Europe known as the European XI. The British won 6-1 in front of 123,000 people.
The long-awaited 1950 world cup took place in Brazil, which, in all likelihood, would probably have been awarded the world cup in 1942.
The format of this world cup was unlike any other before or since. Instead of a final match, the four final teams played in a round-robin. The winner was Uruguay, and the runner-up was Brazil.
This was the first world cup where British teams competed, with both England and Scotland attending. Germany and Japan were also both banned from attending due to, you know, war. Likewise, every communist country in Europe, save for Yugoslavia, refused to participate in the qualifying tournaments.
In 1954, the cup was held in Switzerland. A record 37 teams participated in qualifying matches, including the Eastern Block teams, and the newly created West German, who ended up winning the tournament.
1958 saw the beginning of the Brazilian dynasty. Brazil won their first world cup beating the host country of Sweden, and it was the international debut of a 17-year-old phenom by the name of Pele.
Fifty-five countries competed in qualifying matches, largely because there were now more countries due to the post-war decolonization movement.
Brazil won again in 1962 when it was hosted in Chile, and in 1966 the event was hosted in England when England won its first and only world cup.
In 1970, Mexico was the host, and it was won by Brazil for the third time, making Brazil the first three-time champion. Pele also became the first and only person ever to appear on three world cup winning teams.
1970 also marked the first war to ever break out over a football match. In 1969, El Salvador and Honduras had a brief military conflict that lasted one hundred hours, the proximate cause was a qualifying match between the two countries. This will be the topic of a future episode.
In the 1970s, the world cup started to become big business. In particular, in 1974, Brazilian João Havelange became the president of FIFA and turned FIFA into a money-making machine.
Television rights and sponsorships now began being sold for ever larger amounts. Havelange was able to control FIFA because there were now many smaller countries in the organization that had an equal vote with the traditional football powers in Europe.
The amount of money involved in hosting the world cup exploded. The European television rights for three world cups from 1988 to 1996 were $440 million dollars. The same European TV rights for the next three cups went for $2.2 billion.
An investigation into a bankrupt sports marketing firm found that they had given $21 million in bribes to Havelange over the years to win bids. Havelange resigned amidst these allegations in 1998.
On the pitch, the world cup continued to grow. In 1982, the field was expanded to 24 teams, and in 1998, it was expanded to 32 teams. In 2026, the world cup is scheduled to have a whopping 48 teams qualify.
In 1991, after several unofficial tournaments, FIFA sanctioned the first women’s world cup. Since the inaugural event, the United States has won the women’s world cup four times, Germany twice, and Norway and Japan once each.
The 21st century saw an expansion of host countries. In 2002, the first world cup in Asia was hosted in both South Korea and Japan.
In 2010, South Africa hosted the first African world cup.
However, around this time, there began to be more and more claims of bribery by countries to win world cup bids.
The 2010 world cup in South Africa, the 2018 world cup in Russia, and the 2022 would cup in Qatar all had allegations of significant bribery associated with their winning bids.
The amounts spent for winning the bids of each world cup seem to have gone up over time as it has become more and more competitive.
The 2022 world cup bid was exceptionally odd as Qatar had no infrastructure whatsoever to host any of the matches. It required the construction of multiple stadiums, which would have no use once the event was over.
The numbers associated with Qatar’s bid for the world cup are staggering. Estimates have placed the total amount spent to host the cup, including all construction and infrastructure projects, at over $200 billion dollars. The total amount of money it is expected to bring to Qatar is only $6.5 billion dollars.
This includes elaborate cooling systems for all the stadiums and the creation of special greenhouses to grow turf which will be used on the playing fields.
To put this into perspective, South Africa was estimated to have spent about $3 billion in 2010, and Russia may have spent over $14 billion in 2018.
To be sure, some of the construction in Qatar will be used after the world cup is over, in particular accommodations and transportation. One of the Qatari stadiums is designed to be totally dismantled after the event and shipped to another country.
The amount paid in bribes to host the 2022 world cup is estimated to be around $880 million dollars. This includes a highly inflated $100 million dollar TV contract for Qatar-based Al Jazeera television, which would only be paid if Qatar won the bid.
The demand for hosting a world cup has actually increased, with more nations submitting bids. This trend flies in the face of the fact that the Olympics is finding it harder and harder to find host cities. The last three summer Olympics which have been awarded were all awarded by default to the only city willing to do it.
The demands for world cups have led FIFA to propose hosting the event every two years instead of four, which would, of course, mean double the money for FIFA. However, the major football powers in Europe and South America have threatened to boycott the event if it becomes a biannual competition. If they left, it would probably cause the public to lose interest.
Despite a 2015 FIFA corruption case that was tried in the United States, it is very difficult to provide any legal oversight for international organizations like FIFA.
211 countries are FIFA members, which means 211 separate jurisdictions, many of which are willing to turn a blind eye if it means income for a small country.
The future of the world cup might be in doubt. The issues of bribery and corruption, and the amount of money involved, have become so great that it is causing many of the more powerful football countries to rethink their involvement.
The way FIFA is structured, the countries that contribute the most money, and have the best teams, do not have power in the organization. At some point, they could just form their own rival organization with all the best teams and create some new event called the “Global Football Extravaganza”….or something.
As of right now, the 2026 world cup is scheduled to be jointly hosted by the United States, Canada, and Mexico, with the finals being held in either Los Angeles, Dallas, or New York.
Whatever the future may hold, the world cup is the single biggest sporting event in the world, and the finals of the world cup almost always have the biggest television audience on Earth. No matter who runs the championship tournament or what it is called that is unlike to change in the foreseeable future.