Almost eight decades later, the tournament stands as an unparalleled sporting event on the world stage, captivating billions via broadcasts around the globe and causing a corporate stampede as businesses worldwide look to associate their brand with the game of football.
On the streets of Uruguay in 1930 things were very different.
As the then Olympic champions it was decided that Uruguay would hold the inaugural World Cup as part of the country’s independence centerary celebrations. But with Europe in the grips of the Depression, only a last minute plea ensured any sides would compete. In the end Belgium, France, Yugoslavia and Romania took part in the 13 team tournament. Ultimately it was the hosts who defeated Argentina 4-2 in the final to claim the first World Cup.
In 1934 the tournament moved to Europe, with Italy hosting 32 teams of whom 16 would play in the finals. Among those absent was Uruguay who, as a retort to Europe’s lackluster effort four years earlier, decided against sending a side. Once again it was the host’s turn to lift the trophy, Italy defeating Czechslovakia 2-1.
In 1938 the drums of war were beating across Europe and as a result many footballing nations stayed away from France. Brazil were the only South American team to send a contingent, and that side found itself in one of the most entertaining games of all time as they defeated Poland 6-5 in their opening game. However, when the tournament reached the business end France would become the first host nation not to lift the cup – Italy defending their title to defeat Hungary 4-2 in the final.
As war descended on the globe there would be a 12 year break before the next tournament. The trophy would spend the war years in a shoe-box under the bed of the Italian Vice President of FIFA, Dr Ottorino Barassi.
The Cup returned to the world stage in Brazil in 1950. Despite plenty of problems in its construction, the Maracana Stadium was opened on 24 June 1950 and it played host to the most attended Final ever as more than 174,000 crammed in to watch Uruguay defeat Brazil 2-1. The host’s defeat sent Brazil into instant mourning, so much so that they forgot to award the trophy to the winners. It was up to FIFA President Jules Rimet to award the trophy in an impromptu ceremony.
Ironically the Cup itself had also been named the “Jules Rimet trophy” to honour the FIFA President for his work maintaining the game during the war years.
Considering the billion dollar football boot industry that now exists, an interesting footnote to the 1950 tournament was India’s attendance – swiftly followed by their withdrawal after being told they were not allowed to play in bare feet.
The World Cup again expanded in 1954 with Africa and Asia represented for the first time in the form of teams from Japan, Korea and Egypt. The goals also flowed with a record setting 140 goals in the 26 matches. Hungary were the dominant favourites and racked up some incredible scores including defeats of Korea 9-0, West Germany 8-3 and Brazil 4-2 in one of the fiercest battles of all time.
All that effort took its toll though, an despite taking a 2-0 lead over West Germany in the final, a rejuvenated German team came back to secure the title, winning the match 3-2.
The 1958 World Cup will be remembered for the arrival of Pele – arguably the greatest footballer of the 20th century. It was also the first televised World Cup and the large worldwide audience watched the Brazilian score his first goal in a quarter-final against Wales.
But the 17 year old will be remembered for his double in Brazil’s 5-2 victory over Sweden in the final. The match was tagged the “magicians v mercenaries” after FIFA allowed Italian based professionals to play for the home side.
The Cup returned to South America in 1962 as Chile played the role of hosts. This was the tournament in which football became physical as teams looked to negate free flowing football with tough tackling. The first victim of such tactics was Pele who was injured in his first game and was ruled out for the rest of the tournament. Despite the new tactics, Brazilian football triumphed, scoring a decisive 3-1 win against Czechslovakia in the final.
Four decades later and the World Cup of 1966 remains today the tournament closest to English hearts. It was also the first tournament in which FIFA set confederation’s places. Europe received 10, South America 4, Asia 1 and North and Central America 1. Africa forfeited during qualification when told the winner of the confederation would be forced to play the winner of the Asia confederation for a spot in the finals.
Once the action started though, it was England’s Cup. A Geoff Hurst hat-trick which included the most controversial World Cup goal of all time crowned the hosts champions, defeating West Germany 4-2.
While television entered the World Cup equation in 1958 it took on a more dominating role in 1970 in Mexico, with TV schedules dictating kick off times. The bizarre decision resulted in the world’s finest players starting games under the blazing Mexican midday sun.
The heat though seemed to have a calming effect as not a single player was sent off. Indeed it was a return to ‘the beautiful game’ with many games going down as the finest ever played. Brazil’s Jairzinho became the only player to score a goal in every game as his side became the first to win their third World Cup.
WEST GERMANY 1974
In 1974 the beautiful game stepped aside for “Total Football” as a legendary Dutch team led by Johan Cruyft started their own football revolution. Other events of note were the arrival of colour television and the advent of Group stages in both rounds, of most significance though the renaming of the Jules Rimet trophy to the FIFA World Cup.
The Dutch cruised through the group stages, defeating Argentina 4-0, East Germany 2-0, and Brazil 2-0. They began the final as hot favourites and scored their first goal before the West Germans had even touched the ball. But the dream and the revolution ended there. The West Germans came back to win 2-1.
Argentina’s 1978 World Cup was played with the spectre of General Videla’s totalitarian regime in the background. The star of the last World Cup Johan Cruyft refused to play in protest against the regime and while a larger boycott was mooted, the teams eventually turned up to play.
The Dutch again made the final, but were overcome by Argentina 3-1 as another home side lifted the trophy.
1982 saw yet another expansion of the tournament as 24 teams qualified for the finals. With Paolo Rossi leading the charge Italy won the final to join Brazil as three-time winners.
Although Columbia was originally slated to host the 1986 Cup, economic difficulties saw the tournament shift to Mexico, becoming the first country to host the event twice. The finals also saw the adaptation of the current format for matches. But it will be remembered for one man – Diego Armando Maradona. On their way to 3-2 victory in the final over West Germany, Argentina defeated England in the quarter finals.
The showdown, already heavy with symbolism after the recent Falklands War, saw Maradona scoring one the greatest goals of all time and also one of the most controversial – punching the ball into England’s net in a move that went down in history as “the Hand of God”.
Italia 1990 saw the Indominable Lions of Cameroon captivate an awestruck audience. Roger Mila’s men became the first African side to reach the quarter finals and although they were beaten at that stage by England, the confederation was then given three spots for future tournaments. In the final, Argentina became the first team not to score in the final as West Germany joined Italy and Brazil as three time winners.
While he may have starred in the previous two tournaments, Diego Maradona brought shame upon himself in the 1994 tournament as he was expelled before the start of play for failing a drugs test. Seen as an attempt to expand to a new market, the tournament saw a record 147 teams attempting to qualify. While the final finished 0-0 before Brazil won on penalties, it did see one goal scoring record set as Russia’s Oleg Salenko scored five goals against Cameroon.
A record 32 teams lined up for the start of France 1998. The tournament was punctuated by a classic battle between England and Argentina, which saw Michael Owen’s wonder goal, David Beckham’s sending off and Sol Campbell’s no goal. But in the end Argentina prevailed on penalties.
Croatia was the surprise packet of the tournament as they competed in their first World Cup since the break up of the former Yugoslavia. But their journey was to grind to a halt in the semi-finals courtesy of French defender Lillian Thuram’s first and second international goals.
There was immense drama before the final as a mystery illness saw Brazil’s star striker Ronaldo bed ridden. And while he recovered it was France who won their first World Cup.
JAPAN & KOREA 2002
As it had done in the USA eight years prior, the World Cup sought new football frontiers in 2002, heading to Asia to well and truly entrench the game in the region. While many Europeans teams had plenty of experience with the Asian enthusiasm for their “global brands” few could have predicted the huge community support that the joint hosts received.
Senegal blasted out of the blocks to beat France in the opening game. The defending champions failed get out of their group after being unable to score a solitary goal. But the story of the tournament was the South Koreans, led by Dutch master coach Guus Hiddink, who rode a wave of emotion all the way to the semi finals.
The Cup though was lifted by Brazil for an unparralleled fifth time after golden boot winner Ronaldo scored twice.
With Germany 2006, a new chapter of World Cup history is ready to be written.