World Cup Beginners Guide
We’ve written a World Cup beginners guide to explain how the world’s biggest soccer competition works, and where you can watch the matches on US television and streaming.
In soccer, the FIFA World Cup is considered to be the absolute pinnacle of the sport.
The event, which takes place every four years, brings together the best international teams in the game to battle it out for the right to be crowned world champions. It’s an event that sees memorable XIs immortalised and the legends of iconic players forged.
Since its inception in 1930—the inaugural competition was held in Uruguay—the World Cup has been constantly evolving.
In 1982, the event was expanded to 24 teams and then, 18 years later, 32 nations competed for the title at the the 1998 World Cup in France. In January 2017, it was confirmed the 2026 edition will include 48 competing countries, a decision greeted with mixed reaction.
World Cup Beginners Guide
Qualification for the tournament is a lengthy process, taking place in the preceding years to the World Cup proper.
UEFA (Europe), CONMEBOL (Central America), CONCACAF (South America), CAF (Africa), AFC (Asia) and OFC (Oceania) all hold their respective preliminary tournaments, with successful sides taking their place in the tournament automatically. Some who don’t secure automatic progression will enter a playoff system, where they will fight for their place in the World Cup finals over two legs.
In tournament proper, in recent editions there have been eight groups of four, with all the sides in each pool playing one another once. Seedings mean the host nation, the holders and the remaining highest ranked outfits are spread across the groups.
The top two teams from each pool progress into a knockout bracket, from which the eventual winner will be determined. Typically, the winner of Group A will face the runner-up in Group B and vice versa, ensuring there is a merit to chasing top spot in the round robin format.
It means the team that wins their four knockout matches is crowned as the champion. Nations progress by winning their matches in normal time, in extra-time or via a penalty shootout; the World Cup final has been won via a penalty shootout twice in its history, with Brazil beating Italy in 1994, before Italy beat France in 2006.
From 2026, the format will change again, with 16 groups of three beginning the tournament proper, with the top two progressing to make a 32-team knockout bracket.
The most successful side in the history of the World Cup is Brazil, who have won the tournament a record five times (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002).
The style in which the Selecao sashayed to those titles is part of what makes this event so special. Watching Brazil at a World Cup is always an anticipated occasion and some of the nation’s legendary soccer figures have defined their legacy in pursuit of this glory; Pele, who many consider to be the greatest player ever, is the only man to have won the tournament on three occasions.
Trailing Brazil in the all-time stakes are Germany (1954,1974,1990, 2014)—who won the last World Cup in Brazil, memorably beating the hosts 7-1 in the semi-final—and Italy (1934, 1938,1982, 2006), who each have four wins.
Argentina have two and aside from Pele, the man most synonymous with this tournament led the Albiceleste to victory in 1986. That man is Diego Maradona, whose brace against England—including the infamous “Hand of God” goal and a stunning individual strike—in the quarter-finals is one of the most remarkable sporting moments of all time.
Uruguay are also two-time champions, while France, Spain and England have won the tournament once in their history.
The Netherlands have the unfortunate record of finishing as the tournament runner-up (1974, 1978, 2010) on three separate occasions. However, their Total Football approach in the 1970s, pioneered by coach Rinus Michels and star player Johan Cruyff, is regarded as some of the most entertaining soccer every played.
Recently, World Soccer Talk ranked the 25 most exciting moments in the history of the tournament. Check them out by clicking here.
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