Our FIFA World Cup beginner’s guide explains how the world’s biggest soccer competition works. For example, it includes where you can watch the matches on US television and streaming.

In soccer, many consider the FIFA World Cup as the absolute pinnacle of the sport.

The event takes place every four years. In fact, it brings together the best international teams in the game to compete to determine the world champion. It is an event that sees memorable teams immortalized, forging the legends of iconic players.

The inaugural competition was held in Uruguay in 1930. Since then, the World Cup has been constantly evolving.

In 1982, the event was expanded to 24 teams. Subsequently, 18 years later, 32 nations competed for the title at the the 1998 World Cup in France. That was followed by January 2017 when it was confirmed the 2026 edition will include 48 competing countries. Needless to say, the decision greeted with mixed reaction.

FIFA World Cup beginner’s guide

Format

Qualification for the tournament is a lengthy process. It often takes 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. Then, the successful sides from those confederations take their place in the tournament automatically. Some who do not secure automatic progression will enter a playoff system. There, 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. In that format, all the sides in each pool play 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 is determined. Typically, the winner of Group A faces the runner-up in Group B and vice versa. That ensures there is a merit to chasing top spot in the round robin format.

It means the team that wins their four knockout matches is 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. Firstly, Brazil beating Italy in 1994. Secondly, Italy defeated France in 2006.

From 2026, the format will change again. With 16 groups of three beginning the tournament proper, the top two progress to make a 32-team knockout bracket.

History

The most successful side in the history of the World Cup is Brazil. Indeed, they 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 a marvelous occasion. For instance, 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. They won the competition in 1954, 1974, 1990, 2014. On the other hand, Italy won in 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006.

Part of the fascinating development of soccer in the United States can be discovered from the history of the World Cup on US TV.

Two of the greatest players

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. To illustrate, he scored two goals against England in the 1986 quarter-finals. Firstly, it was the infamous “Hand of God” goal. Secondly, he scored a stunning individual goal after dribbling past half the England team. Those are some of the most remarkable sporting moments of all time.

Uruguay are also two-time champions. Meanwhile 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 was pioneered by coach Rinus Michels and star player Johan Cruyff. It is now seen as some of the most entertaining styles of soccer.

Meanwhile, here are the top 25 most exciting moments in World Cup history.

 

Browse through these beginners guides to the many of the popular soccer leagues:

Soccer Beginner’s guides

Soccer rules

Argentine Primera División

Bundesliga

Championship

Champions League

English Premier League

Korea’s K League

La Liga

Serie A

Beginner’s guide to World Cup

FA Cup

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