Before there was the World Cup, the main international soccer tournaments were held as part of the Olympics and featured only amateur players. For the 1912 Olympics, 11 European countries sent teams to compete at three stadiums in Stockholm. Great Britain won the single-elimination tournament, beating Denmark 4-2 in the final — but Denmark had to play a man down for the majority of the game, due to an injury and rules prohibiting substitutions. Starting in 1920, FIFA — the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, a union of several different European countries’ soccer associations — began organizing the Olympic soccer tournaments. Uruguay won the 1924 and 1928 events, both held in Europe, setting the stage for the first World Cup, in 1930, to be held on South American soil.
In 1930, FIFA decided to hold its own international soccer tournament. Because Uruguay had won the previous two tournaments, was celebrating the 100th anniversary of its independence, and (most crucially) was willing to build a new stadium and pay other teams’ travel expenses, the first-ever World Cup was awarded to Montevideo. That 80,000-seat stadium — the Estadio Centenario — wasn’t finished until five days into the tournament, forcing teams to play at several other sites in the city. In the days before reliable transatlantic flight, getting teams from outside the Americas to participate was difficult. Ultimately, four European teams joined (with three arriving on the same boat), along with the US, Mexico, and seven teams from South America. Uruguay won the final — the first of six host nations to win the World Cup over the years. (Note: The colors show the teams' rankings at the end of the tournament. Blue is the winning team.)
Participation in the early years of the World Cup varied depending on its location: until 1970, every World Cup was held in Europe or South America, and the tournaments tended to be heavily populated by teams from the host continent. In 1934 — the first year teams actually had to qualify — the first African team (Egypt) played, and the first Asian one (the Dutch East Indies/present-day Indonesia) followed in 1938. No World Cups were held in 1942 or 1946 due to World War II (during this time, the trophy was hidden under an Italian official’s bed for protection). Soon after the war, the 16-team field was standardized, and geographic balance began to slowly emerge. African countries began consistently participating in the '60s, and a team from the final remaining continent — Australia — first competed in 1974. The field expanded to 24 teams in 1982 and 32 teams in 1998, with the field eventually coming to resemble the relatively diverse, (slightly) less Eurocentric group that plays today. (Note: The colors show the teams' rankings at the end of the tournament. Blue is the winning team.)
For most of the World Cup’s history, the honor of hosting it has gone to a country on one of two continents: South America (which has hosted 5 times) or Europe (10 times). This streak was broken when Mexico hosted the 1970 tournament, though Asia and Africa didn’t get to host the event until 2002 (South Korea and Japan) and 2010 (South Africa), respectively. This year marks the first time that two consecutive World Cups have been held outside of Europe.
The World Cup, to put it simply, has been dominated by Brazil: the country has won five out of 19 tournaments played so far. Italy comes next, with four wins, but two of those came before World War II, in an ancient era of soccer when the United Kingdom’s teams refused to participate (they opted to play in an intra-UK tournament) and one nation might annex another (as Germany annexed Austria in 1938) right before the tournament. Germany, Argentina, and Uruguay round out the nations with multiple wins. Despite the World Cup tournament straying from Europe and South America occasionally in recent years, the trophy itself still never has. That probably won’t change in 2014, as all of the teams that are heavily favored right now still come from the two continents.
Even apart from the championships, this is still a tournament dominated by two continents: Europe and South America. No team from anywhere else has even finished as runner-up. Third place has gone to the US (but that was way back during the fledgling 1930 tournament) and Turkey (which is partly in Europe). You’d have to go to fourth place to find an entirely non-European or South American country in the modern era: South Korea, who made the quarterfinals of its home tournament in 2002. The majority of teams outside those two continents, in fact, have never escaped the group round of World Cup play.
Though the sport played at the World Cup is called different things in various languages, nearly all the names are variations on one of two words: football or soccer. The origin of the word “football” is pretty obvious: most of the game’s activity involves kicking a ball with your foot, and this was the name generally used when the first official rules were drawn up in Great Britain in the 1800s. But it was officially known as “Association Football” (because it was formally defined by the English Football Association in 1863), so a shortened version of “Association” — the word “soccer” — also took root. This name is mostly used in countries — like the US, Canada, and Australia — where an alternate form of football is still played.
One of the main reasons Europe (along with South America) still dominates the World Cup: the sport is absurdly popular there. Each country has its own highly attended premier league, the champions of which play each other in an annual tournament. And these premier league teams (along with lower-level teams) each have passionate fan bases that stretch back for generations. In all American pro sports, teams occasionally move. For a European football team to move would be unthinkable. This map of fan bases is obviously imprecise, as it can’t fit every team, the lines are always gradually shifting, and many individual fans have alliances to other cities’ teams. But it gives you an idea of how many clubs enjoy passionate regional fan bases — and how huge the sport is in Europe as a whole.
Zooming in on London and taking a look at a map of the fandoms for the dozens of local football clubs gives you a further idea of how deeply ingrained the sport is in the culture. This map shows both Premier League teams and lower-tier clubs, all of which have traditional areas of fans that go down to the neighborhood level. These boundaries, to an extent, are geographically organized — many surround the teams’ stadiums — but some individual teams, like West Ham United, have broader stretches of territory that encroach on other teams’.
One more reminder of how popular the sport is in Europe: you can measure attendance as a percentage of the whole population and end up with whole numbers. This map shows the percentage of the population that attended a match in person during a single season, and in much of the continent, it approaches two percent or higher. Attendance figures are especially high in the UK, where three to four percent of people go to matches.
This map, though a few years old, shows how far soccer has to go in the US to come anywhere near its popularity elsewhere. Major League Soccer has been getting more popular in recent years, but there are still just a handful of teams — and though per game attendance is on par with the NBA and NHL, in terms of total attendance, soccer is fifth place among American sports by a wide margin. A few particular teams can draw crowds on a regular basis, but the sport still isn’t quite there yet. Perhaps this year’s World Cup will serve as another step in the mainstreaming of soccer in the US.
In total, 203 national teams competed in 820 qualifying matches over the past three years to enter the World Cup finals in Brazil. The 171 countries shown in yellow did not get selected, and the 32 shown in blue did (gray countries chose not to enter the competition, and black are not FIFA members). The qualification process is complex, but basically, it comes down to the top 13 teams from Europe, the top five teams from Africa, the top four from both Asia and South America, and the top three from North America. Additionally, Brazil gets an automatic bid (as the host country), as do winners of a few different playoff matches (one between Asia and South America’s fifth-best teams, and one between Oceania’s best team and North America’s fifth-best team).
Here’s each country’s team ranking at the end of qualifying matches, in terms of a complex formula that awards points for wins and ties, based on the importance of the match and the quality of the opponents. For the most part, the highest-ranked teams have made the World Cup finals, but due to the region-based qualification process, a few relatively low-ranked ones managed to sneak in: Cameroon, for instance, was ranked 56 in the world, and Australia was ranked 62.
Why are 46 players born in France playing in the World Cup if only 23 are allowed on each team? A huge number (15, to be exact) are playing for Algeria’s team. That’s because FIFA allows a player to play for any country he has a "clear connection" to. The eligibility rules are complex and frequently change, but this typically means at least one parent or grandparent born in the country, or two years’ residence in it. (Additionally, players who’ve played on one country’s senior-level teams usually can’t switch to another’s.) The many French-born players who switched squads are mostly the children of parents who fled Algeria during the 1991 civil war, but passed on their nationality to their offspring. In other cases, players with dual citizenship might opt to play for the country with a stronger program — like Toronto-born Jonathan de Guzman, who chose to play for the Netherlands, where he played in youth soccer academies from the age of 12 and eventually gained citizenship.
Unlike the Olympics, the World Cup isn’t hosted by a city, but by a country. This means multiple stadiums, sometimes spread far apart. They’ve seldom been more distant than in this year’s World Cup, which will feature stadiums that are thousands of miles from each other: from Manaus, deep in the Amazon rainforest, to Porto Alegre, on the Atlantic coast, is about 1,950 miles. In between their matches, most teams stay at base camps in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo.
Here’s a more tangible way of seeing how huge Brazil is — and how far apart the stadiums are from each other. If Manaus were in Washington state, the teams would be traveling to matches all across the Great Plains, Midwest, and even Mexico.
One important aspect of this year’s World Cup is the wave of protests that has swept the country over the past few years. They’ve been triggered by a lot of things — including stagnating wages, substandard public services, and economic inequality — but a crucial aspect has been the estimated $14 billion Brazil has spent on World Cup preparations, including the construction of seven new or fully refurbished stadiums. Protests have occurred in all 12 cities hosting World Cup matches, with a subway strike in Sao Paolo getting settled just days before the event began.
Lionel Messi, Argentina’s star forward and captain, is one of the world’s top goal-scorers. This map shows where he scored each of his 91 goals of the 2012 calendar year from. What’s striking is how many come from close range: apart from a handful of set pieces and penalty kicks, nearly all his goals come from within the box, and a huge number come from within the six-yard box.
When Kickdex, a soccer analytics website, mapped every assist made in the Premier League over the last three seasons, they found something interesting: a huge percentage come from short, direct passes made inside the box, just wide of the net. Many fans think crosses — long, high passes made from the outer edges of the field to the center — are the key to an effective offense, but these accounted for just 29 percent of the Premier League assists. The vast majority of these assist passes, meanwhile, gave the scorer the ball directly in front of the net.
More evidence that getting the ball directly in front of the net is the key to scoring goals: this map of 5,122 shots from the Champions League by Ricardo Tavares, with the probability of each shot calculated based on its distance from the net. It’s not a huge surprise, but the relationship between goal scoring and proximity is extremely strong. When a player rips a shot from directly in front of the goal, the keeper has virtually no time to respond — and the angle of different on-target shots the player can take is very broad — making it extremely difficult to make a save.
During the knockout phase of the World Cup, there are no draws: tied matches have 30 minutes of extra time, and if there’s still no winner they have a penalty shootout. Over the course of 19 World Cups, 204 penalty kicks have been taken during shootouts — and 144 have gone in. The BBC graphed every single one of them, showing where shots most frequently miss (above the net) and which types of shots are most frequently saved (low ones).
Analyze the 2,274 goals ever scored in the World Cup, as the Economist has, and you’ll see a subtle pattern: on the whole, scoring gradually goes up over the course of the game, as trailing teams play more aggressively, making it more likely for either team to score a goal. The most active minute, in terms of goal scoring, has been the 75th, with 42 total goals occurring.