The World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world. More than 3 billion people around the world will tune in to watch their heroes from 32 countries go to war in their national colours and it’s a massive event, but everything has to start somewhere.
In the World Cup’s case, that was 1930, when just 13 teams took part. Then FIFA President Jules Rimet came up with the idea and the trophy is still named in his honour. There were no qualifying rounds, FIFA simply invited teams from around the world and then cajoled them into taking part.
International soccer was still in its infancy, relatively. The first international match took place in 1872, when Scotland played hosts to neighbours England in Glasgow. The sport actually featured in the Olympic Games from 1900, but was reserved for amateur players and was more of a show than a real competition. Without the Olympics, though, it’s fair to say that we might not have the modern World Cup.
This was followed by the Torneo Internazionale Stampa Sportiva, or the Thomas Lipton Trophy as it as known around the world. This was a competition where clubs represented their country. It started in 1908 and is sometimes known as the first World Cup, but really it was a predecessor to the FIFA Club World Cup we have today.
FIFA stepped up to help the Olympic Committee with the Olympic Games organisation in 1914, which explains why the modern World Cup is held every four years. The relationship turned sour before the 1928 Olympic Games, however, as the games were headed Stateside and soccer just didn’t have a following in the USA at that point.
So the Olympic committee dropped soccer and FIFA decided to go it alone and stage the first World Cup.
The choice of location, though, was unusual to say the least. Having won two World Championships at the Olympic Games, Uruguay was chosen to host the first official World Cup. That turned the event into a logistical nightmare and it almost killed the event before it kicked off. Two months before the tournament, not one single European team had confirmed their participation.
Rimet stepped in personally and hit the campaign trail with the European nations to drum up support. In the end, five European nations travelled to South America: Belgium, France, Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia.
There they met teams from the United States and seven teams from South and Central America. It was a rough and ready collection, literally all that FIFA could persuade to make the long journey to Uruguay. But it was a start.
Considering America’s lack of interest in soccer at the time, it’s almost hard to believe that the USA won one of the first official group matches in World Cup history. They beat Belgium 3-0, while France took on Mexico in the other match that kicked off the tournament.
Perhaps inevitably, considering their towering form at the time, Uruguay won the first World Cup, beating Argentina 4-2 in Montevideo to take the title and lift the first World Cup trophy. It was a great event, but FIFA had to learn some serious lessons along the way. In 1934, it moved the event to Italy, introduced qualifying rounds and produced a more cohesive tournament.
There were still problems. Uruguay boycotted the event due to poor European attendance at their showcase and they were joined by several other South American nations who simply didn’t want to make the trip. England, one of the greatest teams in the world at that point, also refused to participate in any World Cup until 1950, as it simply didn’t want to play against countries it had been at war with. The British also weren’t happy with the supposed ‘foreign influence’ in soccer.
The home team took the honours once again, as Italy triumphed. The Italian team built on this success in 1938 and retained the trophy, but then the wheels came off the World Cup wagon in dramatic fashion.
The Second World War threatened to derail the World Cup permanently, as FIFA ran dangerously low on funds and couldn’t even plan for an event in 1946. FIFA managed to get back on its feet after missing two tournaments, though, and the 1950 World Cup in Brazil was its greatest yet.
England joined the fray, finally, Uruguay returned and the early knockout stages gave way to the group matches we know today. It hasn’t looked back since.
Now the World Cup has blossomed. It’s a carnival, a celebration of soccer and culture that has become a part of the modern sporting psyche. We can look back and laugh at the hard times and petty squabbles that helped to form one of the greatest sporting events in the world.
We can also say thank you to Jules Rimet, who etched his name into sporting folklore when he took it upon himself to create the greatest soccer tournament in the world.