The FIFA Council has voted to increase the number of teams at the World Cup to 48. This will not be the first major change in the tournament's format since the first World Cup was held in 1930.
When the first World Cup was held 86 years ago, the original plan was to make it a strictly knockout tournament made up of 16 teams. However, since only 13 teams actually traveled to the host country, Uruguay, and to save the Europeans from the indignity of having to board a ship back home after just one match, the organizers opted for three groups of three and a group of four.
The winners of the four groups moved on to the semi-finals, the winners of which faced each other in the final. For the only time in the history of the World Cup, there was no match for third place.
In 1934 and 1938, the original plan was implemented, and the World Cup became a strictly knockout tournament, starting with the round of 16. All of the games in any given round took place at the same time, and if a game ended in a draw, there was a replay. Had a replay finished in a tie, the decision could have been made by drawing lots, but this never happened.
In the first World Cup after World War II, in 1950 in Brazil, the group stage was reintroduced in the preliminary round. Three of the teams who had qualified did not participate, so this one was played with two groups of four, one group of three and another of two. The group winners advanced to a second group stage, the winner of which was crowned champion. There was no actual final, but, in the last group game, Uruguay, who would go on the win the title, and hosts Brazil, the two teams with the best records in the tournament, faced each other.
Extra games and drawing lots
In 1954 it was more complicated. There were four groups in the preliminary round, each with two seeded teams who did not have to play against each other. From the first round on, two 15-minute periods would be played to break a tie. If the second and third teams in a group had the same number of points at the end of the group stage, they would face each other in an extra game to decide which would advance. If there was a tie between the first and second-place teams lots would be drawn. In the end, two extra games had to be played, and twice lots were drawn. In the subsequent knockout round the group winners played against the second-place teams .
In 1954, West Germany lost to Hungary in the preliminary round but beat them in the final.
The 1958 World Cup in Sweden was played in the same format, but without the seeded teams in the groups, however the extra games remained.
Things changed for the three World Cups between 1962 and 1970. To determine the group winners and second-place finishers, goal average was used to break a tie. Since the 1974 World Cup in West Germany goal difference has been used to break ties. Unlike before, in 1974 and 1978 there was a second group stage in which the two group winners would advance to the final. The two second-place teams would go on to play the match for third place
An increase to 24, then 32 teams
For 1982 in Spain, the number of teams was increased to 24. After the preliminary round, there was a stage with four groups of three. The teams that finished top of their groups progressed to the semi-finals. This was also the first World Cup in which penalties were used to break ties, and the first one was the semi-final between West Germany and France.
The second group stage was dropped in 1994 and instead the two top teams in all six groups plus the best third-place finishers moved on to the last 16.
France host the first 32-team tournament
Since 1998 there have been 32 teams in the World Cup, with the round of 16 made up the eight group-winners and second-place finishers. The schedule is organized so that two teams from the same group can only meet again in the final or in the game for third place. There was an exception in the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan, the first and only World Cup ever to be played in more than one host country. That World Cup was organized to ensure that the two host countries could not meet early in the tournament, meaning two teams from the same group, Brazil and Turkey, met in the semi-finals.
The 1998 and 2002 World Cups also featured the Golden Goal, which meant that in extra time, the first team to score won. Until 2006, the World Cup champion automatically qualified for the next tournament, but this is no longer the case, so Brazil, who won in 2002, became the first title holder to have to go through qualifying.