How Many FIFA World Cups Have There Been?

Nothing yells that soccer is a universal sport like the FIFA World Cup. The competition is truly a global spectacle that features football teams from all over the world who battle it out for the ultimate prize and arguably the most coveted prize in sports – the FIFA World Cup trophy. It’s also responsible for a number of football’s most iconic moments and is a standard against which all great players are measured. The competition has faced its fair share of challenges up to and including early logistic problems, boycotts, and postponement on more than one occasion due to key global events.

How many FIFA World Cups have there been? There have been 21 FIFA World Cups as of the year 2021. Since its inception in 1930, the tournament has been held quadrennially (every four years) with the exception of two instances in the 1940s on account of the Second World War. Surprisingly, only 32 national teams have made it to the final with only eight winning the ultimate prize.

Why is it called the World Cup?

The competition is called the World Cup or FIFA World Cup because it is literally a tournament that every FIFA member nation is entitled to compete in. It is also a nod to its knockout structure and the original winner’s prize – the Jules Rimet trophy, formerly known as “Victory” and partially designed as a cup that one could actually drink from.

Currently, 211 national football associations are members of FIFA. Since attempting to host a competition involving 211 teams would be the true definition of a logistical nightmare, World Cup qualification matches are held in the three years prior to the commencement of the competition to whittle down the number of participating teams to a manageable 32.

The 32 national teams who enter the World Cup tournament are subdivided into 8 groups (usually A to H) of 4 teams each. The teams within each group compete against each other with the top two progressing to the knockout stages, which are highly competitive and are considered to be the do or die stage.

Only 8 teams progress to the quarter-finals, with half that number making it into the semi-finals. The winner of the two semi-final matches then competes in the World Cup Finals where only one is ultimately crowned the victor. To date, 79 national teams have participated in the competition with only eight lifting the iconic title.

Why Did England Miss the First Three World Cups?

England missed the first three World Cups partly because of a dispute with FIFA which caused them to withdraw from the federation in 1928 and political events at the time that made it impossible to participate in the competition.

The Three Lions missed the inaugural World Cup in 1930 after disagreeing with FIFA over payments to amateur players. Such tussles were common at the time as FIFA itself had had a similar dispute with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The IOC had insisted that only amateur players were allowed to take part in the Olympics – a stance that denied many notable professional players at the time a chance at representing their countries. It is this development that prompted former FIFA president Jules Rimet to conceptualize the World Cup in the first place in order to accommodate both professional and amateur players.

Seeking to mend fences, FIFA invited England to the 1934 World Cup. England nevertheless declined and one-upped the federation by hosting the tournament’s winner, Italy, in Highbury later that same year whom they beat 3-2.

Relations between England and FIFA improved ahead of the 1938 edition of the competition. The governing body invited England to take Austria’s place in the tournament after Germany annexed the latter in the infamous Anschluss in March of that year.

England however declined the offer in an attempt to steer clear of the volatile political situation created by Germany’s aggression. England subsequently rejoined FIFA in 1946, allowing them to participate in the 1950 World Cup – their first-ever.

Who Has Won the Most FIFA World Cups?

Brazil has won the most FIFA World Cups with a record 5. The South Americans topped the competition in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, and 2002. Upon their third win in 1970, Brazil was allowed to keep the original Jules Rimet trophy in perpetuity.

The former FIFA boss had made it one of the tournament’s stipulations when he founded it in 1930. The provision does not however apply to the current trophy, which replaced the original one in 1974. Instead, winners are now awarded a gold-plated bronze replica of the title which they get to keep.

Other multiple-time winners of the World Cup include Italy and Germany with four trophies and France, Argentina, and Uruguay, who have won the title on two separate occasions. England and Spain round off the eight-country list of winners with one each.

Iconic Moments at the FIFA World Cup

The World Cup has so many iconic moments that one article would hardly do justice to them. There are however some moments that are etched in the hearts and minds of football fans around the world and deserve special recognition. They are:

  1. Maradona’s goal of the century – the late-great Diego Maradona is responsible for some of the most memorable moments of the World Cup. His epic goal against England at the 1986 edition World Cup, voted the Goal of the Century in 2002, rightfully tops this list.
  2. Maradona’s infamous “hand of god” goal – this one hits different for England fans as they were once again on the receiving end of Diego Maradona’s genius. The Argentine craftily used his hand to guide the ball past former Three Lions goalie Peter Shilton to slot in his first of two goals in their 1986 World Cup quarter-final clash. His second goal is the one highlighted above.
  3. The birth of a legend – the 1958 World Cup saw the debut of Brazilian legend Edson Arantes do Nascimento, who is fondly known as Pelé. At only 18 years old, the former striker had earned the respect of his peers, who convinced their coach to allow him to play. The marksman went on to score in all their matches in that edition of the competition and is the competition’s greatest winner with 3 World Cup trophies to his name (1958, 1962, and 1970).
  4. Zidane’s headbutt – in what was perhaps one of the most confusing moments in the history of the World Cup, former France midfielder Zinedine Zidane headbutted ex-Italy center-back Marco Materazzi after the defender made a snide comment about his sister.
  5. Brazilian dominance – in what was arguably the most lopsided finals battle in the history of the competition, Brazil routed Italy 4-1 at the 1970 World Cup Finals thanks to spectacular play from their stellar squad which included Pelé, Carlos Alberto, and Jairzinho. The Italians could not have been more relieved to hear the final whistle.


I started watching football in the early 90s and was hooked. I fell in love with Chelsea and have supported them ever since. I have also written a book on Corporate Governance and Firm Performance in England and Scottish football.

Recent Posts