At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, we will see 32 teams fighting for a ticket to get to the round of 16. Soccer fans have grown used to this format, but the World Cup hasn’t always worked like this. FIFA introduced the current format 20 years ago, but before that, the tournament had transformed through quite a few different versions, some of them very weird indeed.
In the beginning, there were no qualifying stages as 13 teams entered the event by invitation only. The competition started with one group of four teams and three groups of three teams each, and the knockout stage was very short, only comprising of two semifinals and the final.
This was the first time that nations had to qualify to join the party. 32 teams took part in the qualification process, and 16 made it to the tournament. This World Cup had no group stage; it was all knockout games from the get-go. The format was round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals, and the final. Also, there was a third-place playoff for the first time.
This scheme was used in France 1938 as well.
In Brazil, things changed again. 13 countries competed, divided into four groups: two with four teams, one with three, and one with just two. There was no knockout stage; instead, the best teams in each group qualified for a final group, where every team played against each other round-robin. The final result was determined by the most points earned, league-style.
This tournament was another oddity. 16 teams were divided into four groups, but the format was not round-robin (as has become common for a group stage). Every group had two seeded teams and two unseeded teams, and matches were only played between seeded and unseeded teams. The knockout stage started with quarterfinals and continued in a familiar fashion.
In Sweden, there were 16 teams in four groups that used round-robin format. However, when two teams finished with the same number of points, there was an additional playoff game between them. Eventually, two sides from each group made it to the knockout stage, which began with quarterfinals.
At this World Cup, FIFA decided to get rid of the playoff games during the group stage and instead applied the “goal average” to rank teams that finished equal on points.
This format was kept in England 1966.
In Mexico, the goal average was replaced with the goal difference as one of the tie-breaking criteria, but the rest of the format remained the same.
There was a run-of-the-mill group stage in 1974 (16 teams in four groups), but the qualified teams didn’t go to the knockout round. Instead, there was a second group stage with two groups of four teams each. The only knockout matches were for the third place and the final, disputed between the runner-ups and winners of each group respectively.
This format was retained in Argentina 1978.
Things changed drastically in Spain: for the first time, 24 teams played in a World Cup, divided into six groups of four teams each. After the first group stage, there was another group stage for which the two best teams from each group qualified. The 12 teams were divided into four groups of three teams each, and the winners made it to the semifinals.
24 teams were still divided into six groups, but now the knockout stage started with a round of 16. The top two sides in each group had an automatic ticket to move forward, while the four best of the third-placed nations, based on their points and goal differences, advanced as well. Thus, Bulgaria and Uruguay made history by qualifying for the knockout round with merely two points each.
This format was used at Italy 1990 and USA 1994.
In France, FIFA wanted a bigger party, so they decided to accommodate 32 teams in eight groups of four teams each. The two top teams in each group advanced to the knockout round that started with a round of 16.
Since 1998, every World Cup has used this format, but in 2026 things are expected to change once again.