Every four years, the World Cup reminds us why soccer remains the world’s most popular sport. In the course of one month, the best players from across the globe converge on a host country and compete at the highest levels, with one nation’s team emerging as champion. The World Cup competition grabs the rapt attention of the sport’s 3.5 billion global fans. More people watch the championship game than any other live sporting event.
Though the World Cup is less than 100 years old, it has produced all the storylines you could hope for from organized team sports. Underdogs. Powerhouses. Upsets. Intense rivalries. Astounding athletic feats. World Cup games have had it all.
For soccer fans, Fanatics has it all as well, with officially licensed sports apparel, sports collectibles, and memorabilia highlighting both women’s and men’s national teams and their players. Here are some of the greatest teams, players, and achievements in World Cup history.
The First World Cup
The game of soccer dates back more than 2,000 years. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until the days just before the onset of the Great Depression that soccer-playing nations came together to form an international competition to see who was best at the game. For many years, soccer — known as football everywhere except the United States — only put nations against nations in the Summer Olympics. As the 1920s unfolded, however, more people sought to play the game professionally. FIFA, the game’s governing body, responded by forming a stand-alone international competition that became known as the World Cup.
Committee members chose Uruguay to serve as the host nation as a reflection of the sport’s tremendous popularity and geographic scope. The selection committee also chose Uruguay as the country was celebrating the 100th anniversary of its national constitution.
A total of 13 nations received invitations to compete in that first World Cup, going directly to the knockout rounds without having to survive regional qualifiers. The start of the Depression prevented many nations from participating for financial and economic reasons, so the field consisted of 10 teams from the Americas, including the United States, plus Belgium, France and the country formerly known as Yugoslavia. Teams played all their games in stadiums in Montevideo.
The final four of the inaugural World Cup consisted of Uruguay, Argentina, the United States, and Yugoslavia, with Uruguay and Argentina advancing to the finals with identical 6-1 romps in the semifinals. The hosts took home the inaugural crown, beating Argentina 4-2 before nearly 70,000 soccer-crazed fans.
Argentine forward Guillermo Stábile made the record books as the tournament’s leading scorer, reaching the back of the net eight times, including twice in the semifinals and once in the finals.
World Cup Winning Sides
Reaching the World Cup is a feat; winning it is even harder. Out of the 21 World Cups since 1930, only eight nations have ever claimed the championship trophy. Brazil leads the way, winning the World Cup five times and playing in a record 109 games over the history of the World Cup.
The Brazilians began their World Cup dominance in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the first ever to be played in a Nordic country. It was also the first tournament for striker Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé. The 1958 tournament propelled Pelé into a historic career that many believe was the greatest of any soccer player ever. Pelé wowed the world’s fans with a hat trick in the semifinals against France and then scored twice more in the finals as Brazil beat host Sweden 5-2.
Brazil repeated as World Cup champions in 1962, beating the former Czechoslovakia 3-1 even though Pelé missed most of the tournament due to injury. Brazil and Italy remain the only two nations to win World Cup titles back to back. Pelé is the only player in World Cup history to win three titles with his national team.
The Brazilians and Pelé earned an unprecedented third World Cup in four tournaments in 1970 with a 4-1 win over Italy in Mexico City. Brazil beat Italy again for the title in 1994 in penalty kicks, then earned its fifth World Cup in 2002 with a 2-0 win over Germany.
Incredibly, Brazil has also lost in the title game twice, falling to Uruguay in 1950 and then to France in 1998. The Brazilian squad is the only nation to compete in all 21 World Cup tournaments.
Right behind Brazil is Germany, with four wins in eight trips to the final, and Italy, with four wins in six appearances in the title game. Other World Cup winners, in addition to Uruguay, are England, Spain, France, and Argentina.
Famous Players in the Men’s World Cup
With his three championships, multiple-goal games, and flashy moves, Pelé seemingly stands alone among memorable World Cup players. Others, however, have also made their mark on the tournament and written their names in the record books.
Germany’s Miroslav Klose, for example, is the leading scorer in World Cup history with 16 goals in 24 games. Klose played for Germany in the 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014 World Cup tournaments. It helped that Klose scored a hat trick in his first World Cup game ever, an 8-0 rout of Saudi Arabia in the tournament held in Japan. Klose was notable for his consistency. He scored five goals in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, four in 2010, and two in 2014.
Right behind Klose is Brazilian striker Ronaldo, with 15 goals in 19 games across four World Cups; Gerd Muller, also of Germany, who scored 14 times in 13 games in two World Cups; and Just Fontaine of France, with 13 goals in six matches in the 1958 World Cup. Fontaine holds the record for most goals in a single World Cup tournament. His career was eventually cut short by injury.
Women’s World Cup
Women have also played soccer worldwide for hundreds if not thousands of years, yet it wasn’t until the 1990s that the Women’s World Cup was born. The first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 in China ended with the United States taking the title with a 2-0 win over Norway.
In the years since, the United States has dominated women’s soccer, winning World Cup tournaments in 1999, 2015, and 2019, while losing to the Japanese in the 2011 final via penalty kicks. The American team has appeared in five of the eight Women’s World Cup championship games. Germany, Norway, and Japan are the other championship squads.
The Women’s World Cup also occurs every four years, the year after the men’s tournament. The tournament has gradually expanded as it is grown in popularity, with 32 teams expected to take the field in the 2023 tournament hosted in Australia and New Zealand.
Famous Women’s World Cup Players
Not surprisingly, many of the top players in the Women’s World Cup come from the leading squads. The leading scorer of all time is Marta, of Brazil, with 17 goals in 20 matches spread across the last five World Cups. Marta has also been a prolific scorer in the Olympics, with 13 goals in 25 games. Brazil made the semifinals in 1999 but lost to Germany in the 2007 World Cup final 2-0.
Two players tie for second place on the all-time scorers’ list, each with 14 goals: Birgit Prinz of Germany and Abby Wambach of the United States. Prinz accrued her goals in 24 matches, while Wambach played in 25. The Germans made the finals in 2003, losing to the United States, and also reached the semis in the inaugural world cup in China in 1991.
Other notable scorers in the women’s game include Michelle Akers of the United States, with 12 goals in 13 games, and Christiane of Brazil, Wen Sun of China, and Bettina Wiegmann of Germany, each with 11 goals.
Great Games in World Cup History
Greatness takes on many definitions. The World Cup has created too many memorable moments to list; however, a select few games involving both men and women tend to make most lists of the greatest games. Here are a few to consider:
- England 4, West Germany 2, 1966 World Cup final. England, a sizable underdog, upset the favored Germans in extra time.
- Austria 7, Switzerland 5, 1955 World Cup quarterfinals. The Austrians and Swiss continue to hold the record for the most goals in a single cup game, played in blistering heat in Lausanne.
- Brazil 4, Italy 1, 1970 World Cup final. This game marked the first time two former world champions squared off in a title match. It included what is widely considered the finest goal in World Cup history, by famed defender Carlos Alberto.
- United States 2, Brazil 2 (United States wins 5-3 on penalties), 2011 Women’s World Cup quarterfinals. The two teams squeezed more than 90 minutes of action into the 90 minutes, including an own goal, a last-minute equalizer, and a penalty kick conclusion.
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