Quickly, what is the most popular sport in the world? If you said baseball, basketball or hockey, you would be wrong, not even close. According to a survey conducted by Atlas, the most popular sport, with some 4 billion fans worldwide is soccer, or, as it is commonly called – football. My friends, that means over one-half of the world’s entire population are fans of the game. Moreover, it is played by 250 million persons in over 200 countries. Incidentally, cricket is number 2. Basketball and baseball ranked 7th and 8th, respectively, and (American) football, by most measurements, the most popular American sport, did not even make the top ten.
Why is soccer so popular? There are many theories, however, consider (1) it is easily played on virtually any surface, even a vacant lot or open field; (2) it requires few pieces of equipment, really, just a ball; and (3) it is easy to learn at a young age. For most kids, soccer is the first organized sport to which they are exposed, as early as the age of five (even American kids). Kicking a ball comes naturally to young kids, and they don’t need to have the coordination, size and strength required to play other sports, such as baseball, American football or basketball.
Soccer has been played for a long time. The first international soccer match was between Scotland and England in 1872. It ended in a 0-0 tie. Soccer became part of the Olympics in 1900 as a demonstration sport. It became an official Olympic competition in 1908. The sport’s governing body the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was founded in 1904.
At the present time, the 2018 WC is being contested in Russia to determine the World Champion. The current tournament, which began on June 14 and will end on July 15 is the 21st and the first to be held in Eastern Europe. The World Cup Championship has been held every four years since 1930, except for 1942 and 1946.
[Quiz questions: where was the first tournament held and who won? Which country has won the most titles? Which player? See answers below.]
There are 32 teams in the tournament, although there is discussion of expanding it to 40 teams. FIFA has 209 member associations. Each team consists of 23 players three of which must be goalies. Replacement players are permitted under certain circumstances, such as serious injury, but the procedures for replacing a player are strictly regulated.
The WC consists of two phases. First is the group stage. The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four each. The host nation’s team receives an automatic bid; the other 31 teams are required to qualify through regional qualifying matches. This time the US failed to qualify.
Eight teams, the seven highest-rated and the host nation, are seeded. The teams in each group play each other round-robin style. Points are awarded for each match – three for a win, one for a draw and none for a loss. The two teams in each group with the most points advance to the knockout round. The knockout round is single elimination. There are no draws. If the score is tied at the end of regulation the teams play as many as two extra periods of 15 minutes each. If it is still tied the winner is determined by a penalty kick shootout. One loss and you’re out. The two survivors will meet in the final on July 15.
These 32 teams have survived three years of qualifying tournaments, so, in a sense, the World Cup is virtually a continuous event. Almost as soon as one tournament ends the qualifying matches for the next one begin. The World Cup is the most widely watched and followed sporting event with a total audience approaching 30 million (the second being the Olympics). In most competing countries the entire populace gets caught up in the spirit of the tournament. Generally, soccer fans are extremely passionate. They are literally “fanatic” about their team, which becomes a tremendous source of pride and nationalistic spirit.
According to FIFA the highest ranked team entering the tournament was Germany, followed by Brazil and Belgium. But, many other teams are very close in ability and most games very tense, low-scoring affairs. 1-0, 2-1 scores are very common, so upsets are not unusual. [Do you remember who won in 2014?] See below.
The US has a lot of work to do to elevate its program. Failing to even qualify this year was a real shock, but maybe it will serve as a wake-up call for those who run the program.
This tournament is as good as it gets for soccer fans. Enjoy the games!
- The first tournament was held in Uruguay, and Uruguay was also the winner.
- Brazil has won the most titles – 5.
- Pele has won the most individual WCs – 3.
- In 2014 Germany won, defeating Argentina 1-0 in the finale.