Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate
soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.
Read earlier columns
A history of crazy formats: Part I
In December, I highlighted a change in the format for the World Cup finals.
I noted that the Korea/Japan tournament had effectively been arranged into
two conferences of 16 teams and that the Final will be a play-off between
the winner of the A/C/F/H Conference and the winner of the B/D/E/G
Conference. This format differed from the one used four years ago when the
tournament was organised in the normal way - countries that advanced from
the group phase of France 98 could have gone to either side of the draw in
the knockout phase depending on whether or not they won their group.
It was an article I wrote in frustration. I'll spare you a lengthy rant on
why I dislike the Korea/Japan format and why we'd be better off using the
France 98 arrangement. If you want to read all that, go to The World Cup's
"Super Bowl" Final.
The format used at France 98 was a true rarity because it had few serious
flaws. As you'll soon find out, the same couldn't be said for most of the
formats used until then.
Broadly speaking, four different systems have been used in the World Cup
finals and I have a highly unimaginative name for each one: A full knockout
was used in 1934 & '38; a group-group system was used in 1950; the three
editions between 1974 and 1982 had a group-group-knockout arrangement and
every other World Cup tournament has used the normal group-knockout system.
[That might all sound a touch confusing but the descriptions will become
clearer as we examine the systems.]
A couple of those systems have used different formats. A few have been good;
most have been bad. One or two have been truly diabolical (think 1954...).
Did certain formats affect outcomes in the tournament? And did they
contribute to (or detract from) the quality of football that was played?
Were they fair or unfair?
Let's go through the 16 World Cup finals and analyse the formats used and
Uruguay 1930 (Group-knockout)
Only 13 teams contested the first World Cup in 1930. The countries that took
part were invited - no qualifiers were played. Until then, the Olympic Games
provided the only international soccer tournament. Uruguay, winner of the
Olympic gold medal in 1924 and '28, was selected as host and, consequently,
only four European teams took part. Most of the powerful European countries
stayed home as this was the time of the Great Depression and getting to
South America also meant a two to three week sea voyage. And there's little
doubt that a few of the European countries that wanted to stage the
inaugural tournament were sulking. In the end, only Belgium, France, Romania
and Yugoslavia made the long trip. For good measure, they all came on the
same boat and stopped to pick up the Brazilian team along the way.
What has all that got to do with the format used in 1930? Nothing - except
that the competition organisers wanted 16 teams to participate in a knockout
tournament. But, as only 13 teams turned up, they were instead put into four
groups with the winner of each group advancing to knockout semi-finals.
You've got to love those pioneering days! The draw for the four groups was
hastily arranged in Montevideo a few days before the tournament kicked off.
(A far cry from the modern day, glitzy, over-the-top ceremonies which are
held more than half a year before the start of the finals.) In the lead up
to a World Cup that will be played in two countries and 20 cities, it's also
worth noting that the entire 1930 tournament used just three different
venues and all of them were in the city of Montevideo.
Seeded at the head of their respective groups were Uruguay, Argentina,
Brazil and... wait for it... the United States. Each group had three teams
except Argentina's, which had four.
This format worked reasonably well. Although only one country advanced from
each group, few meaningless matches were played because three of the four
groups had just three teams. And, for the first and only time, there were no
drawn matches. Every match in the tournament produced a winner.
Three of the four seeds advanced to the semi-finals. Brazil, eliminated by
Yugoslavia, was the only one to miss out. A draw was used to decide the
semi-final pairings and Argentina was drawn against the US while Uruguay was
pitted against Yugoslavia. The two South American teams won comfortably and
Uruguay then defeated Argentina, 4-2, in the Final.
Italy 1934 (Full knockout)
As the 1934 World Cup finals were held in Europe, filling the 16 places was
always going to be easier than it had been four years earlier. Even though
Uruguay sadly chose not to defend its title - a poke in the eye to the
Europeans who had largely snubbed the inaugural tournament - there were 32
entrants. For the first time, qualifiers were arranged and for the first and
only time, the host nation was obliged to take part in them!
I have mentioned that, in 1930, only four European teams travelled to
Uruguay. For 1934, only four of the 16 qualifiers came from outside Europe -
Argentina, Brazil, Egypt and the United States.
By now it had become clear that the World Cup could not be confined to a
single city so the 1934 tournament was spread over eight venues from Naples
in the south of Italy to Turin in the north-west and Trieste in the
So, what about the format? Well, now that the organisers had the 16 teams
they had wanted four years earlier, the competition could use the knockout
system that had been planned in 1930 - one loss and you're out. On the
surface, this might have seemed a good idea as knockout football means no
But if a modern day World Cup was organised as a full knockout tournament, I
would criticise it on the basis that teams shouldn't have to fly halfway
around the world with the risk that they might play just 90 minutes of
competitive football, lose and then go home. In the 1930s, a knockout
competition made even less sense. As we've already seen, travelling between
Europe and South America required two to three weeks at sea back then.
And so it passed that all four non-European teams were knocked out in the
First Round. The United States' team was unable to repeat its strong 1930
performance as it was drawn to play its first match against Italy. The hosts
ended the American dream with a 7-1 rout. Argentina had a First Round loss
to Sweden, Brazil went down to Spain and Egypt lost to Hungary.
Under most circumstances, it's a long way home if you're a loser. Imagine
what the trip home was like for those poor guys!
It's also worth noting that the 1934 format allowed drawn matches to be
replayed. Only one replay was needed and it was a quarter-final between
Spain and Italy. After a 1-1 draw, the replay was played the next day with
Italy winning 1-0. The extra match obviously didn't affect the Italians too
badly as they went on to win the tournament.
Oh and how could I forget? The 1934 World Cup saw the introduction of the
Third Place Match (yawn).
France 1938 (Full knockout)
The 1938 edition of the World Cup finals used the same format as 1934. And,
as it was held in Europe again, the special holiday package of a long trip
and just 90 minutes of football was still available to far-flung countries.
France had won the right to stage the tournament ahead of Argentina.
Following that decision, all the South American teams (except Brazil)
decided to withdraw. Indeed, Brazil was the only non-European participant
from the 1934 finals which didn't withdraw from the 1938 competition. That
might be some proof that the special holiday package wasn't too popular.
Still, there's a sucker born every minute and, for 1938, the Dutch East
Indies (Indonesia) and Cuba joined Brazil in the non-European fleet.
Fortunately, only one non-European team was sent packing after 90 minutes -
the Dutch East Indies. They suffered a 6-0 defeat at the hands of the
powerful Hungarians in the First Round.
Only 15 teams participated in the 1938 finals. Austria had qualified the
previous year but, just a few months before the start of the tournament, the
Anschluss saw the Austrian nation swallowed up by Germany. [The Germans
snapped up a few of Austria's international players but it did them no good
as they were eliminated by Switzerland after a First Round replay.]
England, which had been in dispute with FIFA since 1928, was invited to
replace the Austrians but the English declined and they wouldn't make their
World Cup debut until 1950. You'd think that one of the unsuccessful
qualifiers could have been given the chance to round up the numbers but that
might have been far too logical.
When the draw for the finals was made, Sweden was paired with Austria in the
First Round. Therefore, the lucky Swedes ended up getting a bye through to
the quarter-finals. There, they met Cuba which had needed a replay to get
past Romania in the First Round. So Cuba, playing its third match in the
tournament, faced Sweden which was playing its first. Not surprisingly, the
fresh Swedes ran out 8-0 winners and advanced to the semi-finals where they
lost to Hungary.
At least the Cuban players got to play three matches. The Brazilians were
also knocked out in their third match as Italy defeated them 2-1 in a
semi-final. Italy went on to retain the trophy.
Another interesting note: the Italians played in and won the only replay
that was required in the 1934 tournament and went on to win the trophy.
There were three replayed matches in the 1938 edition and each time, the
winner of the replay was knocked out in its next match.
The 1938 tournament was the last to be played as a full knockout so the
problem of having half the teams in the competition playing only one match
would disappear at the next World Cup. Unfortunately the alternative system
used in 1950 took us from one extreme to the other.
Brazil 1950 (Group-group)
I know, group-group is a really bad name. But perhaps that's appropriate
because it was a really bad system as well.
Indeed, not only was the system daft, the general organisation of the
tournament left a lot to be desired. It was only through a great deal of
good fortune that the 1950 World Cup produced a thrilling climax.
Certain circumstances didn't help the tournament either. There were 34
entrants but the Germans - barred by FIFA - were not among that number. All
the eastern European countries behind the new "iron curtain" refused to
enter and a number of the countries that did enter ultimately withdrew.
Check out some of the reasons: Argentina was in dispute with the Brazilian
Federation; the Austrians didn't think their team was good enough; India
qualified but withdrew when it became clear that FIFA would not allow its
players to play in bare feet.
A special mention has to go to Scotland. By 1950, the four British
associations had been readmitted to FIFA and the British Home Championship
now doubled as a qualifying group with the top two teams advancing to the
World Cup finals. The Scots decided that they wouldn't make the trip unless
they won the British title - and they didn't. England finished first, the
Scots came second and qualified but, despite strong persuasion by England's
captain, Billy Wright, they still stayed home. I suppose they would have
gone out in the First Round anyway.
The French also deserve a mention. They did not qualify (knocked out by
Yugoslavia) but were invited when Turkey pulled out of the competition.
France agreed to play but probably started having second thoughts after
losing Friendlies to Belgium and Scotland. Then they worked out that the
venues for their two group matches were over 3,000 kilometres away from each
other. The French told the Brazilians that they would stay home unless the
arrangements were changed. The Brazilian Federation refused and France
In fact, the entire tournament was arranged so that the four first phase
groups (or "pools" as they were then called) had no geographical basis.
Hence, several teams were obliged to cover large distances to complete their
program. The farce was highlighted by the fact that Brazil was allowed to
play two of its three group matches in Rio de Janeiro while its other game
was in (comparatively) nearby Săo Paulo.
Did the arrangement of the tournament give Brazil an advantage? Brazil had a
win and a draw in its first two matches and for their final group game, the
Brazilians faced Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs had two wins out of two and, as
only the winner of each group advanced, Brazil simply had to beat them to
avoid elimination. Yugoslavia had played its second match in Pôrto Alegre
(over 1,000 kilometres from Rio de Janeiro) only two days earlier and, four
days before that, the Yugoslavs played their opening match in Belo Horizonte
- which is even further away from Pôrto Alegre.
The Brazilians won 2-0. I have read reports of the match which suggest that
the two-goal margin flattered them. More to the point, how much did the
exhausting journeys affect Yugoslavia's players?
Let's turn back to the high number of withdrawals because therein lies
another story. The draw for the four groups had been held two months before
the finals and the outcome was as follows (seeded teams are listed first in
Pool 1: Brazil, Mexico, Switzerland, Yugoslavia
Pool 2: England, Chile, Spain, United States
Pool 3: Italy, India, Paraguay, Sweden
Pool 4: Uruguay, Bolivia, Scotland, Turkey
We have seen that India, Scotland and Turkey all withdrew and weren't
replaced and, consequently, only 13 teams participated. Two of the countries
that pulled out were in Pool 4 and it was reduced to two teams. Pools 1 and
2 had no withdrawals.
If just a bit of common sense had been shown, the imbalance could have been
corrected by drawing a team out of Pool 1 or 2 and reallocating it to Pool
4. But, as if to underline the farcical organisation of the tournament, this
was not done. Pool 1 and Pool 2 both kicked off with four teams, Pool 3 had
three teams and Pool 4, ridiculously, had just two.
The Uruguayans advanced to the last four having only played one group match
- an 8-0 romp over Bolivia. No wonder they were so competitive in the latter
stages of the tournament!
The four group winners - Brazil, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay - then went into
another round robin group. The final group's six matches were shared between
Rio de Janeiro and Săo Paulo. Needless to say, Brazil played all its final
group matches at the Estadio Maracaná in Rio while the games that didn't
involve the host nation were played in Săo Paulo.
The winner of that final group would be the World Champion. So, to complete
the absurdities, the 1950 World Cup had no scheduled Final.
Fortunately, there was a decisive match which is often referred to as the
1950 "Final". Brazil and Uruguay played each other in the last group match
after Brazil had defeated Spain and Sweden while Uruguay had beaten Sweden
and drawn with the Spaniards. A draw would have therefore been enough for
the Brazilians to win the Cup but Uruguay came from behind to defeat them
A lot of reference and statistic books like to list all the World Cup Finals
and include the Uruguay-Brazil match as the 1950 Final. It's understandable
even if it's not totally accurate. Imagine if the match had been drawn and
Brazil was crowned Champion - all those lists would need some serious
Group-group was replaced for 1954 but, sadly, a similar system returned in
Switzerland 1954 (Group-knockout)
I suppose we should be grateful that the 16 qualifiers for the 1954 World
Cup finals all turned up. We should also perhaps be grateful that a real
Final was scheduled. But I can't say many other nice things about the
arrangement of the 1954 tournament - sheer madness is the first description
that comes to mind.
Four groups again and this time the top two teams from each group advanced
to knockout quarter-finals. That sounds fine until you hear how the groups
were arranged. Two teams were seeded in each group and the two seeds would
not play each other. Hence the groups did not have full round robins; each
team was scheduled to play only two group games. In case that wasn't bizarre
enough, it was also decided that drawn group games would go to extra time
and, to top it all off, goal difference would not be used to separate teams.
If the second and third-placed teams in a group finished level on points,
they would have a play-off to decide which country advanced to the
quarter-finals. Consequently, in a couple of groups, some teams played one
opponent twice but never played one of their other opponents in that group!
These arrangements were so ludicrous that it's worth looking at how each
The seeded teams in Pool 1 were Brazil and France and they were joined by
Yugoslavia and Mexico. The Yugoslavs opened with a 1-0 win over France and
Brazil thumped Mexico 5-0. If the Yugoslavia-Brazil match ended in a draw,
both would go through irrespective of the France-Mexico result. In the end,
Brazil-Yugoslavia finished 1-1 but in no way was the result a contrived one.
It was one of the matches of the tournament and it should have ended after
90 minutes but the competition's silly rules obliged the teams to play 30
futile minutes of extra time.
Hungary and Turkey were seeded in Pool 2. The "non-seeds" were West Germany
and South Korea. West Germany immediately made a mockery of the decision to
seed the Turks by beating them 4-1. Hungary, meanwhile, was demolishing
South Korea 9-0. The Germans then fielded a weakened side against the mighty
Hungarians and were beaten 8-3. Rather than extend themselves, the Germans
knew that goal difference wouldn't count and that they'd probably win a
play-off against Turkey. So, after the Turks beat South Korea, the Germans
met them again to decide second spot and (surprise, surprise) West Germany
came back to full form to win 7-2.
Pool 3 turned out to be the only group where both seeds went through.
Uruguay and Austria were seeded and they won both their matches. The
non-seeds on the receiving end were Czechoslovakia and Scotland. [The Scots
had again qualified by finishing second in the British Home Championship but
they decided to turn up this time.]
The host nation, Switzerland, was in Pool 4 but, amazingly, was not seeded!
(Can you imagine something like that happening now?) England and Italy were
the two seeds and Belgium rounded off the all-European group. England and
Belgium started with a match that finished 3-3 after normal time and 4-4
after extra time. Switzerland upset Italy by 2 goals to 1. England then
defeated the Swiss 2-0 and the Italians got their act together with a 4-1
win over Belgium. England went through to the quarter-finals with 3 points
and Italy and Switzerland were locked on 2 each. They played again and
Switzerland won again.
Now for the quarter-finals, the group winners were each rewarded with a
match against one of the runners-up, right? Wrong.
A draw decided the quarter-final pairings and the result was that all the
teams that we would normally think of as group winners were paired off
against each other. Brazil, which under normal circumstances would have won
Pool 1 on goal difference, was drawn against Hungary, the undisputed winner
of Pool 2. Uruguay, also a would be group winner on goal difference was
drawn to play England which won Pool 4. The other two pairings were West
Germany-Yugoslavia and Austria-Switzerland.
The four victorious quarter-finalists were Hungary, Uruguay, West Germany
and Austria and yet another draw decided the semi-final line up. The red-hot
Hungarians were drawn to play the defending champion, Uruguay, and West
Germany would meet Austria in the other semi.
You know the rest. Hungary and West Germany played in the Final and the
Germans caused one of the sport's greatest ever shocks by winning 3-2.
To this day, debate rages about whether or not the crazy 1954 arrangements
played their part in denying Hungary the World Cup. The way the groups were
set up allowed the Germans to throw their first game against Hungary and,
more controversially, Hungarian legend and captain, Ferenc Puskás was
injured in that match - the victim of a reckless challenge by a German
defender. Puskás would play in the Final but he clearly hadn't recovered.
There is also the question of whether Hungary should have had a better draw
in the knockout stage. With no reward for winning the group, the Hungarians
faced Brazil and then Uruguay - arguably the two toughest opponents they
could have had en route to the Final. Both matches were taxing. Indeed, the
match against Brazil (the "Battle of Berne") was a brutal one and the
semi-final against Uruguay was one of the great World Cup matches in history
with the Hungarians needing extra time to hand Uruguay its first ever World
Hungary should still have won the Final. The Magical Magyars took a 2-0 lead
but with Puskás fading the Germans came back. Still, the Hungarians missed
chances they should have converted, hit the frame of the German goal and had
shots cleared off the line. Late in the game, a Hungarian equaliser was
contentiously ruled out for offside. That's football, of course, but I can't
help wondering whether the undeserved tougher knockout draw left the
Hungarian players a bit below par for the Final.
I'm sure that most World Cup fans would agree that the 1954 format was
ill-conceived, illogical and unnecessarily complicated. It would not be
I'll stop at that point. In the next column in this series, we'll look at
the six World Cup finals held between 1958 and 1978, a period which
initially saw some stability in the formats used but ended with a return to
a ghastly system which included two group phases.
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