Since the first World Cup in 1930, the format for the finals has changed significantly. The first World Cup was the only tournament not to have a qualifying tournament, all the teams that attended were invited.
Once the team has qualified for the finals, they generally play some sort of group stage, with winners progressing into the next stage and subsequently a knockout format to the finals, finishing with a final match to determine the world champions.
Here are the various formats used in previous World Cup tournaments:
- 1930: The 13 teams were drawn into four groups. Each group played a round-robin format, with the four group winners progressing to the knockout semi-final stage. There was no third-place playoff.
- 1934: 16 teams participated in a knockout tournament, the winners progressing to the next stage (round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final). Drawn games (after extra time) were replayed.
- 1938: The same format was used as in 1934, though Austria was absorbed into Germany after qualifying, leaving the tournament with just 15 teams.
- 1950: The 13 teams were divided into four first-round groups, with the winner of each group advancing to a final group stage. The tournament winner was decided by a final round-robin group contested by these four teams (Uruguay, Brazil, Sweden, and Spain).
- 1954: The 16 qualifying teams were divided into four groups of four. Each group only played four matches (the two seeded teams playing the two unseeded teams). In the knockout stage, the four group-winning teams played each other to produce one finalist, and the four second-placed teams played each other to produce the second finalist.
- 1958-1970: In the group stage, 16 teams competed in four groups of four in a round-robin format, the top two teams progressing to the knockout phase (quarter-finals, semi-finals and final).
- 1974-1978: In the first phase, 16 teams competed in four groups of four in a round-robin format as in previous World Cups. The top two from each group then entered another group phase, two groups of four, with the winners of the two groups playing each other in the final, with the runners-up from each group meeting in the third place play-off.
- 1982: 24 teams played in six groups of four teams each. The top two teams in each group advanced to the second round, the twelve teams were split into four groups of three teams, with the winner of each group progressing to the knockout semi-final stage.
- 1986-1994: 24 teams played in six groups of four teams each. The top two teams from each group plus the four best ranked third places advanced to the knockout round of 16 teams.
- 1998-2022: 32 teams played in eight groups of four teams each. The top two teams in each group advanced to the knockout stage, with each group winner facing a runner-up from one of the other groups.
- 2026+: There will be 48 teams, playing in 16 groups of three teams. The top two teams from each group progress to a knockout tournament starting with a round of 32 teams.
- FIFA World Cup History
- List of Firsts — the first to do just about everything associated with the World Cup.
- See details of each host city for further details of each World Cup event.
- History of the FIFA World Cup Trophy
- Match Ball History
- A History of Soccer
- Uruguay 1930 World Cup