When you hear the words “football” and “World Cup,” you probably think of the quadrennial event that has taken place every four years since 1930. But there was also a World Cup before WW2. It was just very different from its successor in almost every way. It was a much smaller tournament, with just 13 teams and no qualification process. Also, it took place during peacetime, in June and July instead of June and July of the following year as is now the norm which meant it was played entirely in European stadiums rather than on neutral territory (which almost certainly spared us from any acts of war during games). Perhaps most importantly of all, there were no referees visible on television screens as all games ended with either hooliganism or conspiracy theory pre-planned endings to avoid embarrassment. Read on for more about this amazing tournament…
FIFA and the World Cup Before WW2
FIFA, the world’s governing body of football, was founded in Paris in 1904. The first World Cup took place in Uruguay, South America, in 1930, with the host nation defeating Argentina 4-2 in the final. The tournament was created by Uruguayan football executive and former player, Dr. Ottorino Barassi. For the next several years, the tournament was played every four years. It was not uncommon back then for football tournaments to be scheduled around the Olympic Games. The World Cup was held in Italy in 1934, France in 1938, and Brazil in 1950.
1930: The first ever World Cup
The first-ever World Cup featured 13 teams. To select these teams, a series of qualifying rounds were scheduled. The teams were divided into two groups comprising four teams each. The top two teams from each group qualified for the next round. The final four teams were eventually chosen by a combination of voting by FIFA members and the drawing of lots. Uruguay was the only team to appear in all three World Cups held before the Second World War. The other two were Italy and Sweden. The first ever game of the tournament kicked off in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with hosts Brazil defeating Mexico 3-2. The second game was played in São Paulo. Uruguay defeated Spain 1-0.
1934: A World Cup in Europe during peacetime
The second ever World Cup took place in Italy in 1934. This was the only tournament of all three to be held in Europe during peacetime. The Final was played in Rome at the Stadio Nazionale PNF. In a re-match of the first ever Final, Brazil met Uruguay in a game that was much less dramatic than the first match. Uruguay won the game 2-1. The only real controversy that surrounded the 1934 World Cup was the fact that the host nation was drawn in the first round, whereas all other competing countries had to qualify. It is widely agreed that FIFA members used their influence to get Italy into the tournament. The tournament was won by Italy, who defeated Czechoslovakia 2–1 in the final. The Italian hosts had to overcome a Herculean struggle (including a 9-1 win over the United States) to survive the group stages.
1938: The last World Cup before WW2
The third and last World Cup before WW2 was held in France in 1938. The hosts were drawn against the Swiss in the first round. The match was played in a stadium in Paris that had been abandoned since the Great War. An eerie silence hung over the crowd as the two teams lined up on the pitch, but was soon broken by the sound of axes as the stadium was slowly demolished. The Swiss won the game 2-1. This was the last World Cup played before the outbreak of WW2. It is rumored that the host nation would have been declared the winner of the tournament, had it not been for the fact that the French team was eliminated in the first round.
The World Cup before WW2 was more like a friendly tournament than the fierce competition we are used to today. Up until the 1938 tournament, it was more like a friendly competition between European nations. The way teams were chosen was very different from how the tournament is run today. The tournament was played entirely in Europe, and there was only one tournament rather than the four-year cycle that has been used since the 1950s. The tournament was dominated by Brazil, and it was often held in South America for this reason. The tournament was interrupted by the outbreak of WW2, and football was suspended in Europe during the war. When the tournament was held again after the war, it was during a time when many nations were still rebuilding, so it was decided to rotate the tournament to different parts of the world.