The World Cup of football, or soccer as the game is called in the United States, is the most popular sporting event in the world. For two years, teams representing virtually every country in the world compete for the right to play in the summer tournament, which has been staged in different countries every four years since 1930. In front of a worldwide television audience, the winners claim the title of the best soccer team in the world. Although the U.S. team reached the semi-finals of the tournament in its inaugural year, the World Cup and soccer have had little impact on American popular culture.
In the late nineteenth century soccer became a leading spectator sport in many major countries. Rules of the game were systematized, clubs were formed, and leagues were established. In 1900, the Olympic Games introduced soccer as one of its sports. In 1904, Frenchman Jules Rimet assumed the presidency of the newly created world governing body of soccer, the Federation Internationale de Football Associations (FIFA), with the intention of creating an international soccer tournament. However, the competition did not materialize for more than twenty years because of conflict among national federations over whether to allow only amateur players to compete, as in the Olympic Games, or to accept professional players, who were becoming more prevalent in Europe. Finally, FIFA agreed to include professional players and to hold the tournament every four years, alternating with the Olympic Games.
FIFA selected Uruguay to host the first ever World Cup finals in 1930. Uruguay was chosen partly based on the country's dominance in capturing gold medals in the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games and partly because no other viable candidate came forward. Only thirteen teams, including the USA, competed in the very first World Cup tournament. Belgium, France, Romania, and Yugoslavia were the only Europeans to enter because of the three weeks it took to get to Uruguay by boat. The hosts beat Argentina 4-2 in the final in Montevideo to become the first winners of the FIFA world championship.
Although the USA has never won the tournament, between 1930 and 1998 it qualified six times, and its best finish was the semi-final in 1930. Soccer has, however, always played a shadowy existence in American popular culture. In the late nineteenth century, immigrants from Europe formed soccer clubs and organized into local leagues, but as soccer flourished in Europe, U.S. political and business elites sought to create their own national identity in a land of immigrants by promoting American sports like baseball. Soccer received no state support and was played in few U.S. colleges or schools. As Americanization movements increased at the turn of the century, more pressure was put on foreigners to assimilate by adopting American games such as baseball or gridiron football. Thus, the U.S. teams that competed in the World Cups of 1930, 1934, and 1950 consisted largely of immigrant players.
After World War II, soccer became the most popular sport on the planet. The sport produced international stars of the caliber of the Brazilian Pele and great teams like Brazil—which won the World Cup four times between 1958 and 1994—Argentina, Germany, and Italy. FIFA increased the number of teams competing in the World Cup from its original thirteen participants in 1930 to sixteen in 1958 and to twenty-four in 1982. Because of Cold War nationalism and the increase in television coverage of U.S. sports, however, the American public remained uninterested in soccer. In the 1950s baseball was still supreme, American football began its rise to prominence, and in the 1960s ice hockey and basketball captured a national television audience. Soccer, with its continuous forty-five minutes of play, was less suitable for commercial television and held little interest for the major television networks. Between 1950 and 1990, the USA never qualified for the World Cup finals. In the 1970s the North American Soccer League operated, but this effort soon collapsed.
After the 1970s, however, the World Cup and soccer in general gained popularity with some sections of the American population. Relying more on skill than size or strength, soccer became a popular participatory sport amongst many American women and youth. In 1991 the USA women's team won the first ever FIFA Women's World Cup in China with a 2-1 win over Norway. At the same time, FIFA, commercial sponsors, and television networks saw America as the last major market to be conquered by soccer. As a result, FIFA selected the United States to stage the World Cup finals for the first time in 1994. The tournament was a great success as it gained national television coverage and was played in packed stadiums, including 95,000 for the final in Los Angeles between Italy and the eventual winners, Brazil. Subsequently, Major League Soccer was formed in America and began its first season in 1996. It remains to be seen whether this new soccer league can gain the attention of the American public and whether the United States can produce a team talented enough to mount a serious challenge for the World Cup.
—John F. Lyons
Granville, Brian. The History of the World Cup. London, Faber and Faber, 1980.
Murray, Bill. Football: A History of the World Game. London, Scolar Press, 1994.
Robinson, John. The FIFA World Cup 1930-1986. Grimsby, Marks-man, 1986.