World Cup Cheat Sheet
 

The World Cup kicks off tonight in Moscow when host Russia faces off against Saudi Arabia in the 21st World Cup. The competition, the world’s most viewed sporting event, consists of 32 men’s national teams who spend the three years prior to the World Cup in a series of competitions to determine eligibility from the 211 FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association if you want to get fancy) member countries. If you’re looking for a parallel women’s competition, that will take place next year in France.

Scheduled from June 14th to July 15th, there will be 64 matches, 12 venues, and 11 cities within Russia.

A Bit Of History

The World Cup was first played in 1930 and has been held every four years except for 1942 and 1946, due to World War II. The final competition, as it’s known to distinguish it from the preliminary, or qualifying competition, takes place over a month period in various locations throughout one country. (Sidebar: The U.S., Canada, and Mexico were just awarded a joint bid to host in 2026, marking the first time ever three countries will host.) The host country automatically qualifies. 

The 20 World Cups have been won by eight different national teams. Brazil has the most with five; they’re also the only team to have played in every World Cup tournament. Germany and Italy each have 4, Argentina and Uruguay have two each, and England, France, and Spain have one each. 

How Teams Are Selected

There are currently 32 teams in the final competition although that will jump to 48 teams in 2026. They’re selected through a series of preliminary competitions that stretch for the three years prior. As you might remember seeing, the U.S. was booted from contention last October (this piece from The Ringer elaborates more on that). Italy and Chile are also notable countries not making the trip. Germany will be there to defend its 2014 title and Iceland and Panama will both make their first appearances.

Groups

A total of 32 teams are put into 8 groups of 4 teams determined by a combination of FIFA world rankings, geography, and performances in recent World Cups.

These groups participate in a round robin tournament (each team within a group plays each other once) with 3 points awarded for a win, 1 for a draw, and 0 for a loss.

The two teams with the most points in each group will then advance to the knockout stage (tiebreakers are decided in a few ways).

In the knockout stage, winners from each stage will play the runners up from another group in a single elimination tournament. No draws from here on out, as each game will go for the usual 90 minutes, with an additional 30 if it’s a draw.

After that, if it’s still tied, the match will go to penalty kicks to decide a winner if necessary.

After the knockout stage, the remaining 8 teams will play in the quarterfinals, semifinals, third place game (the losing semi-finalists), and the championship match. 

How are they put into the original 8 groups? Based on FIFA’s October 2017 world ranking, the top teams plus the host are put into pot 1, the next highest in pot 2, etc. Then one team from each pot is selected to form the groups. 

Curious who your favorite team could get eliminated by at the beginning? Here are the groups:

Group A: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay
Group B: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran
Group C: France, Australia, Peru, Denmark
Group D: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria
Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea
Group G: Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
Group H: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan

Rosters and Names to Watch

Each team has a 23-man roster. If any of those players develops an injury while training, the team can replace them on the roster up until 24 hours before their first match. Once plays begins, no replacements are allowed.

Germany and Brazil are the top favorites to win. While there are lots of players to watch (depending on what you read) look for those with one name, i.e. Ronaldo (Portugal), Neymar (Brazil), Mohamed Salah (Egypt), Lionel Messi (Argentina), and Gerard Piqué, otherwise known as Shakira’s other half. They met when he appeared in the video for her song that was the 2010 World Cup anthem. Also, keep an eye on German Thomas Müller who is known for scoring lots of World Cup goals.

Show Me The Money

Like all major sporting events, the World Cup is a cash cow. With an expected 3 billion TV viewers, FIFA is set to make $6.1 billion in revenue from this World Cup from television rights, marketing, and ticket sales (which account for only about 10%). 

Other Random Things To Know

This is the first time the referees will be using technology called Video Assistant Referees (VAR) to help make decisions. Not only is it the first time it’s been used in the World Cup, it’s the first time many of the referees will have used it. It’s thought that it could cause issues during matches. Keep an eye on that one.

And Because Politics Is Everywhere

If you thought politics had nothing to do with soccer, think again. Both the opening and closing matches tend to draw contingents from participating countries. Due to the fact that the competition is being held in Russia, Australia and Great Britain have both opted to not send delegations.

Sources: New York Times 1, 2, 3, Washington Post 1, 2, 3, U.S. Soccer Federation, FIFA 1, 2, Wikipedia 1, 2, BBC, ESPN 1, 2, Sports Illustrated, The Guardian, Bundesliga