The World Cup soccer before the Second World War

The 2026 World Cup Soccer has a very rich history. In the run-up to the 2026 final round in Canada, Mexico and the United States, we will also look back. Like now on the period before the Second World War.

The World Cup football, the brainchild of the third FIFA president, Jules Rimet, was first held in 1930. Two more World Cups then followed – in 1934 and 1938 – before global war events intervened. It would take twelve long years before another World Cup final round was staged.

In the pre-war years, the World Cup was really a tournament for teams based in the Americas and Europe. Egypt was the first African country to make the finals; in 1934. And the Dutch East indies (now Indonesia) flew the flag for Asia in 1938. But they were outliers.

Word Cup travel decades ago

This was largely due to logistics and cost. In an age before commercial air travel, it could take weeks by boat to travel to the other side of the world. And it was expensive too. That was why only three European teams crossed the Atlantic to contest the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930.

During that period, success at the World Cup and the Olympics went hand-in-hand. Uruguay won gold at the Olympics in 1924 in Paris and again in Amsterdam four years later. So it was perhaps no surprise that they won the very first World Cup, on home soil.

And, although there was no football event at the 1932 Olympic Games, it was restored to the calendar for the 1936 Berlin Games. There, Italy won it to go with their two World Cups either side of it, in 1934 and 1938.

Notable absentees from the World Cups in this period were representatives from the British Isles. In a sustained act of hubris, the Football Associations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland refused to take part. They were calling the tournament a joke. Arguing that the real World Championship consisted of the games between these four nations.

Boycot
England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland weren’t the only ones who declined to participate. Uruguay refused to defend their crown in 1934 as an act of retaliation. Namely, because of the few teams from Europe who bothered to take part in Uruguay four years earlier. Uruguay also boycotted the tournament in 1938, along with Argentina. In this case as a protest against FIFA. Both nations were accusing them of reneging on their promise to hold the tournament in South America and Europe on an alternating basis.

Global events cast their long shadow over the two World Cups that preceded the War. Benito Mussolini used the 1934 World Cup as a propaganda tool. In order to burnish the legitimacy and prestige of his (fascist) government. And, in 1938, although Austria qualified for the finals, they withdrew after ‘the Anschluss’ with Germany. Instead a unified German team was field featuring several Austrian players, although several refused to play for the new team. Meanwhile the German coach blamed his side’s elimination to Switzerland on this combined team. Namely on the fact that he dropped some experienced players to make way for the Austrians.

FIFA World Cup then and now

It would be the last time for 56 years that a unified German team would join the World Cup. Following the events of the Second World War, the country split into two – West Germany, and East Germany. They would not be reunited until 1990. Meanwhile a number of countries that contested the 1938 World Cup – Italy, Poland, Hungary, Romania and (former) Czechoslovakia, for example – survived the war as sovereign nations (nominally at least). Though, their governments, policies, and ways of life had undergone a fundamental transformation in the meantime.

By 2026, the (football) world has changed a lot. The FIFA World Cup in North America will host 48 nations. And a total of 210 FIFA countries will join the 2026 World Cup Qualifiers. Never before has a soccer event had the prospect of such a large scale. With even 80 matches scheduled at the final round in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.