15.03.2023 • Author: Franz van Acken
Whether games against the team from the neighboring village or against the selection of other nations. The competition between teams and the resulting rivalries have been a fundamental part of football since its inception. Not only do they motivate teams to improve athletically, but they also fire fans to make the pilgrimage to stadiums every weekend. In order for these games to be hosted in an orderly fashion, they were held in tournaments early on. The first national tournament was the English FA Cup in 1872, which has endured to this day.
This blog post will look at international football tournaments and their development over time. It will first look at the development of the rules of football. Then we will look at the history of the World Cup. Furthermore, we will go into the European Football Championship and the fairly new UEFA Nations League. Here you can find out what international football tournaments are all about!
As early as the mid-19th century, the first rules of soccer were recorded in England. From the initial 15-20 players, allowed handball, no offside or corner kicks, the game developed until the early 1870s almost to its current form. In 1873, referees were introduced on the field, but they still acted in a different way than we know today. It also took almost 100 years before the penalty shootout was established in its modern form, as the final decision of a match, in 1976.
The first international match in history was played much more quickly. This was played as early as 1872 between England and Scotland. At the beginning of the 20th century, international matches were played more frequently, but nowhere near as regularly as they are today. The first international soccer tournament and thus the first unofficial world championship was the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Teams from 22 nations met there for the first time. After 24 games, Uruguay was the first unofficial world champion, and the tournament already offered good entertainment value with an average of 4 goals per game.
The first World Cup was officially played in 1930 in Uruguay, which, after winning the first unofficial title, also secured the first official title as world champion. Since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) only allowed amateurs to play in the Olympic Games, some major teams cancelled. This was one of the reasons why a separate world championship was finally held.
From the beginning, the tournament modes of the World Cup were changed again and again and the number of teams was adjusted. From 1954, the number of participating teams and thus the number of matches increased constantly. Until 1978, 16 teams took part in the main round, while there were then 24 teams until 1998. Since then, 32 teams can qualify for the main round, which are played against each other in eight groups. This system will again be expanded to 16 groups at the 2026 World Cup in North America to make room for 48 teams. One rule that has changed after a long time with regard to eligibility is that from 1938 to 2002, not only the host but also the world champion automatically qualified for the main round.
In around 100 years of World Cup history, all titles so far have gone to South America or Europe. Brazil is the most successful nation with five World Cup titles, followed by Germany and Italy with four titles each. Brazil in particular has repeatedly fielded teams made up of real ball wizards. For example, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos were all on the pitch for Brazil when they won the World Cup in 2002. The Netherlands has also fielded world-class teams time and again. But they have failed to win a title, losing the 1974 final to Germany, the 1978 final to Argentina, and the 2010 final to Spain.
Previous World Cups have produced their own great players and heroes: Gerd Müller, who scored 10 goals in six games at the 1970 World Cup finals alone, or Ronaldo, who scored 15 goals in three World Cup appearances. Miroslav Klose surpassed this figure in 2014, when he scored a total of 16 goals after his fourth World Cup appearance, making him the most successful goal scorer in tournament history.
Unforgotten and controversial to this day: the “Miracle of Bern” gave post-war Germany hope for a better future and formed the foundation for Germany as a soccer power. The Wembley goal in the 1966 final between England and Germany, giving the host country its first and only title. Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” in the 1986 quarterfinal against England also falls into the same category.
Officially, the history of the European Football Championship begins in 1960 under the name “European Cup of Nations”. At that time, only the Soviet Union, France, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia played for the title in the main round. Due to the small number of participants, 17 nations in total, the eighth and quarter finals represented the qualifying rounds. Thus, after four games in the main round, the Soviet Union was determined as the first official European champion.
For the following European Championships, more national associations applied quickly and already in 1972, 32 teams played in the qualifying rounds for entry into the main round. In 1972 and 1976, only four teams played in the main round, and from 1980 onwards, eight teams played in the main round. As with the tournament system of the World Cup, that of the European Championship was also adapted over time to the increasing number of nations, so that for the European Championship 2021 55 teams competed in the qualifying round. Of these, 24 made it to the main round.
The most successful teams are Spain and Germany with three titles each. The Spanish team, which won the title in both 2008 and 2012, will forever be remembered as one of the best teams in history. In between, they also won the World Cup title in 2010, confirming the talent of this golden generation in Spanish soccer.
Perhaps “the” European Championship title for a team was Greece’s victory in 2004. With Otto Rehhagel as coach, but starting the tournament as absolute underdogs, the Greeks fought their way to the final against Portugal. The Greek games were not goal festivals. The recipe was to block everything defensively and use standards up front. They only won the quarterfinals, semifinals and final 1:0.
From the German point of view, the “Golden Goal” may come to mind at the European Championship. In 1996 in the final against the Czech Republic, Oliver Bierhoff was substituted by Berti Vogts in the 69th minute. In the 73rd he scored the equalizer, in the 95th he spun around himself in the Czech penalty area and scored the first Golden Goal in soccer history. The game was over immediately and Germany was European champion for the third time.
As mentioned at the beginning, friendly matches between nations were already played at the end of the 19th century and around the turn of the century. These matches also kept their place in the calendars alongside the major international soccer tournaments that took place. At the beginning only sporting contests, in which honor and the upper hand in a rivalry were at stake, they developed further. Friendly matches were used as opportunities to introduce new players to the team, to try out new playing concepts or to consolidate the team structure before a World Cup or European Championship.
In order to make sporting and also commercial use of these friendlies, it was decided in 2014 to introduce the Nations League. Since 2018, friendly matches between European countries have been played within the framework of this competition.
For this competition, the nations are initially divided into four leagues, each with four groups of four, for the 22/23 season. The initial composition was based on a UEFA ranking list, so that similarly strong nations compete against each other. The only exception to this is League D (fourth league), in which only one group of four and one group of three compete. The group winners of the first league then play the winner in the Final Four tournament. The winners of the lower leagues are promoted and can qualify for the World Cup or European Championship in playoff matches if they have not already done so. The last teams in groups A and B are relegated directly. The last four teams in Group C compete in playoffs to determine the relegated teams.
For small associations, this format of the international soccer tournament offers sporting and financial opportunities. More attention and associated lucrative TV deals offer growth potential for soccer midgets. For example, Malta, Estonia and Lichtenstein also get their share from UEFA’s money pot. Furthermore, test matches are no longer just test matches where there is hardly any interest and nothing happens after the second half. Group victory, promotion, Final Four tournament or relegation – there is something at stake, the games have value. Debutants for the national teams can present themselves to the football world in competitive matches and get more attention right from the start.
On the other hand, this is also where the criticism of the Nations League comes in. When friendly matches were played and only the ambition of the teams fueled the competition, these games provided opportunities for coaches to experiment. New players could make their debut in the team without pressure, new systems of play could be tried out without any compulsion to win. Regular players, who are already familiar with the team, could be spared and space was created for new talents.
Furthermore, the playing workload increases during a year due to more international soccer tournaments. Physical wear and tear and the risk of injury increase as a result. For UEFA, however, the Nations League has become indispensable. UEFA’s revenues, for example, increased significantly with the introduction of the tournament. In the 20/21 season, the Nations League, together with other friendlies and European Championship qualifiers, generated revenues of €647 million. If a matchday were to be cancelled, UEFA would lose around €100 million.
International football tournaments have a long and rich tradition. They are an essential part of football history and always will be. In club football, millions of euros are moved to lure a player to a new club and to win titles. But playing for a country has a much deeper meaning, as it is not the money that matters, but the pride of playing for a country.
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