How does the World Cup work? The ultimate soccer showcase, explained
Soccer’s marquee event is here.
The 2022 World Cup will be played by 32 national teams at stadiums in the Middle East country of Qatar. This year marks the first time the quadrennial tournament is held in the winter instead of over the summer.
Plenty of highly anticipated matchups are on the docket in the opening round, including the United States vs. England game on Nov. 25, Mexico vs. Argentina on Nov. 26 and Germany vs. Spain on Nov. 27. Host nation Qatar will take on Ecuador on Nov. 20 to inaugurate the 4-week competition.
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What is the World Cup?
The World Cup is international soccer’s – or football depending on where you live – flagship tournament that takes place every four years, where national teams compete to determine which country has the best soccer team in the world.
The competition dates back to 1930 in Uruguay. Twenty-one World Cups have been played – every four years since, only skipping tournaments slated for 1942 and 1946 because of World War II.
It's one of the most watched sports competitions globally. More than 3.5 billion viewers tuned into the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and 1.12 billion watched the final, according to the sport's governing body FIFA.
The reigning champion is France, which beat Croatia in the 2018 final. The tournaments have been dominated by teams from South America and Europe, where the sport is immensely popular.
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Is the U.S. in the World Cup?
Yes. The United States Men’s National Team has never won a World Cup. But it goes into Qatar looking to unlock the promise of a young squad that is widely regarded as its most talented ever. Led by Christian Pulisic, a forward who plays for the English soccer club Chelsea, the team has several young players who compete for teams in the world’s top leagues in Europe.
The U.S., however, is dominant in the women's competition. The U.S. Women's National Team has hoisted 4 World Cup trophies since the competition started in 1991.
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How were the 2022 teams selected as World Cup Qualifiers
The tournament is comprised of teams that qualify from each of FIFA’s six regional soccer confederations plus the host nation. In the lead up to the World Cup, each confederation holds “World Cup Qualifier" matches.
UEFA (Europe): 13 teams qualified.
CONMEBOL (South America): 5 teams.
CONCACAF (North, Central America and the Caribbean): 4 teams.
AFC (Asia plus Australia): 5 teams.
CAF (Africa): 5 teams.
OFC (Oceania): 0 teams.
Its teams play against each other for points – a win equals three points, draw equals 1 point and a loss equals no points. Generally speaking, the teams with the most points at the end of the qualifying period advance to the World Cup tournament where they represent their confederation. The number of teams each confederation sends varies, as do the particulars of the qualifying process.
Not all confederations will be represented. And not all teams clinch a World Cup spot by racking up points in confederation play.
The Oceania Football Confederation, for example, will not be represented. The top team that emerged from its World Cup qualifying competition, New Zealand, lost a playoff against Costa Rica, which finished fourth in CONCACAF qualifying.
The playoff system allows some teams, like Costa Rica, that fell just short of initial qualification, a final shot of making it into the tournament by knocking out another team.
Three European teams – Wales, Poland and Portugal – qualified after beating opponents in UEFA's playoff system.
In some cases, such as the CAF (Africa), the top 10 teams were pared down to the final five by playing two-match playoffs, called two-legged ties. The teams with the cumulative score over the two games earned a World Cup spot.
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World Cup qualifying usually starts the year following a World Cup tournament and typically concludes a handful of months before the start of the next tournament.
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How were World Cup groups selected?
The tournament is split into eight groups (Groups A - H) of four teams. Each group was selected via random draw out of four pots in April. Teams were placed in pots based on their FIFA world ranking. The highest ranking teams went in the first pot and so on.
The United States Men’s National Team was in pot three and drew into Group B with England, Iran and Wales, which beat Ukraine in a playoff to sneak into the tournament.
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How do teams advance to the knockout stage of World Cup?
Teams play one match against the other teams in their group and the top two teams with the most points from each group advance to the knockout stage.
A victory equals three points.
A draw equals one point.
A loss equals no points.
If the top two teams are tied in points, the first place team is the team with a higher goal differential (the difference between how many goals a team conceded and scored in its games) or whichever team won the head-to-head matchup.
The first place team of a group goes on to play the second place team of another group (and vice versa) in the first knockout stage, also known as the round of 16. Then the number of teams gets cut to eight, then four in the next stage, then to two, who will play in the final on Sunday Dec. 18. A third place match between the losers of the semi-final games will be played the day before.
Why is the World Cup in November this year?
If 2022 was like any other World Cup year, the tournament would have taken place over the summer. But FIFA decided in 2015 the extreme heat of the Persian Gulf nation made it unwise to hold the tournament in the summer, so it decided to push it back in the winter.
Who has won the most World Cups?
Brazil is considered the most decorated football nation with its five World Cup trophies. The South American country consistently produces some of the world’s flashiest and talented players, including Pele, Ronaldinho and Neymar. Brazil is known for its fan-friendly “Jogo Bonito” ("beautiful game" in Portuguese) style of play that values creativity and individual skill on the pitch.
This year’s Brazilian side, led by Paris Saint Germain’s Neymar, is considered a favorite to win it all. But Brazil hasn’t lifted the big trophy since 2002.
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USMNT World Cup schedule
Monday, Nov. 21. vs. Wales - 2:00 p.m. ET
Friday, Nov. 25 vs. England - 2:00 p.m. ET
Tuesday, Nov. 29 vs. Iran - 2:00 p.m. ET
Where will the 2026 World Cup be held?
The 2026 World Cup will be jointly hosted by the U.S, Canada and Mexico with matches played in 16 cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. Those 16 cities will accommodate an expanded tournament: In a first, 48 teams will participate at the next World Cup.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How does the World Cup work? Group stage and knockout stage, explained