Only seven countries have won World Cup titles. Seven. In 18 tournaments. Five countries have won the World Cup twice, led by Brazil’s five titles.
Only three times in the last 11 World Cups has the winner been a first-time winner – England in 1966, Argentina in 1978, and France in 1998. And you have to go back to 1958 to find a World Cup in which both finalists were first-time finalists, and even that has an asterisk beside it, given that the tournament eight years prior didn’t have an official final, when Brazil finished runners-up to Uruguay.
So, if you’re hoping for a final between the United States and Spain, you’re more than likely going to be left wanting.
However, despite the monopolization, if you will, of World Cup titles and finals by a small number of teams, that hasn’t taken away from the entertainment and excitement over the first eight decades of the World Cup’s existence.
On the way to winning World Cup titles, there’ve been controversies, penalty shootouts, breakout performances, thrilling finals, and an upset or three.
We take a look back through many of those twists and turns, as we take you through each World Cup winner’s road to glory, all the way from the tournament’s humble beginnings to today, when it’s a must-see event around the world.
Click on the year links below to be taken to each tournament-by-tournament look.
The inaugural World Cup in 1930 was held in Uruguay, and the final would be an all-South America affair, with the hosts taking the title with a triumph over Argentina, who wouldn’t appear in a World Cup final again until 1978.
The host country would claim the title again four years later, as Italy won the first of their four titles with an extra-time win over Czechoslovakia. That tournament was notable for Uruguay’s refusal to take part, which made them the only champions to date to not participate in the next World Cup.
There’d be no such decision by Italy in 1938, and not only did Italy take part, but they also successfully defended their title by defeating Hungary in the final. Little did anyone know at the time, but they’d get to hold that title for 12 more years, thanks to World War II.
The World Cup returned in 1950, and that tournament in Brazil saw an upset for the ages, as Uruguay tore the hearts out of hosts Brazil in the only tournament that didn’t have an actual ‘final’.
Another upset followed in 1954, when West Germany, still very much in rebuild mode after World War II, stunned favored Hungary in Switzerland in a thrilling final.
Pele arrived on the scene in 1958, and the talented teenager led Brazil to the title over hosts Sweden. Four years later, Brazil would repeat, and they’d do it without an injured Pele.
In 1966, England became the first host country to win the World Cup title since Italy in 1934, and just as Italy won that tournament in extra time, England would do so as well.
Brazil’s run of domination came to an end in 1970, when Pele played in his fourth and final World Cup and led Brazil to a third title in 12 years.
West Germany (1974 & 1990) and Argentina (1978 & 1986) won four of the next five World Cup titles, with the only other one going to Italy, who won the World Cup for the first time since their repeat successes in 1934 and 1938.
The Netherlands would also become the first team to lose two finals in a row (1974 & 1978), and that dubious achievement would be matched in 1982 and 1986 by West Germany, who more than made up for it with their 1990 win.
The 1994 World Cup in the United States saw a final go to a penalty shootout for the first time, and in that shootout, Brazil outlasted Italy to win the World Cup for the first time since Pele’s swansong.
Four years later, Brazil were in the final once again, but it was not to be a repeat, as hosts France captured the title with a resounding win.
However, it’d be the same old, same old again in the 2002 World Cup, the first one held on Asian soil. It would be third straight final appearance for Brazil and record-breaking fifth World Cup title for Brazil, and a fourth final defeat for Germany.
And who can forget the 2006 World Cup? An unlikely hero emerged for Italy in Fabio Grosso, who scored a semifinal winner against hosts Germany and scored the decisive penalty in the final against France (and there was this too) to deliver Italy’s first World Cup title since 1982.