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How does the World Cup work?

Published On: Nov 06 2013 03:29:06 PM CST
Updated On: Mar 26 2014 03:42:05 PM CDT
2014 FIFA World Cup soccer trophy

Bruno Domingos/Reuters

The World Cup expanded to the current format -- with 32 teams in the final stage -- in 1998.

The 32 that play for the cup qualify from a pool of about 200 teams that took part in qualifying games starting after the 2010 edition.

Qualifying for the World Cup

FIFA, the body that governs international soccer, organizes itself into six regions, known as confederations:

  • Asia  (AFC)

  • Africa (CAF)

  • North and Central America and Caribbean (CONCACAF)

  • South America (CONMEBOL)

  • Oceania (OFC)

  • Europe (UEFA)

Each of the regions gets a certain number of slots to fill at the next World Cup, based on their relative sizes and strength. Oceania does not get an automatic bid. Instead, the winners of the Oceanian zone qualification tournament enter a playoff against teams from other confederations in order to gain a spot.

Each confederation devises its own way to select teams, generally a multistage tournament that lasts two years.

The hosts of the World Cup also receive an automatic berth. Until 2002, the defending champions also received an automatic berth, but starting from the 2006 World Cup this is no longer the case.

After all teams earn their tickets to the cup, FIFA holds a draw to place them into eight four-team groups. The draw does not allow teams from the same confederation to face each other in the group stage, known as the first round. One exception is made for a few European teams, because with 13 slots, overlap cannot be avoided.

The first round

Each group plays a round-robin tournament, facing each opponent once. That means that every team that wins a trip to the World Cup will play at least three games.

Teams earn three points for a win, one point for a draw and no points for a loss. Overtime and shootouts are not part of this stage of the tournament.

The two teams in each group that earn the most points advance to the knockout stage of the tournament. Because results could mean that some teams do not need to win their final game based on other results, the last two matches are played simultaneously.

Having only a few matches to distinguish yourself can make it hard to advance. Most tournaments, fans and pundits label a "group of death," where the matchups mean that a strong team will probably be eliminated.

If any teams are tied on points after the first-round games, the first tiebreaker is their goal differential (goals scored minutes goals against). A team that managed a rout in one game has an advantage over a team that only won matches by one goal. So every garbage-time goal can make a huge difference.

Knockout rounds

Half of the teams survive the first round, and move into the knockout rounds, where after every match one team advances and another goes home.

The eight winners of the first-round groups play a team that finished in second place. The winner of Group A plays the runner-up in Group B, and vice versa. The bracket structure makes it impossible for a team to face a rematch against a group rival until the final match.

Starting in this round, matches that remain tied after 90 minutes of regulation time move into overtime. If overtime does not decide the match, a penalty kick shootout determines the winner.

The tournament progresses like most others until a winner is crowned. The losers of the semifinal matches also play in a third-place game.

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