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12 World Cup Fun Facts: Top Football Trivia

With an entirely European semifinal on the horizon, it’s time to dredge up some fun facts about the World Cup that will impress your friends, humiliate your rivals, and annoy random strangers in pubs.

12. Who played in the first football match with national teams?

Scotland, home of golf, was also the host for the first football match with national teams. The game was played in Glasgow in 1872, with teams from Scotland and England. It was not technically an international match, since both Scotland and England are (however reluctantly) both part of the U.K., but familiar atmosphere of tense rivalry and the debut of national team jerseys were present. Like many of the conflicts between Scotland and England, the match ended in a hotly disputed 0-0 draw, accompanied by much swearing and bad feelings on both sides.

first soccer football match

11. So when was the first international football match?

The first truly international football match (arguably the first World Cup) was organized in 1909 by the rather dapper Scotsman named Sir Thomas Lipton (yes, the tea guy), who launched the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy tournament in Turin, Italy in 1909, as a championship between different clubs representing different nations. Ironically, England (disliking the Scots that much) declined to send a team, but Sir Lipton invited a leading team from England’s County Durham directly, and they not only showed up, but won. (Enthusiastically furthering the tradition of bitter football rivalry between England and Scotland.)

sir thomas lipton - soccer football

10. Why do England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all have different FIFA teams?

In fact, the national enthusiasm for football in the U.K. became so pronounced, and the rivalries between England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (later Northern Ireland and Ireland separately), were so vicious that, from the inception of international football, the U.K. has been the only country that has always contributed four separate teams. Proving, once again, that U.K. sports fans have always been completely united in their ability to despise each other wholeheartedly.

9. When did football debut in the Olympics?

While various countries and clubs were still disputing the rules of football, it was played as a demonstration sport (without medal awards) at the 1900 and 1904 Olympics. It was recognized as a “real” sport by 1908, when six teams fought it out for international supremacy. Unsurprisingly, after all the practice playing against itself, the U.K. won. (Obscure bonus trivia: one of the powerhouse players on Denmark’s silver medal Olympic team was Harald Bohr, the famous mathematician who founded the field of almost periodic functions, and brother to the Nobel Prize winning physicist Neils Bohr, who theorized the structure of the atom.)

1908 soccer football olympics

8. How did FIFA get started? (When/where was the first official FIFA World Cup?)

Although football really took off because of the British, FIFA was first established (without any direct British presence) by Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland as a “world football championship for amateurs.” However, early FIFA really only had 13 European teams, and were dominated by Belgium. The first official FIFA World Cup was played in Uruguay in July 1930, where the Frenchman Lucien Laurent kicked the first goal in World Cup history. But expanding to the global stage cost the Europeans first, second, and third place, as Uruguay won, Argentina made runner-up, the United States took third, and Yugoslavia, the sole European team in the semifinals, snagged fourth.
(NOTE: It’s just as well that FIFA, the “Fédération Internationale de Football” wasn’t formed in the U.K., or the name would have been in English as the “International Federation of Association Football,” and “IFAF” just sounds silly.)

7. Which country has the most dedicated football fans?

Pretty much every FIFA country will claim to have the most dedicated fans, but the nod for most destructive fans still goes to the U.K., which reserves the right to confiscate the passports of citizens who are suspected terrorists, criminals, or football hooligans. That’s right. If you cause enough mayhem at foreign football matches, the British government will revoke your passport for the duration of the football season (or, possibly, forever). This does not, of course, make a dent in domestic football hooliganism, which has been alive and well since the football-inspired pub brawls of the late 1800s. There are many iconic moments of British football hooliganism, but one of the most famous occurred when Scotland beat England in the British Championship of 1977. Fans stormed the field and, in a pure moment of sporting enthusiasm, broke the game-winning goal crossbar in half.

the biggest fans of soccer football - british broke goal post

6. Has an all-European semifinal World Cup ever happened before?

On five occasions, there has been an all-European semi-final: 1934, 1966, 1982, 2006, and 2018. Oddly, every one of these tournaments were hosted in Europe. Is it because the South American teams freeze in the relatively chilly European climate? Or should the tens of thousands of fans who gather to personally cheer their favorite teams to victory take credit for this—because what is football without ten thousand people screaming “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!”?

Bonus Trivia: All World Cup winners have been either from Europe-11 wins, or South America-9 wins. No North American, Asian, or African team has ever won the World Cup—unless you’re talking about the Women’s World Cup, in which case the U.S. women entirely dominate.

5. The 2018 semifinal teams aren’t who we were expecting (Brazil, anyone?); what is their World Cup history?

Football was introduced to Belgium by an Irish college student visiting Josephites College, and it never looked back. A founding FIFA member, Belgium dominated early European FIFA matches, but has failed to win the World Cup since the expansion of FIFA in 1930. Their last appearance in a FIFA semi-final was in 1986. Croatia semi-finaled more recently, in 1998, but they have also failed to capture a World Cup victory since the modern team was recognized in 1990. (Remember that Croatia was part of Yugoslavia until the end of the 20th century.) England won the World Cup in 1966, but their last semifinal was in 1990. France has the most current World Cup victory, with a decisive win in 1998, and a semifinal in 2006.

world cup trophy

4. Where do the semifinalists’ team nicknames and logos come from?

All four teams have logos built around the basic shape of a Medieval shield, and all of them incorporate elements of Medieval heraldry in these crests—just in case you weren’t clear on the fact that football means war.

The Belgium team acquired its nickname after they debuted their iconic red jerseys in a 1904 game against France, and because the Belgians are all multilingual, they got their nickname in three languages: “De Rode Duivels,” “Les Diables Rouges,” “Die Roten Teufel” (“The Red Devils”). Their crest bears the colors of the national flag, framed by the laurel wreath signifying championship, and topped with the royal crown from Belgium’s national Coat of Arms.

The French team became known as “Les Bleus” (“The Blues”), not because they inspire depression in their opponents, but because that is the nickname of every international French sporting team—all of whom wear some variation of a blue jersey. Their logo features a coq gaulois (the Gallic rooster), one of the unofficial national symbols of France. Bonus trivia: this symbol actually traces back to a Medieval Latin pun on Gallus (inhabitant of Gaul) and gallus (rooster) that was popularized by enemy armies. (So, feel free to get carried away with “chicken” and “cock” puns. They’ve been around for over a thousand years.) The star commemorates France’s 1998 FIFA World Cup win.

The English team nickname, “The Three Lions” is borrowed from the Medieval heraldry of King Richard I, who ruled England from 1189 to 1199. The lions are depicted passant guardant (walking, with one paw raised, facing the viewer), and bordered by ten Tudor roses, representing each branch of the English Football Association. The red, white, and blue colors reflect the Union Jack, and, since 1966, England’s emblem has been topped by a gold star to commemorate their first World Cup win.

Avoiding both Medieval traditions and color-based nicknames, Croatia has perhaps the most modern nickname because it reflects their core team attribute rather than their national history: “Vatreni,” translates loosely as “The Blazers,” or more literally as “The Fiery Ones.” But they do nod to Medieval traditions with the red and white check background of their logo, a pattern used to represent Croats for hundreds of years, and which dominates the national coat of arms.

Belgium French English Croatia medieval soccer emblems

3. Just how popular is the World Cup?

The World Cup is the most widely viewed and followed sporting event in the world, exceeding the entirety of the Olympic games. In 2014, 3.2 billion people watched some part of the World Cup, and over 1 billion people watched the final match. In other words, if you count babies, people in comas, and the handful of scientists working on remote research stations in Antarctica, it’s still the case that almost half of the 7.6 billion people on the planet watched the 2014 World Cup matches, and 1 in 7 people on the entire planet watched the World Cup final.

the many faces of soccer football fans

2. Baby Birth Rates?

It’s statistically proven that the country hosting the World Cup shows increased birth rates during a tournament year, possibly by as much as 10%. Why, you ask? Sheer exuberance combined with our number 1 weird World Cup fact…

1. How much beer is sold during World Cup matches?

During the coming semifinal match between England and Croatia, British pubs expect to pour 18 million pints, while supermarkets are on track to sell 10 million sausages and an additional 50 million cans and bottles of beer. If you multiply that for 64 matches, and assume that all of the other countries combined consume at least as much beer as England (which may be a stretch, but Germany should make up for some of those numbers), the World Cup beer consumption is somewhere in the range of 8.7 billion beers. Or, for those of you who like visual images: upwards of 900 million gallons of beer—think 1,236 Olympic swimming pools all full of beer, or roughly half of Loch Ness.


Who are you rooting for in this year’s World Cup Final?

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