Football has never been more popular as a global sporting phenomenon.
Look at this for a fact - 2010 different nations attempted to qualify for the current World Cup finals tournament. That number didn’t include Russia, who qualified automatically as the hosts.
Now let’s wind the clock back to 1950, and guess how many different countries from around the world competed in the qualifying events?
Just thirty four. Compared to the 54 European nations that attempted to qualify for Russia 2018.
Qualifying for the fourth ever World Cup finals tournament in Brazil was, it’s fair to say, a bit of a shambles.
Though sixteen nations actually qualified for the finals, only 13 actually turned up to play.
First off, the four British nations - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - attempted to qualify for the first time. FIFA said whoever finished first and second in the 1949 Home International Championships would automatically get a ticket to Brazil. Though England qualified as group winners, second-placed Scotland refused to take up their place because they were miffed at finishing second. I’m not making this up - George Graham, the then secretary of the Scottish Football Association, had said his country would only accept a FIFA invite if they went as British champions.
Turkey also qualified for the finals, but only because first Syria and then Austria withdrew. The Turks themselves then decided that they didn’t want to trek to South America, so also pulled out.
That left FIFA two teams short, and two became three when India also decided to stay at home (as reported in one of these columns last week). They had only qualified in the first place because every other nation in their Asian qualifying group had withdrawn. Again, the distance to South America was cited as one of the reasons for the no-show.
In a bid to make sure they had a 16-team tournament, FIFA offered France, Ireland and Portugal the chance of competing - but all turned it down.
There was no point asking Belgium or Finland if they fancied the trip, as both those countries had withdrawn at the qualifying group stage.
There was also no point asking Iron Curtain countries such as the Soviet Union, 1934 finalists Czechoslovakia and 1938 finalists Hungary, as none of them had even bothered to enter in the first place.
They couldn’t ask West Germany and Japan, as both those countries were banned by FIFA due to the political fall-out from the second World War.
They also couldn’t ask East Germany to compete, as that country’s Football Association had not yet been founded!
The farcical situation wasn’t much better in South America, with Argentina, Ecuador and Peru all withdrawing at the qualifying stage.
As for Africa, that was another non-starter. No nation from that continent had applied to enter the qualifying competition. Indeed, Egypt were the only African nation from the first World Cup in 1930 through to 1966 inclusive to appear at the final stages of a World Cup.
So that left only 13 nations - the smallest-ever World Cup finals tournament.
A huge difference, therefore, to the bloated qualifying rounds and 32-nation finals extravaganza we have today.