Premiere In 1934
No qualifying matches were required for the 1930 World Cup finals in Uruguay. Indeed, given the global economic crisis at the time and the long voyage required, FIFA and the local organisers had to content themselves that they were actually able to assemble a field of any kind for the event. In the end, 13 teams took part. Four years later, the first ever World Cup qualifier was played in Stockholm. In a passionate game, held in mid-June, Sweden managed to see off Estonia 6-2 in a battle of the Baltic. In all, 27 teams entered that year’s preliminary competition, during which they contested a total of 27 matches. The average of five goals per match remains unparalleled in World Cup qualifiers, with the 4-4 draw between the Irish Free State and Belgium (a score since repeated on only two occasions in World Cup qualifying) boosting the figure.
The preliminary competition for the 1938 World Cup felt the effects of the unsettled political climate on the eve of World War II. The number of associations taking part fell to 21 as a result and, in Austria, one of the teams that qualified for the finals in France actually disappeared from the sporting map. The new-beginnings of the period immediately after the war had as big an impact on world football as any other domain. A total of 19 associations took part in the qualifiers for the 1950 tournament. England won the British eliminators to take their place in the finals in Brazil, yet their performances in South America were not the success they had hoped for. In Africa and Asia, the withdrawal of a succession of teams handed India an uncontested spot in the final competition, but they did not take part in the event in Brazil in the end because they were not allowed to play barefoot. In the light of these events, FIFA changed its regulations to prevent any team qualifying for the finals without having played any preliminary competition matches. The 1954 qualifiers saw a German domestic match-up when West Germany curiously had to play the Saar, a region of the country that had gained independence shortly beforehand. Twenty years later, Saar coach Helmut Schon would lead the West Germans to the World Cup title.
Four years on, more than 50 matches were required to determine the 14 teams that would join the holders and the host nation in the finals. It was also the last time that all four British associations managed to qualify for the World Cup. Subsequent years were marked by the end of colonial rule across much of Africa. The 1966 preliminary competition was not only the first to be organised on the basis of an official draw but also the first to break through the 50-team and 100-match barriers. Two decades later, the number of teams had increased to over 100. Another twenty years after that and the break-up of the Soviet Union and the affiliation to FIFA of a string of small associations from all corners of the world resulted in almost 200 countries taking part in the preliminary competition, making it the biggest world-encompassing football event.