How the World Cup Has Changed over the Last 20 Years

Ryan BaileyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2013

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Prior to June 17, 1994, Soldier Field had only ever hosted a season of soccer matches from the short-lived NASL team Chicago Sting. But on that sunny day, millions of eyes all over the world were focused on the home field of the NFL's Chicago Bears, as it hosted the USA's first World Cup match. 

Oprah Winfrey fell over, Diana Ross kicked a ball in the vague direction of an exploding goal and, somewhat less entertainingly, World Cup holders Germany edged past Bolivia thanks to a strike from Jurgen Klinsmann.

On June 17, 2014—exactly 20 years from Germany's opening victory—the World Cup will be five days old in Brazil. The hosts, in fact, will be playing their second Group A match at the Estadio Castelao in Fortaleza, while stadia in Cuiaba and Belo Horizonte will see matches from whichever teams are drawn into Group H.

It's hard to imagine that 20 years have passed since Roberto Baggio's missed penalty at the Rose Bowl in California gifted Brazil their fourth World Cup. In the interim, Ronaldo was reportedly forced to play in a final, banks of seats were left empty in South Korea and Japan, Zinedine Zidane was pushed a little too far by Marco Materazzi, and Spain dominated amid the deafening sounds of vuvuzelas in South Africa.

Much history has been created, but how has the World Cup evolved in the past 20 years?

For starters, it is a bigger event in almost every single way, not least because there are now more teams.

In 1994, 24 teams were divided into six groups of four. The top two in each group progressed, along with the four third-place teams with the best record. Cherry-picking third-place teams was a slightly convoluted way of ensuring 16 teams entered the final bracket, and one that was rectified when the tournament was expanded to its current 32-team structure at France 98.

Perhaps the other most significant format change is that the reigning champion no longer gets an automatic place in the following tournament. Brazil and Italy had to qualify for 2006 and 2010 events, respectively, while Spain have still not guaranteed their spot at the big show next summer.

With or without the Spaniards, the 2014 World Cup is likely to be shown in more homes than ever before. The 1994 tournament may have set records for viewership and attendance, but FIFA claim that 46.4 percent of the world's population tuned into the 2010 final, which was shown in every single country and territory on earth.

It's a far cry from the first World Cup in 1930, when only four European nations could even make the trip over to Uruguay to participate!

Increased global interest in the tournament has turned the World Cup into a tremendous money-making opportunity for football's governing body.

For sponsorship purposes, the 2014 World Cup should technically be known as the 2014 World Cup presented by Adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates, Hyundai/Kia, Sony, Visa, Budweiser, Castrol, Johnson & Johnson, Oi, McDonalds, Seara, Yingli, Apex Brasil, Centauro, Garoto, Itau, Liberty Seguros and Wise Up.

If you thought the modern game had gone mad when Manchester United acquired an official diesel engine partner, then a World Cup with 20 official sponsors on the marquee shows how far we've come.

Much like the top European leagues, the World Cup has evolved into a game of economics—and one for which FIFA is receiving strong criticism.  

According to the Chicago Tribune, USA '94 finished with the hosts around $50 million in profit. This doesn't sound too bad until you consider the Los Angeles Times' assertion that the tournament was expected to make a positive impact of around $4 billion (that article also calculates a cumulative loss of $5.6 billion to $9 billion, rather than a profit).

In South Africa in 2010, FIFA gave $482 million to assist with the hosting of the tournament, according to the International Business Times. That sounds very generous, right up until the point that you learn that South Africa spent $4.81 billion on hosting duties—and football's governing body walked away with £1.9 billion profit in its back pocket.

South Africa came nowhere close to meeting its post-tournament tourism targets and is left with five brand-new stadiums that haven't had much use since the festivities concluded. "Instead of building houses, we built stadiums," explained Mike Schussler, director of consulting firm to Fox Sports   

Anyone who saw the protests at the 2013 Confederations Cup will know that Brazilians are extremely concerned by the negative impact that will be left by the World Cup. 1994 Selecao legend-turned-politician Romario initially backed the bid, but has since spoken of how it will cripple his nation financially.

The former Barcelona striker says the initial budget of $11.4 billion is three times higher than Germany's 2006 costs and that FIFA expect to earn $4 billion in tax-free profit once the circus is packed up and moved to the next host.

Meanwhile, health, education and safety issues prevail in the South American nation where poverty is widespread. 

The World Cup used to be a simple unadulterated celebration of the beautiful game. Now, it is perceived as a financial behemoth that splits opinion and creates white elephants wherever it lands. FIFA has been slowly selling its soul for years—perhaps its financially motivated decision to bring the World Cup to Qatar in 2022 represents its ultimate deal with the devil.

Let's leave depressing pecuniary issues aside now to focus on the action on the pitch. In years gone by, a World Cup was an intimidating experience for players: They would have to adapt to a new country, a new culture and new opposition of whom they would know very little.

Thanks to the cosmopolitan nature of the world's top clubs, international sides are much more of a known quantity. The Spanish squad for the 1994 World Cup, for example, was one of several made up entirely of domestic-based players. Currently, they have seven players who ply their trade in England and a few in Serie A, where they play against (and with) World Cup opponents from all over the world on a weekly basis.

In the last 20 years, we have also seen the decline of Brazil as a football superpower. The 2014 hosts made the final in 1994, 1998 and 2002, winning on those first and third occasions. In the past two tournaments, however, they have not progressed past the quarter-finals.

After dominating the FIFA rankings for what seemed like decades, the Canarinho dropped to a record-low 22nd place earlier this year (to be fair, this was because of a relative lack of competitive matches in the build-up to the World Cup).

Brazil are listed by most bookmakers as tournament favourites for next summer, particularly after a rousing display at the Confederations Cup, but many worry that the team is not a vintage Selecao and they rely too heavily on Neymar.  

Much has changed since that balmy afternoon at Soldier Field, but there are many constants we can be sure of.

There will be stratospheric levels of excitement all around the world. Much like Bulgaria in 1994, debutants Croatia in 1998 or Turkey in 2002, there will be a dark horse that surprises us with its progress (Belgium, we're looking at you). And of course, there will be heartbreak, elation and a steady stream of world-class football.

Roll on summer 2014!