World Cup Vocabulary

This page covers the vocabulary of the World Cup by looking at its history and background. Test yourself with the World Cup quiz.

Every four years, millions of people all over the world gather in front of TV screens at all hours of the day and night. As they watch, tension and excitement rises and falls until, all of a sudden, they might leap into the air, screaming and shouting and hugging one another. Or they might, just as suddenly, curse and moan and hold their heads in their hands. At the end of the broadcast they could be singing and dancing with joy, or they could be staring at the floor, silent and heartbroken. What is it that's causing all this joy and sorrow? It is, of course, the FIFA World Cup football tournament, more popularly known as the World Cup or the World Cup Finals.

World Cup 2018 Russia

World Cup 2014 Brazil

History of the World Cup

It all started in 1928, when football's governing body FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) decided to organize a competition among senior men's national football teams for the official title of FIFA World Champions. Before then, the team winning the Olympic Games football gold medal were regarded as world champions. But the members of FIFA felt that the game should have its own international tournament, with its own trophy, and its own officially-named FIFA World Champions.

The first FIFA World Cup tournament was held in 1930. The host country was Uruguay, whose team had won the Olympic gold medal in 1928 and were therefore regarded as the current world champions. Only thirteen countries accepted FIFA's invitation to take part, and only four of those were countries outside North and South America. This was partly due to the high cost of sending teams from Europe and other parts of the world all the way to South America. But the tournament went ahead anyway, and in the final match Uruguay defeated Argentina to become the winners of the first FIFA World Cup. Since then, the tournament has grown enormously, both in size and popularity, and it is now one of the biggest sporting events in the world.

World Cup Qualifying Tournaments

FIFA allows only 32 teams to compete in the World Cup Finals, but with over 200 national teams wanting to compete, qualification tournaments are necessary. Every team, except for the host country's, must earn their place in the Finals, or "qualify", by competing in one of six qualifying tournaments in FIFA's six zones; Africa, Asia, North and Central America and Caribbean, South America, Oceania, and Europe. With so many teams trying to qualify, the process is long and complicated, with over 800 matches held over a two-year period. The first of these matches usually takes place nearly three years before the Finals are held. But once the qualifying tournaments are over, and all 32 places have been filled, the teams that have qualified can begin their preparations for the World Cup Finals.

World Cup Finals

The Finals are in two stages: the "group stage" followed by the "knockout stage". Teams that lose a match in the group stage still have a chance of staying in the competition, but teams that lose a match in the knockout stage are knocked out of the competition, or "eliminated". In the group stage, teams are arranged into eight groups of four teams. Each team plays the other teams in their group one time, and teams earn three points for a win and one point for a draw. The two teams in each group that earn the most points proceed to the knockout stage, while the other two teams in each group are eliminated. In the first round of the knockout stage, called the "round of sixteen", eight matches are played. The eight losing teams are eliminated, while the eight winning teams go on to the next round, called the "quarter-finals". There are four matches in this round, with the four losing teams being eliminated and the four winning teams going into the "semi-finals". The two teams that lose their semi-final match will compete for third place in the third-place match, and the two teams that win will battle against each other for the title of World Champions in the World Cup Final.

The World Cup Final

Between the semi-finals and the World Cup Final, excitement grows with every passing day. When match day finally comes, nearly a hundred thousand noisy and colourful spectators pack into the tournament's main stadium, while nearly a billion more watch the match live on television. When the players and officials finally emerge from the tunnel, the tension and excitement reach "fever pitch". And when the referee blows the starting whistle, the World Cup Final begins. If scores are level after 90 minutes, the match goes into extra time, and if scores are still level after extra time, the result is decided by a penalty shootout. When the match is finally over, the players and fans of one team are leaping and crying with joy, while those of the other slump down in bitter disappointment.

Trophy, Medals and Awards

After the match, the World Cup presentation ceremony begins. The runners-up are awarded World Cup silver medals, and then the champions are awarded World Cup gold medals. The president of FIFA then presents the World Cup trophy to the winning team's captain. Fireworks explode as he and his teammates hold the trophy aloft, and then parade it together on a lap of honour, celebrating wildly as they go. Several other awards are also presented, including the Golden Ball for the tournament's best player, the Golden Boot for the top goal scorer, and the Golden Glove for the best goalkeeper. Bronze medals are also awarded to members of the third-placed team.

World Cup Records

Since the World Cup was first held in 1930, Brazil — the only team to have competed in every tournament — has won five times; Italy and Germany have won four times; Argentina and Uruguay two times; and England, France, and Spain have each won once. Brazil's legendary Pele holds the record for winning the most World Cups, in 1958, 1962 and 1970. The top goal scorer at the World Cup is Germany's Miroslav Klose with 16 goals, followed by Brazil's Ronaldo with 15 goals and Germany's Gerd Müller with 14.

Other FIFA Tournaments

FIFA also organizes several other international football tournaments, including the FIFA Women's World Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup, youth World Cups for players under the ages of 17 and 20, the FIFA Futsal World Cup, and the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.

broadcast (n): a program or live event on radio, television or streamed online - Did you watch the live broadcast of the opening ceremony?

trophy (n): a winner's cup, or similar object, presented at the end of a tournament, race, match, etc. - My wife won lots of trophies when she was an athlete in high school.

host country (also host nation) (n): the country in which an international event is held - China was the host country for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

qualify (v): to earn the right to compete, either by being highly rated or by winning a qualifying match - Do you think our team has much chance of qualifying for the finals?

(the) finals (n): a tournament's final few rounds, incl. semi-finals, quarter-finals, rounds of 8 and 16, etc. - How many Asian teams got into the finals this time?

(the) final (n): a tournament's final match, the winner of which is the champion - I'm trying to get some tickets for the final, but they're not easy to get.

group stage (n): stage of a tournament in which players or teams compete in groups - Winning two games in the group stage should get us into the knockout stage.

knockout stage (n): stage of a tournament in which competitors are eliminated if they lose - If we hadn't lost that match in the knockout stage, we might've been champions.

round (n): one of several stages into which a tournament or competition is divided - The highlight of her tennis career was getting to the third round at Wimbledon.

runner-up (n): a player or team that comes second in a tournament, race, quiz, etc. - In the Olympic Games, the runners-up are awarded a silver medal.

(be) eliminated (also (be) knocked out) (v): to be defeated and excluded from further competition - The guys were really upset about being eliminated before the semi-finals.

quarter-finals (n): a round of four matches, the winners of which qualify for the semi-finals - We thought we'd won our quarter-final, but Italy got two late goals and beat us.

semi-finals (n): a round of two matches, the winners of which qualify for the final - The semi-finals will be held about a week before the final.

fever pitch (n): a very high level of excitement or frenzy - The crowd's excitement reached fever pitch as Ronaldo scored a goal.

Contributor: Matt Errey. Matt is the author of several books including 1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context and Common English Idioms for learners, and Matt's ESL Games and Quizzes for teachers. He is also creator of WORD UP, the world's #1 EFL board game.