Soccer, known as football outside of North America, is the "beautiful game" to its multitudes of fans. Soccer is played in every corner of the world and inspires its own frenzy every four years with the convening of the international championship known as the World Cup. There is no competition on Earth that mobilizes such passion or that is as inclusive as the qualification for this event.
The World Cup is entirely controlled through the international governing body for the sport of soccer, FIFA, the French language acronym for the Federation Internationale de Football Association. A testament to the status of soccer as the world's most popular sport, FIFA is unquestionably the most powerful and all-encompassing world sports body. Unlike other global sports such as basketball, where there is a lack of international unanimity regarding the rules of the sport, FIFA, through both custom and stature, reigns supreme.
The first organized soccer governance occurred in 1863, with the founding of the Football Association in England. The Football Association codified its rules of play, and as international competition began to be more popular among European teams in the latter part of the nineteenth century, there arose an increasing interest in the formation of a corresponding governing body. FIFA was created for this purpose in 1904. FIFA's membership and authority over the game increased each year thereafter. The first World Cup championship took place in Uruguay in 1930, and, other than the intervention of World War II, the World Cup has been held every four years since that time.
FIFA is responsible for many aspects of the governance of international soccer, including the sanction of a multitude of age group championships for both men and women, the maintenance of a world-ranking system, the resolution of issues pertaining to the nationality of players, and the annual review of the rules of the game. Technical innovations such as the use of goal line cameras and high technology balls are items falling under the authority of FIFA. The greatest ongoing responsibility undertaken by this organization is the organizing of the World Cup.
Every member country organization (virtually every country in the world) has the right to attempt to qualify for a World Cup. Qualification begins almost three years in advance of each tournament, with each country placed in one of six qualification groups, based upon geography. A fixed number of teams from each group will qualify for the World Cup; by rule, the host country and the defending champion are provided an automatic position. The FIFA groups include Africa; Asia; Europe; North America, Central America, and the Caribbean; Oceania; and South America.
Thirty-two teams are ultimately selected to play in the tournament. Once the teams have qualified, FIFA, using its ranking system, will then seed the top eight teams in the competition, and each seeded team will be placed at the head of a pool of four teams, referred to as a "group." The seeding process, which has a significant competitive impact, is based on a formula employed by FIFA that takes into account the play of each of the selected teams over the previous three years. The balance of the teams is grouped according to a random draw. Traditionally, there is one group of four teams that is very evenly matched and where no team, irrespective of seeding, has a clear advantage heading into tournament play. Such pools are referred to as a "Group of Death." The announcement of the World Cup seedings is a much-anticipated event; the seedings are typically determined six months in advance of the World Cup competition.
The World Cup competition, from the preliminary round games through the Cup final, will last approximately one month. Teams are permitted rest days between competitions. As a number of venues are employed in a World Cup, the competitors and their supporters will generally be required to travel to different locations within the host country as the games are played. Security at World Cup matches has been a more prominent feature of the event in recent tournaments; some countries with supporters that have reputations for rowdiness are the subject of intense scrutiny.
FIFA are also responsible for the approval of the stadiums in which the competitions will take place. Unlike sports such as American football or baseball, FIFA is extremely particular about the nature and quality of the surfaces on which its competitions are held. For many years, FIFA would not sanction any international soccer game to be played on an artificial surface, citing both a higher injury rate and unnatural ball movements on such surfaces. In recent years, with significant improvements being made in artificial turf construction, FIFA has authorized a number of test competitions using artificial surfaces; while the 2006 World Cup (won in overtime by Italy) in Germany was played on natural grass, it is anticipated that significant international events, including a future World Cup, may be performed on artificial surfaces.