If we are to compare World Cups it will come as no surprise to anyone that FIFA World Cups have been far more competitive than rugby’s down the ages.
Although the difference is perhaps not quite so glaring if we restrict our observations to the first eight tournaments.
FIFA World Cup
Between 1930 and 1966 five nations won the FIFA World Cup, 11 made the final, 16 the semis and 20 the quarterfinals. In total 38 nations had competed at the event, including 25 debutantes since the first.
Rugby World Cup
Between 1987 and 2015 four nations won the Rugby World Cup, five made the final, eight the semis and 12 the quarterfinals. In total 25 nations had competed at the event, with nine debutantes since the first.
However, at least one nation had debuted at every FIFA World Cup, this remains the case after 21 tournaments, and Qatar will become the 80th nation to participate when it hosts the next instalment in 2022.
Meanwhile, at least one nation had debuted at every Rugby World Cup up to 2011, but none did so in 2015; the only change being the return of Uruguay at the expense of Russia. The latter had been one of just three debutantes since expansion in 1999; Georgia and Portugal the others.
Also in football’s favour is that no single country had hosted the showpiece tournament more than once prior to the 13th instalment in 1986. So far New Zealand and England have been the principal host of the Rugby World Cup twice, and France will receive its second tournament in 2023.
But rugby does edge out football in one respect: By 2015 three regional associations had produced a winner, four a semi-finalist and five a quarterfinalist. Only Europe and South America were represented in football’s first eight finals (and that remains the case today), three regions were represented in its semis and four in its quarters.
FIFA World Cup revolution
In fact, football’s global revolution did not begin in earnest until the 1970s, when Brazil’s João Havelange replaced the conservative Englishman Stanley Rous as president of FIFA and awarded every member nation one vote each.
The difference was apparent by the following decade as African teams, in particular, began to make their mark at the World Cup for the first time. Since then it has been rare for more than one or two teams to go home with three straight losses, though the tournament has expanded to 32 (and will go to 48 in 2026).
If international rugby is to become even remotely as competitive over the next few decades it is going to have to find its own ‘João Havelange’ and take a similarly democratic approach. The Six Nations as we know it would probably have to go, as would the Rugby Championship, exclusive scheduling in general and the entire tier system.
But let’s not be too harsh on rugby, which has made significant inroads in terms of globalizing the game since turning professional a couple of decades ago, thanks largely to the popularity of its World Cup and, more recently, the inclusion of sevens at the Olympics.
And if we were to compare the sport with its own offspring, rugby league, the difference is conversely favourable – extremely so. The XIII-man code’s first eight World Cups involved a grand total of five nations, with Wales participating just once. It produced only two winners, three finalists and four “semi-finalists” (top four finishers). There were no quarterfinals, while only the four regular participants hosted it.
Author: Quentin Poulsen
I am a former New Zealand sports writer and founder of the Wellington American football competition, which ran from the 1990s until the 2010s. I traveled to Spain to teach at the turn of the century, and have been in Turkey since 2005. During the past several years I have taken a keen interest in third tier rugby, watching countless games via live streaming.