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World Cup grew in popularity with an assist from Pelé, other stars

The young Brazilian and players such as Maradona, Messi and Ronaldo turned the tournament into one of the most-watched sports events.

France scores against Brazil with a header at the 1998 FIFA World Cup final. The tournament, among the most-watched sporting events on earth, begins this month in Qatar. (Sven Simon/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

The FIFA World Cup, one of the most-watched sporting event on earth, begins next week in Qatar. To understand some of why it’s so popular, let’s look at World Cup history.

The first World Cup was played in 1930 in the small South American country of Uruguay. Only 13 countries competed in the first tournament.

There were no intercontinental airplane flights back then. Teams from Europe, for example, had to travel for up to three weeks, including 10 days by ship, to get to Uruguay. So most European teams stayed home. Fans listened to updates on the radio. (People didn’t have TVs then.)

Uruguay won the tournament by beating Argentina in the final match, 4-2. The United States played in the first World Cup and made the semifinals. No U.S. men’s team has done as well since.

Interest in the World Cup grew over the years even though the tournament could not be played in 1942 and 1946 because of World War II. An Italian soccer official hid the World Cup trophy under his bed during the war years to make sure soldiers from Nazi Germany didn’t take it.

The greatest upset in the history of the World Cup happened when the tournament resumed in 1950. The United States shocked the powerhouse squad from England, 1-0, in an early game. That upset was like a small college football team beating the Super Bowl champions.

One player who attracted fans from around the world to the World Cup was Edson Arantes do Nascimento of Brazil, known as Pelé. The fabulous forward burst onto the World Cup scene in 1958 as a 17-year-old sensation.

The talented teenager scored three goals in the semifinal and two in the final to lead Brazil to its first World Cup.

Brazil won again in 1962 although Pelé missed most of the tournament because of injuries. He bounced back in 1970 by scoring one goal and assisting with two more in the final against Italy to lead Brazil to its third World Cup.

Brazil was allowed to keep the World Cup trophy because it had won the tournament for a third time (FIFA made a new trophy that is used now). The original trophy, however, was stolen in 1983 and has never been recovered.

Other players became famous for less-than-perfect World Cup moments. Maradona, a superstar scorer, punched a ball into the goal with his fist (even though that’s against the rules) to help Argentina beat England in a crucial quarterfinal match and lead Argentina to the 1986 title.

Zinedine Zidane of France lost his temper and smacked his head against an Italian opponent and was thrown out of the 2006 final. The incident may have cost France the title as it lost to Italy in a penalty shootout.

Qualifying for this year's World Cup was no easy feat for U.S. Men's National Team

Who will be the star of the 2022 tournament, which features 32 teams from around the world? Veterans such as Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal or Lionel Messi of Argentina? Kylian Mbappé of defending champion France? A new, young sensation?

Watch the tournament and see World Cup history in the making.