And the Football World Title holders are…

7th January 2019

I have spent some time on a modest research exercise to work out who have been – and who now are – the holders of the Football World Title (FWT). I would be very surprised if this hasn’t been done before, though I haven’t previously come across the results of such an exercise.

The concept is the same as that of a world championship title in boxing. We begin with the very first soccer international – Scotland versus England at Hamilton Crescent in Partick in 1872 – and take the winners of that match to have been the inaugural FWT holders. That country retained the title until it was next beaten, at which point the new FWT holder was crowned.

The football historians will have spotted the immediate technical hitch. The first international was a draw: 0-0. However, this simply means that Scotland and England were the joint-FWT holders until their next meeting the following March, when England won 4-2 at the Kennington Oval.

In the long period up to the First World War, the FWT holders were always from the Home Nations. This is not too much of a surprise because, for most of this period, they didn’t play anyone else. England and Scotland battled it out for the honour, with challenges from Wales and Ireland, until the latter defeated Scotland 2-0 in 1903. It was during the 19th century that the FWT was to remain in the same hands for the longest continuous period: Scotland were the holders for the eight years from March 1880.

There was a break in the series between 1914 and 1919, when no soccer internationals were played by the Home Nations. Interestingly, the FWT holders over this hiatus were Ireland, who had defeated England in February 1914 and then drawn with Scotland. Scotland regained the crown in March 1920.

The first overseas challenge for the FWT occurred in May 1909, when Switzerland were put in their place (9-0) by England. It was to be another 22 years – in May 1931 – before the FWT moved outside the British Isles for the first time, when Austria defeated Scotland 5-0. The genie was out of the bottle: the Austrians retained the title over 11 successful defences, scoring another 44 goals in the process, before losing 3-4 to England in December 1932.

Dealing with the outbreak of the Second World War has required an important executive decision to be made by the Board of Governors of the Football World Title – i.e. me. In September 1939, the FWT holders were Italy on the basis, not of their World Cup win in 1938, but their defeat of the previous FWT holders, Yugoslavia, in June 1939.

There were two options. The first – the Peacetime Route – was to have assumed that competition for the FWT was in abeyance until the secession of the War in Europe in May 1945, when Italy were deemed to have resumed the custodianship of the title.

However, this does not allow for the fact that, for many countries, international football continued throughout the War years. After Italy lost 1-3 to Switzerland in November 1939, the possession of the FWT can be traced through the various matches played between the Axis powers (Germany and Italy), the countries within their political orbit (including Hungary and Romania) and neutral countries (Switzerland and Sweden). Following this path – the Wartime Route – the holders of the FWT in May 1945 were Sweden .

The Board of Governors decided that the best solution to this dilemma was to allow for two competing claims to the throne – rather in the way that different boxing authorities might claim that “their” man is the true world champion.

The two Routes remained on different paths for over a decade after the end of the War. The Peacetime Route largely stayed in Europe and included ownership of the FWT by the great Hungarian side between October 1950 and defeat by West Germany in the World Cup Final of 1954, as well as temporary custodianship by smaller football nations such as Belgium and Norway. The only home nation to feature on this Route was Northern Ireland, who briefly held the Title (twice) during the 1958 World Cup thanks to their two victories over Czechoslovakia .

England re-emerged as FWT holders on three occasions via the Wartime Route, initially when they beat Switzerland in 1946. Critically, they had the Title at the time of their infamous defeat by the USA in the World Cup of 1950. Equally significantly, the Americans then lost their next group match to Chile, at which point this version of the FWT became the property of South America until Italy temporarily took back custodianship in 1956.

Although there were World Cup tournaments in 1950 and 1954, the way that the fixtures and the results fell meant that there was no re-unification of the two versions of the FWT until the following tournament in 1958. This occurred when Brazil (the Peacetime Route holders) beat Sweden (the Wartime Route holders) 5-2 in the final.

In the 60 years since re-unification, the chronology of matches has usually (though not always) meant that the World Cup winners have also taken on the mantle of FWT holders. This applied to England in 1966, for example, which means that the Scots’ long-running claim to have been world champions following their win at Wembley in April 1967 can be supported (though they relinquished the FWT the following month by losing to the USSR).

The competition for the FWT has incorporated some famous international soccer matches down the years. In the case of England, the list also includes the “Battle of Highbury” against Italy in 1934 and the Euro 1996 clash with Scotland.

England last held the FWT in June 2000 – for three days between the defeat of Germany and the loss to Romania at that year’s Euros. Scotland ’s most recent custodianship is similarly brief: four days between beating Georgia and losing to Italy in March 2007. In the post-War period, Wales have held the Title once, following their defeat of Italy in June 1988, though they also lost in their first defence (to Holland in a World Cup Qualifier).

The fact that the FWT can be won or lost in one-off matches means that there is an element of democratisation – or is it random quirkiness? – about the process. As a result, whilst the football heavyweights might have dominated its possession, the FWT has not been theirs alone: to return to the boxing analogy, think of James “Buster” Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in 1990. Hence, for example, since the turn of the century, the FWT has been held (briefly) by Angola (in 2004), Turkey (2007) and South Korea (2013) amongst the middle or lower-ranking football nations.

I calculate that, by the end of 2018, there will have been a total of 951 FWT matches (with the Wartime Route, or 926 via the Peacetime Route) dating from that initial Scotland-England clash in 1872. The frequency of the contests has speeded up over time; whereas the first 100 games took over 36 years to complete and the second hundred another 20 years, the most recent century (to 900) took less than 7½ years to be reached. Indeed, due to the combination of the World Cup finals, UEFA Nations League matches and friendlies, 2018 saw the highest number of FWT matches in any single year – 18.

Clearly, the history of the FWT is ripe for analysis by the football statistician. 42 different countries have held the title via the Wartime Route (and 44 through the Peacetime Route). The country with the most successful title defences (via the Wartime Route) is Scotland with 86, all but 5 of which occurred before 1939. Next on the all-time list are England (75) and Brazil (60).

In the 60 years since the re-unification of the alternative Titles, the leaderboard looks somewhat different. Brazil have had 47 successful defences, followed by Spain (43) and Holland (42). England are in 13th place on this list with 14 successful defences and Scotland do not appear at all. The record for the longest run of consecutive successful defences is held by Spain with no fewer than 31 between November 2011 and June 2013.

Further statistical enquiry is no doubt possible: the leading goalscorer, for example, or the player with the most appearances or the team/player with the most red cards. We might be straying into nerdish territory here, however – or perhaps that ship has already sailed.

Finally, the Football World Title holders (at the beginning of 2019) are… the Netherlands .

Last year began with Peru in pole position before their loss to Denmark in the group stage of the World Cup and then the latter’s subsequent defeat (on penalties in the round of the last 16) to Croatia. France ’s 4-2 win over Croatia in the final consolidated the winners of the World Cup with the holders of the Football World Title. However, following four subsequent successful defences, France lost 0-2 to the Netherlands in a Nations League match in November. The Dutch then drew 2-2 with Germany (courtesy of a last minute goal) and so entered the New Year as the Title holders.

Note on data

The main source of data is the excellent online database at www.worldfootball.net, supplemented (in a couple of instances during the 1950s) by the internet records of individual countries and/or tournaments. All full international matches have been considered, including friendlies, with the exception of those played in Olympic Games, when there have restrictions on the eligibility of players or squads. Where matches have been decided by a penalty shoot-out, these have been considered as wins and losses, rather than draws.

The responsibility for any errors is mine. The results presented here are given in good faith.

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