With the 2018 FIFA World Cup just a day away the final preparations for the globe’s biggest party are being made for managers, players and fans alike. A statement that also rings true for writers who are desperately trying to get their last pieces of pre-tournament content out before Russia take on Saudi Arabia in Moscow.
To date there have been 20 previous editions of the World Cup with an archive full of golden moments, admittedly some tournaments have been more memorable than others, something that can be measured by the amount of goals that were scored in each edition of the competition.
And it is that measurement that we are going to look at today as I reveal which tournaments had the most goals scored but more importantly which one had the highest goal average. This will be a much fairer measurement due to the differing sizes of entrants and also changes in format.
So first up here is a table of all the tournaments and the total goals scored:
At first glance you can see an obvious step change from 1994 to 1998 this can be explained by the addition of eight additional teams into France 98 and usually more teams equals more goals. A point that is made all the more evident by the fact the joint highest goalscoring tournaments where 1998 and 2014 with 171 goals each.
Both these tournaments were in the 32 team era, and even if the 2018 World Cup sees more goals than ever before this is a total that could well be surpassed when we get to the 2026 edition of the competition which will now be hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico and more importantly there will be 48 teams involved.
Ultimately this is not the fairest of comparisons as the first ever World Cup in 1930 only had 18 games played while the 1934 edition had a game fewer with 17. Therefore we should be looking at which tournament offered up the highest amount of average goals.
Something that we can do now, first I will offer up a raw data table for you:
But now lets put that data in some neat graphs so it is a bit easier on the eye, first all the total goals scored per tournament:
As you can see there are two main step changes, 1978 to 1982 when the tournament increased from 16 to 24 teams and 1994 to 1998 when the tournament increased from 24 to 32. Those changes are reflected in this graph below:
After only 13 teams took part in the first ever World Cup, there are nearly three and a half more matches played since 1998. Some might say that 32 is the perfect number due to the fact that it is a number constantly divisible by two and there are no need for an imbalanced format, something that we will once again see in 2026.
Now that we have got the additional context required to analyse the goal averages, let’s take a look at how they compare from 1930 to 2014:
And astonishingly the 1954 World Cup which was held in Switzerland had a average goals per game count of 5.38, for this Summer to beat that figure there would have to be 344 goals in Russia. A nightmare for managers but a joy to behold for armchair fans.
If we look at modern times from 1998 onwards then the highest average will be 1998 and 2014, this comes as no real surprise due to these two tournaments having the most ever tournament goals. What is interesting though is that from 1998 to 2010 there was a decline in goals scored.
This can be explained by the era of pragmatic football where it was play not to lose rather than play to win, In the space of twelve years the goal scoring average fell from 2.67 to 2.23. With the World Cup in South Africa recording the second lowest average of all time.
That unwanted accolade goes to Italia ’90. Now in England it is remembered as one of the better World Cups but in all honesty there is something of an element of rose tinted glasses there as by and large the football was very sterile especially with the backpass rule not yet introduced.
The 24 team era did by and large deliver more entertaining tournaments, something that is reinforced by high goal averages in both 1982 and 1994 respectively. This is something that could well be explained by the fact that lesser teams dilutes in the pool of quality and there are lesser nations playing just not to get beaten.
But when we compare both the 24 and 32 team eras to the start of the World Cup then the differences are night and day, the first tournament in Uruguay recorded an average of 3.89 and from there the next four editions of the World Cup recorded averages of at least 4 goals per game.
In 1958 there was something of a drop off as the only edition of the World Cup to have all four nations qualify saw just 3.60 goals per game on average and since then no tournament has recorded an average of over 3 goals per game.
For that to happen in Russia then 192 goals would have to be scored, an increase on 21 when compared to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Hopefully though the glut of goals that we saw four years ago is the start of an upward curve and one that continues in Russia and beyond. Thanks for reading.
I am always available for any football data projects you may have and/or content creation.
If you have any requirements then please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Football Data”
I am also available via twitter at @dantracey1983 – again feel free to get in touch to discuss any work. Thanks, Dan