How entertaining is the World Cup compared to club football?

World Cup fans
These World Cup fans seem to be enjoying themselves at least.
Credit: Reuters

The FIFA World Cup is the pinnacle of the football world. To win the World Cup is the greatest achievement a player can attain. Yet, is the World Cup really “The Greatest Show on Earth?”

How entertaining is the World Cup to watch? How does it compare to the Top 5 domestic leagues in Europe?
Does the tension of knockout round football make teams play more defensively?

The Top 5 Leagues vs The World Cup

The data below compares this season’s results from the Top 5 European leagues with the previous five World Cup tournaments:


[Source: and 21st Club]

[*Note: Shots and Fouls data only available for World Cup 2010]

The last five World Cups saw an average of 2.48 goals per match. This is lower than all but one of the top 5 leagues (France).

Nine percent of World Cup matches since 1994 have ended in a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes. This is higher than all five major European leagues.

Matches at the 2010 World Cup averaged just 22.8 total shots on goal per match – this is lower than all five of the major European leagues.

World Cup matches in 2010 saw an average of 31.4 fouls committed per match – this is higher than all five major leagues.

Are All World Cups the same? Which Recent World Cup has been the most entertaining?

Below is the record of each World Cup since 1994:


We can see that the tournament with the most goals scored recently was USA 1994. The two most recent tournaments have been the lowest scoring. In Germany (2006) average goals were just 2.30 per game and in 2010 (South Africa) just 2.27 goals per game.

Thirteen percent of all World Cup games in 2006 and 2010 ended in a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes.

How do total goals change according to round?

Is the group stage more entertaining than the knockout stage? Do the first round of group matches see more or less goals than the third?

Does the tension of the knockout matches cause teams to play ultra-cautious football?

The table below shots the total goals by round of the last five World Cup tournaments:


In the group stage, the total goals scored in the first round of matches is 2.33. In fact, if we only include 2006 and 2010 this reduces even further to just 2.00 goals per match. In the first match, teams often play cautiously and are often happy to achieve a draw.

Matchday 2 has an average of 2.47 goals per game and Matchday 3 is the highest at 2.66 goals per game. In the final round of group matches teams often need to achieve a win to qualify for the knockout stage so often play a more attacking style.

As the tournament progresses through to the knockout stage the average goals per match reduces back again.

This is understandable as the tension increases the further a team progresses in the competition. The previous five World Cup finals have produced just 8 goals (an average of 1.6 goals per match).

The exception to the rule is the third/fourth place playoff match. The previous five third/fourth matches have produced 21 goals for an average of 4.2 goals per match. This is likely due to players playing a more relaxed style of play as the tension of reaching the final has disappeared. Also, sometimes a team may have a striker who needs to score one or more goals to win the prestigious Golden Boot award — this may cause them to play more attacking to help him score goals.

So is the World Cup boring? Why do we watch?

We have seen that often the World Cup has fewer goals than domestic leagues but this is not always the case — 1994 and 1998 averaged 2.71 and 2.67 goals respectively.

Also, lower total goals in football matches does not necessarily mean the games are less entertaining. Strong defensive play and tactical organization can sometimes be just as enthralling as open attacking play.

Finally, many of the reasons for lower goals in World Cups are due to the tension and pressure created by knockout football — and it is exactly this tension that makes us still want to watch the World Cup every four years.

Information courtesy of


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