The FIFA World Cup is quite simply the pinnacle of international football. Contested by the 48 best footballing nations around the globe, it has been the stage for some of the most memorable games in the history of the sport. As we all know, more goals normally provide more entertainment, but how many goals do fans tend to see in your average World Cup game?
Here, we attempt to track how many games have more than 2.5 goals at the World Cup, and how trends change from tournament to tournament. In doing so, we’ll gain a deeper understanding of the greatest show on earth, and assess whether it truly lives up to its reputation from an entertainment standpoint.
Betting on the over/under 2.5 goals per game market is also one of the most popular for football singles and accumulators when wagering on the World Cup. International matches are often said to have lower goals / game than club football, but is that actually true?
Do We Tend To See Fewer Goals At The World Cup?
Anecdotally, it’s generally been observed that fewer goals are scored in World Cup matches today compared to 60 or 70 years ago. Indeed, there is some evidence to support this theory, especially when we consider goals scored per match at World Cup finals. At the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, a record of 5.38 goals was scored per match – which is still the most of any tournament to date.
From the 1960s onwards, this steadily began to drop, culminating in the 2.21 record low at Italia 1990. Indeed, since then, we haven’t seen a World Cup tournament break three goals per match on average, as the last three tournaments (2014, 2018 and 2022) were just 2.7, 2.6 and 2.7 respectively. Prior to Chile 1962, every single tournament had an average goals per match of at least 3.6, indicating a stark change at some point in the post-war years.
Why Is This Average Dropping?
It’s almost impossible to cite one factor above all others that can help explain away this drop in goals at the FIFA World Cup. Nonetheless, a good starting point is tactics – and more specifically – the different formations used now compared to 60 or 70 years ago.
For instance, let us look at the formations used by 1954 World Cup finalists, West Germany and Hungary. The two sides would play out a 3-2 thriller, as The Mighty Magyars, led by Ferenc Puskas, were stunned by the Germans in Bern. That day, the Hungarians lined up in a 3-2-1-4 formation of sorts, with four out-and-out forwards spearheading their attack. The Germans were slightly more cautious, opting for a soon-to-be-conventional back four, although they still played a front three very high up the pitch.
Even four years later, when Brazil hammered Sweden 5-2 (the highest ever final scoreline), the South Americans still lined up with a front four – deploying a 4-2-4 where the ‘wide forwards’ had little to no defensive responsibility. Contrast this to the 2010 World Cup Final, which was 0-0 after normal time, and you can spot the apparent evolution of the game. That day in South Africa, both sides used the relatively new 4-2-3-1 system, with two defensive midfielders to help shut down opposition attacks.
As football tactics, expert and author Jonathan Wilson observed back in 2010, “This has been the tournament of 4-2-3-1 [2010 World Cup]. The move has been apparent in club football for some time; in fact, it may be that 4-2-3-1 is beginning to be supplanted by variants of 4-3-3 at club level, but international football these days lags behind the club game, and this tournament has confirmed the trend that began to emerge at Euro 2008”.
It should also be mentioned that inferior sides on paper have become more adept at sitting deep and playing ultra-defensive football at tournaments, in a bid to take the scalps of more talented sides. The best example of this was Greece at the 2004 European Championships. Despite being massive underdogs before a ball was kicked, Otto Rehhagel masterminded a stunning championship win by implementing very defensive tactics, and a direct game plan – which relied heavily upon set pieces and aerial prowess.
England used similar tactics to great effect at the 2018 World Cup, where they reached the Semi-finals. In short, sides with less outright talent, and fewer match winners have become more adept at frustrating the opposition, and most importantly, keeping the score low to give themselves a chance at grabbing an upset win.
How Often Do We See Over 2.5 Goals Across All Of Football?
There’s a reason that over or under 2.5 goals is such a popular market when it comes to gambling, as generally speaking, there is a 50/50 chance that any given football match will have over 2.5 goals. As World Cups are incredibly unique and rare tournaments, this metric is perhaps better utilised in club football – more specifically domestic leagues.
In the Premier League, it’s very rare for the average number of goals per match to exceed 3 – or be less than 2.5. This shows just how tricky it is to gamble on over 2.5 goals, as often, 2.5 is the exact average for matches across a whole campaign. In the 2021/22 Premier League season, the goals per match average stood at 2.82, with 54% of games having over 2.5 goals that year. Interestingly, this was the joint-highest figure ever for an EPL season, tying with 2018-19. By contrast, the lowest goal per game average for a season was in 2008/09, which was just 2.47.
While the Premier League stubbornly bounces between 2.4 and just over 2.8 goals per game, other big six leagues around Europe consistently seem to produce more goals. In 2020/21 for instance, Serie A had a figure of 3.06 on average, with the Bundesliga also breaching three goals per game.
So then, how does the World Cup, as well as other major international tournaments, compare?
Average goals per game for the 2020/21 season
- Serie A – 3.06 goals per game
- Bundesliga – 3.02 goals per game
- Ligue 1 – 2.87 goals per game
- Premier League – 2.75 goals per game
- La Liga – 2.43 goals per game
How Goals Per Game Averages Have Changed At The World Cup
In the entire history of the FIFA World Cup, only three editions (1990/2006/2010) have had a goals per game average that is lower than 2.5. Similar to the modern-day Premier League, tournament averages have tended to fluctuate between 2.5 and 2.8 on the whole, once again demonstrating how trends repeat themselves across the board.
There is another clear cross-over between the Premier League and the World Cup, in that the number of games which have over 2.5 goals also hovers around the 50% mark. Where it was 54% for last season’s Premier League, at the previous World Cups in Russia and Qatar, 48% and 45% of matches respectively had over 2.5 goals.
Further to this, two sides, Tunisia and Panama, had over 2.5 goals in all three of their 2018 Group games, while at the other end of the spectrum, Peru, Denmark and Iran had 0%. Eventual champions France produced a figure of 43%, which included their six-goal thriller with Croatia in the final.
In 2022 no side saw over 2.5 goals in all their group games and plenty of sides failed to have over 2.5 goals in any of their group games, such as Brazil and Belgium. Eventual champions Argentina has over 2.5 goals in 5 out of 7 of their games, both games that failed to produce more than two goals were in the group stage.
|Year||Host nation||Highest scoring game||Average goals per match||Games with over 2.5 goals|
|2002||South Korea/Japan||Germany 8 KSA 0||2.52||41%|
|2006||Germany||Argentina 6 Serbia 0||2.3||41%|
|2010||South Africa||Portugal 7 N.Korea 0||2.23||42%|
|2014||Brazil||Germany 7 Brazil 1||2.7||57%|
|2018||Russia||France 4 Argentina 3||2.6||48%|
|2022||Qatar||England 6 Iran 2||2.7||45%|
The story was slightly different for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. An unusually high 57% of all matches at that World Cup had over 2.5 goals, which begins to make sense when you consider that Ivory Coast, Croatia, Portugal, Honduras, Ghana and Australia produced over 2.5 goals in all of their matches that summer. Remarkably, only Russia left Brazil having played in games that all produced fewer than 2.5 goals – which emphasises how much the goals flowed in 2014.
Eventual winners Germany produced over 2.5 goals in 4 of their seven matches, although the final against Argentina was deadlocked until Mario Gotze’s extra-time winner. The most iconic moment from their run to the final came in the Semis, where Die Mannschaft demolished hosts Brazil 7-1 to underline how much of a freak tournament this was in terms of goals scored.
Do Knockout Games Actually Produce Fewer Goals Than The Group Stages?
While goals do tend to flow in the group stages of a World Cup, it’s always been a very different story when teams reach the knockout stages. It is here, after all, where we tend to see inferior teams “park the bus” in an attempt to stay in the tie. And yet, for all that these tactics are unquestionably deployed at World Cups, do they actually have the desired effect in terms of producing low-scoring matches?
Let’s firstly look at 2022 as an example. Only 5 knockout games failed to produce more than 2 goals, which means 11 did. In Russia, there were eight knockout games with under 2.5 goals, and nine over 2.5. While 2014 also brought fewer goals in the knockout rounds, with four 0-0 score lines after normal time, 2010 produced the exact opposite. In South Africa, 10 of the 16 total knockout matches had over 2.5 goals, a fact that directly contradicts the notion that goals decrease in volume as the competition reaches the closing stages.
Perhaps the better case study in this regard is to look at World Cup Finals only. It is here after all, where the Jules Rimet trophy is won and lost, and where nerves will be at their absolute zenith. To this end, we can clearly see a trend of fewer goals in World Cup Finals over the past 30 years compared to the 30-year period directly before that.
Since 1990, there have been 22 goals across eight World Cup Finals, six of those coming in the 2018 clash between Croatia and France and a further six between Argentina and France in 2022. This number nearly doubles when you look at finals between 1958 and 1986, as 38 goals were scored in those matches. In all but one final (1974) at least four goals were scored between the two sides, which just shows how differently games of this nature are contested today.
Every FIFA World Cup Final since 1990
|Year||Location||Final score||Formation used by winning side|
|1990||Italy – Stadio Olympico||West Germany 1 Argentina 0||5-3-2|
|1994||USA – Rose Bowl||Brazil 0 Italy 0 (Brazil won on pens)||4-4-2|
|1998||France – Stade de France||France 3 Brazil 0||4-3-2-1|
|2002||Japan – Yokohama Intl Stadium||Brazil 2 Germany 0||3-4-1-2|
|2006||Germany – Olympiastadion||Italy 1 France 1 (Italy won on pens)||4-4-1-1|
|2010||South Africa – Soccer City||Spain 1 Netherlands 0 (AET)||4-2-3-1|
|2014||Brazil – Maracana||Germany 1 Argentina 0 (AET)||4-2-3-1|
|2018||Russia – Luzhniki Stadium||France 4 Croatia 2||4-2-3-1|
|2022||Qatar – Lusail Iconic Stadium||Argentina 3 France 3 (AET)||4-3-3|
We should of course factor in the tactical changes that have taken place during this time. For instance, two of the finals in the post-1990 era have involved Italian sides boasting some of the best defenders the World has ever seen, and it’s no surprise that just two goals were conceded across both of those matches. But more than that, we see so many teams in the modern era set up to not concede first and foremost, with goals in the opposition net being something of an afterthought.
This was never more apparent than in the 2010 World Cup Final, which descended into a farce as The Netherlands and Spain set about to stop the opposing side from playing their natural game. The result of this was 12 yellow cards, one red card and a fairly dull spectacle until Andres Iniesta’s extra-time winner. But who exactly can blame either side in that scenario for choosing to play in such a way? A first-ever World Cup win was the reward for both nations, and in that vein, teams will do all they can to bring the trophy home.
As we’ve shown, World Cup games with over 2.5 goals tend to happen with just as much regularity as they do in club football – with the exception of the final. At just about every World Cup over the past 30 years, around 50% of matches have had over 2.5 goals, a stat which highlights how consistent the game has remained in that time.
It’s undoubtedly true that tactical evolution, improved coaching and the widening disparity between the best and the worst footballing nations have created a trickier environment for goals to be scored today. And yet, that hasn’t dramatically affected the amount that we see, especially in the group stages.
Only in the World Cup Final can we conclusively point to these modern quirks of the game having a notable effect on goals scored. With the exception of 2018 and 2022, it’s easy to spot a pattern of conservatism from teams who reach the World Cup Final, as the desperation not to concede trumps their desire to score. Will that trend continue moving forwards, or will a more cavalier approach return continue in 2026? Time will tell.