With all the pioneering work that had been done for the FIFA World Cup by Jules Rimet, Henri Delauney, and Robert Guérin, it was no great surprise that the 1938 venue chosen was France, which - the same as 60 years later - did the event proud with new or at least modernised stadiums. The number of teams entering the competition was only slightly greater than the total four years earlier, easily understandable in view of the threatening political situation.

For the first time the title holders and the host country were given automatic qualification and escaped the preliminary round. But the teams that made it to France did not include all the world's best. Among the noticeable absentees were Argentina, winners of the Copa America 1937 and one of the strongest teams at that time. They were unhappy about having been passed over for hosting the competition and in addition were having differences of opinion with the Brazilian association CBF, against whose team they would have had to play in the qualifying round.

The draw was made by the grandson of the French President of FIFA, Jules Rimet, in Paris, with Sweden receiving a bye and Germany (who had co-opted several of the Austrian stars), France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Cuba, and the sole South American representatives, Brazil, being seeded.

Following a play-off match against Latvia, Austria had officially qualified for the final round but because of the Anschluss in April 1938 did not feel that they could attend. Their place was offered to England, who in the so-called "Battle of Highbury" in 1934, had defeated reigning world champions Italy. But England did not accept FIFA's offer and it would not be until 1950 in Brazil that they would make their first appearance.