The inaugural World Cup had been so successful that the entry for the second was rather more encouraging. Thus, this became the first FIFA World Cup with a preliminary round, needed because thirty-two teams wanted to play in Italy, and FIFA organised a qualifying competition to reduce the field to sixteen.

Uruguay, the titleholders were still sulking about the poor European entry in 1930 and Bolivia and Paraguay were missing too. This meant that Argentina and Brazil were through to the final round in Italy without having to play qualifying matches.

Some of the matches to decide who would represent Europe were very hard fought. Even Italy, who under later rules would automatically have qualified as the host country, had to play off against Greece and defeated them 4-0 in the San Siro Stadium. They were spared the trouble of making a trip to Athens for the return match - Greece withdrew from the competition, discouraged after that heavy loss. Austria and Hungary were two of Europe's strongest nations at that time and they were drawn together in the same group; they both managed to qualify without having to play against each other, at the expense of Bulgaria. The team from the Irish Free State (known as Ireland Republic since 1937) were edged out by Belgium on the grounds of their poorer goal difference - just one goal in it.

The USA, who had submitted their entry too late, first had a play-off against Central American qualifiers Mexico in Rome, before going into the first round ... and a 7-1 defeat by Italy.