The first round, or group stage, saw the thirty-two teams divided into eight groups of four teams. Each group was a round-robin of six games, where each team played one match against each of the other teams in the same group. Teams were awarded three points for a win, one point for a draw and none for a defeat. The teams finishing first and second in each group qualified for the Round of 16.

The South American teams performed strongly, with all five advancing to the knockout stages (four as group winners). The overall performance of African teams on the first occasion that the continent hosted the event was judged disappointing by observers such as Cameroon great Roger Milla. Of the six African nations only three won any matches, and only one (Ghana) progressed out of the first round.

Only six out of thirteen UEFA teams progressed to the last sixteen, a record low since the round of 16 was adopted in 1986. Both of the finalists from the preceding tournament, France and Italy, were eliminated in the initial stage of the competition, the first time this has happened at a World Cup. New Zealand ended the tournament as the only undefeated team after drawing their three group matches, but they finished behind Paraguay and Slovakia and were eliminated.