By Grant Wahl
June 02, 2014

There is no small effort involved in getting the three best soccer players in the world (Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suárez) and the captain of the U.S. national team (Clint Dempsey) on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine in the same week. But that’s exactly what SI did for our World Cup 2014 preview issue, which features four different covers, all of which are mixed evenly in the distribution of magazines to subscribers and newsstands this week.

It’s a historic moment for soccer in SI, the 19th time the sport has appeared on the cover of the magazine since it started being published weekly in 1954. Messi, Ronaldo and Suárez are making their first appearances on the cover, while Dempsey is on the front for the second time.

Back when I started at SI as a fact-checker in 1996, I would sneak off after midnight occasionally to the bound-volume section and flip through old issues of the magazine. It always seemed crazy to me that early issues of SI would have all manner of things on the cover—sailing, fishing, even dog shows—but from 1954 to ’73, with 50 issues a year, there had never been a cover featuring the world’s most popular sport.

SI did publish some terrific soccer stories, including long pieces by Pete Axthelm on Pelé in 1966 and by Clive Gammon on Diego Maradona in 1980. But from 1954 to ’73, soccer went missing on the cover. The omission seemed even stranger to me considering the most influential SI editor of that time was a French-American.

“From 1960 to ‘74, SI had a very sophisticated, very urbane editor with an international background in André Laguerre, who had spent long parts of his life in France and England,” says Michael MacCambridge, author of The Franchise, a history of Sports Illustrated. “The only conclusion I can draw is that André must not have been a big soccer fan. In fairness, he did send Clive Gammon to [World Cups in] England in 1966 and Mexico in 1970.”

Laguerre finally put soccer on the SI cover for the first time in the September 3, 1973, issue, when Philadelphia Atoms goalkeeper Bob Rigby made history. Two years later, Pelé appeared on the cover when he signed with the New York Cosmos, and over the years some of the sport’s biggest stars would join him, including Maradona, Mia Hamm, David Beckham, Giorgio Chinaglia and Landon Donovan (who has made the cover three times, tops among soccer players).

These days it’s a lot more common for SI to have soccer on the cover—there hasn’t been a men’s World Cup without one since 1998—but the scope of this week’s covers is unlike anything the magazine has done before.

A few bits of trivia connected to SI soccer covers:

• Earnie Stewart’s cover from World Cup ’94 spells his name as “Ernie.” So mild-mannered was Stewart that he didn’t tell the world his first name was spelled “Earnie” until he had been playing for more than a decade with the U.S. national team.

• Brandi Chastain was on the covers of SI, TIME and Newsweek at the same time in 1999.

• The Angolan children on the cover of the May 24, 2010, issue (my favorite soccer cover of the bunch), likely have no idea they were on the cover. I’d love to track them down someday.

• The only non-American soccer players to make individual appearances on the SI cover are Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Suárez, Pelé, Maradona, Beckham, Chinaglia, Mario Balotelli and Daniel Passarella.

• Lamar Hunt, the late MLS and NASL team owner, appeared in the second sentence of SI’s first soccer cover story, and if you look closely at the Brazil World Cup ’94 championship cover the man behind the camera on the right side of the cover is … Lamar Hunt.

Here are the 19 soccer covers in the history of SI:

June 9, 2014: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suárez, Clint Dempsey

August 26, 2013: Mario Balotelli (Cover | Story)

July 25, 2011: Hope Solo (Cover | Story)

June 7, 2010: Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard (Cover | Story)

May 24, 2010: Angolan children (Cover | Story | Story | Story)

July 16, 2007: David Beckham (Cover | Story)

June 5, 2006: Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu, Bobby Convey (Cover | Story)

September 22, 2003: Mia Hamm (Cover | Story)

June 24, 2002: Landon Donovan (Cover | Story)

May 27, 2002: Clint Mathis (Cover | Story)

December 20, 1999: Sportswomen of the Year: USWNT (Cover | Story)

July 19, 1999: Brandi Chastain (Cover | Story)

July 25, 1994: Brazil World Cup Champions (Cover | Story)

July 4, 1994: Earnie Stewart (Cover | Story)

July 7, 1986: Diego Maradona (Cover | Story)

May 21, 1979: Giorgio Chinaglia (Cover | Story)

July 3, 1978: Daniel Passarella (Cover | Story)

June 23, 1975: Pelé (Cover | Story)

September 3, 1973: Bob Rigby (Cover | Story)

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