By Paul Gardner
The World Cup starts off -- for every team, favorites or outsiders -- as a three-game tournament. That’s all you get -- just three games to prove whether you belong there or not.
Everyone knows that fully half of the teams in the 32-team field don’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of winning the trophy. So the first round serves as a preliminary, elimination competition. When it’s over, when half the teams have gone home, the world championship proper begins.
Yes, the favored teams are given an advantage by the seeding arrangements built into the draw that defines the first-round groups. Even so, the crucial thing about the groups is the same for all the teams: Simply, don’t lose the first game.
Since the World Cup enlarged to 32 teams in 1998, there are 16 “first games” in the tournament, two in each group. This is how the results have worked out in the four tournaments under that arrangement:
In 1998, 11 teams lost their first game. All of them failed to get out of the first round. In 2002, 12 teams lost their first game, and 11 of them failed to qualify for the second round. In 2006, there were 13 first-game losers, of which 11 failed to advance. In South Africa, in 2010, the figures were: 10 first-game losers, 9 of which didn’t advance.
In sum: over the past four World Cups, 46 teams have lost their opening game. Only 4 of those 46 -- not quite 9% of them -- made it to the second round. That’s how bad things get if you lose the first one. Actually, those dismal stats are worse than they seem. Because three of the four losers that did advance could be termed special cases. Turkey advanced in 2002 -- but their loss had been to eventual winners Brazil. Same thing for Ghana in 2006, which advanced after losing to eventual winners Italy. In 2010 the team that lost its opening game was Spain -- which went on to win the tournament.
So losing the debut game is near fatal. How about a tie then, where does that get you? It gets a lot better. In the four World Cups with 32 teams, there have been 18 first-game ties. Of the 36 teams involved, 21 have advanced -- 58%.
All of which seems to say, pretty loudly, that playing not to lose in the first game is the savvy thing to do. Coaches are usually good at working things out when it comes to playing negatively, or maybe this is only semi-negatively. But the odd thing here is that the percentage of tied games is not particularly high: 64 debut games, 18 ties. That seems a pretty normal sort of proportion.
Even so, there are signs that caution is coming to the first round. The goalscoring is going down. In 1998, there were 37 goals in the 16 opening games. The number went up to 46 in 2002, then down to 39 in 2006. But last time round, in South Africa, there were only 25 debut goals. No doubt the defenses are getting their now customary grip on things.
Anyway, the debut-goal totals given above need to be questioned, because the Germans have been doing their best to skew them. In 2002 Germany scored 8 goals in one game (against Saudi Arabia) -- which is twice as many as any other team scored in these first round games. Germany also featured in the highest-scoring first-round games in 2006 (a 4-2 win over Costa Rica), and in 2010 (4-0 over Australia).
All those goals propel the Germans into the next round, after which it’s not so simple, for nothing has been won. The record is: Nothing in 1998, losing finalist in 2002, third place in 2006 and 2010. Which would satisfy most countries, but not Germany.
In fact, if you omit Germany’s 4-0 score, the 2010 scorelines look pretty anaemic: Two 0-0 ties, four 1-1 ties, six 1-0 wins, two 2-0 wins, and one 2-1 win -- an average of only 1.3 goals per game.
As far as the USA is concerned, of course it’s correct to concentrate on the game against Ghana. But not because Ghana may be considered the weakest of its three opponents. The game is crucial simply because it is the first game of a three-game “qualifying” tournament. To lose it signals, almost certainly, an early flight home. It seems to have taken a while, but you can assume that all the teams -- including Ghana, know that by now.
That 1.3 goals per game stat has to be a product of cautious tactics.