WORLD CUP FOCUS: The knockout round comes first

By Paul Gardner

This is the way the World Cup is supposed to work: 48 games of group play, after which 16 teams go home and the survivors go into the knockout round.

Not quite. Because the knockout round really begins right at the start of the tournament, when each team plays its opener. A look at the statistics for the past two World Cups (played since the number of teams was increased to 32) makes it dramatically clear that losing the opener is almost certain to be fatal.

These are the figures: in France 1998 and Japan/Korea 2002, a total of 23 teams lost their first games. Only one of those teams (Turkey in 2002) advanced to the second round. In the same two tournaments, 23 teams won their first game, with 20 of them advancing to the second round.

France 1998 and Japan/Korea 2002

Lost 1st game:
23 teams, of which 1 advanced to the second round for a 4 percent success rate.

Tied 1st game:
18 teams
, of which 11 advanced to the second round for a 61 percent success rate.

Won 1st game:
23 teams, of which 20 advanced to the second round for an 87 percent success rate.

And this is not just the minnows who lose out, the teams that you would expect to exit in the first round. The list of victims includes France, Portugal, Croatia, Spain and the USA.

It is often said that for each of the 32 participating nations the World Cup - the biggest sports event in the world - begins as nothing more elaborate than a mini-tournament involving only three opponents. Each country is trapped in its little four-team group, not really at all concerned with what's going on in the other groups - only the three immediate opponents matter.

But the stats above show that the tournament should look even smaller to coaches on opening day. Just that one game matters - it looms as a knockout game: lose it, and your chances of survival have virtually vanished.

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