As the first World Cup in the Arab world kicks off, it is pertinent to note that in the tournament, the first match a team plays outcome of the first match is often crucial and goes a long way in shaping a team’s prospects.
Such matches are sometimes tension-filled, irrespective of the relative strength of the teams. With
three first round matches, a team may not feel same pressure at their first match of the World Cup as they might prior to their third match.
But the opening matches may hold more importance than many realize. Take for instance France ‘98. Of the 16 teams that advanced into the second round, not one of them lost the opening match.
Ten of the 16 teams that went through to the next stage attained the required two victories necessary while four others went undefeated with a win and two draws.
Only Denmark which eliminated Nigeria in the second round of France ‘98 went through with just a win and two draws. Chile was able to keep afloat with three draws in their Group B encounters.
The trend is carried over to the next two World Cup finals. At Korea/Japan 2010, only two of the 16 qualifiers for the second round lost their opening matches.
They were Mexico and Turkey who lost their opening matches 0-1 and 2-1 respectively. Some others who drew
their opening games were also able to scrape through.
Such included both England and Sweden who played 1-1 draw in their opening game. Ireland drew 1-1 with Cameroon and was able to advance just as did Belgium and Paraguay.
The same thing happened at Germany 2006 when Ukraine and Ghana were the only teams that lost their opening games and still got to the Round of 16. The 11 others of the remain ing 14 had outright victories leaving Sweden, Switzerland and France as teams with barren draws in their opening game and still managed to advance.
However at the last World Cup in South Africa, Spain achieved a rare feat. The country became the first to lose an
opening round and still went on to win the final match. Also in winning the cup, Spain became the first European team to win the World Cup outside Europe.
The in-built rule therefore for ambitious teams in the World Cup or any tournament with similar format is to avoid an opening match defeat. A win of the first match can buoy confidence as it happened to Cameroon at Italia ’90 against Argentina and also to Nigeria 28 years ago as well as Senegal in 2002.
A defeat could be devastating to the psyche of a team as did to the potentially strong Spanish side that surprising
lost 3-2 to Nigeria in their opening game in Nantes.
Spain who were upset in the first match tried to make up and looked ahead to Paraguay and Bulgaria, and still looked good bet to still pick scale through to the round of 16.
But a scoreless draw with Paraguay made their 6- 1 pounding of Bulgaria in the last match worthless after the Super Eagles lost their last match to Paraguay in the final group match.
France ‘98 was the first tournament that comprised 32 teams divided into eight groups of four. The 16 teams that move into the second round are two top finishers of the groups. In the four World Cup tournaments before France ‘98, just 24 teams were involved, meaning four third place finishers also advanced out of group play.
Whereas in USA’94 for instance, a team could almost assure itself of a fourth match with four points from the first
round, the general consensus now is that a team must try to win twice to continue to the second round.
One fact that has emerged in the 92-year history of the World Cup is that only one team ever lost the opening match and went ahead to World Cup .
Only two teams have won the cup after drawing in the opening game. Paulo Rossi-inspired Italy in
1982 did not even record its first win until after the group games. Also in 1966, England recovered from their scoreless draw with Uruguay to win their next five games and eventually the cup.
The aspiring teams of Qatar 2022 will be wise to avoid defeat in the opening games