The Turnaround

The first round of group games is over and everyone has had their go. The narratives, the destinies and the epitaphs have all begun to take shape. Some teams ––  Costa Rica, the Netherlands –– have exceeded their expectations; others –– Spain, Uruguay, Portugal –– have suffered crushing setbacks, while others still –– Brazil, Belgium, France –– are happy everything is going to plan.  Fourteen teams have lost their opening matches, meaning that a further slip-up will almost certainly end their World Cup for them, leaving only pride to play for in a third game that will be academic for them, if not their opponents.

In most cases, the die is already cast and the tone set –– since the World Cup was expanded to 32 teams in 1998, and the possibility of progressing as a third-placed team done away with, only 8.7% of teams (four in total –– including eventual winners Spain in 2010) have gone through to the knock-out stages after losing their first game. If you have already shipped a defeat, you had best have something seriously good in reserve to turn things around or have the luxury of two straightforward games coming after a tough first one –– you would expect Bosnia & Herzegovina, after a promising performance against Argentina, to take care of Nigeria and Iran handily enough. Some teams have the might and character to win the necessary games –– for instance, I would not be surprised if Spain are still with us in ten days time, their 5-1 hammering at the hands of the Netherlands notwithstanding. Portugal do not have quite the pedigree, nor the strength in depth, of their Iberian neighbours but they too are strong enough to reverse their heavy opening loss, though only two wins will do that. The importance of the first win in that group dictated Jürgen Klinsmann’s pragmatic approach in the USA’s match against Ghana –– a bit depressing given the general openness of play in the tournament so far but Klinsmann probably figured it was his team’s best chance of three points in the Group of Death.

The USA are one of those teams whose euphoric start may be reversed and come to naught, in much the same way six teams have had their leads overturned in first round matches. Ivory Coast, 2-1 winners against Japan, still face their toughest game versus Colombia and a potential banana skin against Greece. Costa Rica also face two tougher matches, against Italy and England, after their opening win over Uruguay. Still, 84.8% of sides who won their first match have made it through since 1998 so even a drop in form can be weathered if you manage to add a point to your tally in the final two group games. The few teams that failed to progress after first-game wins in recent years include Argentina, dumped out by England and Sweden in 2002 after beating Nigeria 1-0, Russia the same year, eliminated by hosts Belgium and hosts Japan, and the Czech Republic, who walloped the USA 3-0 in 2006 but then meekly surrendered to Ghana and Italy. Further back, when third-place qualification spots were still up for grabs, Portugal (1986) and Norway (1994) faltered after winning their first game.

And then there is Scotland, perennial World Cup catastrophists (younger readers might be surprised to learn that Scotland once regularly appeared at the World Cup finals). Twice Scotland failed to go through after winning their first match –– in 1974 after beating Zaire 3-0 and eight years later in Spain after beating New Zealand 5-2. Both times it was too narrow a victory over the weakest team in the group that did for them (though, to be fair they did have otherwise tough groups, including Brazil, each time). In eight World Cup appearances Scotland failed to make it past the group stage –– the most unsuccessful efforts in World Cup history (South Korea have passed the group stage twice in their eight finals to date and Cameroon once in six). Scotland own the World Cup failure narrative –– and they can testify more than most to how a fatal slip, even when winning a match, can dash your hopes of making it to the knock-out stages.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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