Alexi Lalas: “You get hit and something happens that you didn’t expect, then all hell breaks loose.” (Photo courtesy of FOX)
By Michael Lewis
When Russia kicks off the World Cup against Saudi Arabia Thursday at 11 a.m., the host side will find itself under enormous pressure.
As one of the weakest teams in the competition, the Russians are playing yet another weak side.
So, they are in a must-win situation to secure three points or face a difficult road ahead in Group A, which is considered the weakest quartet in the opening round.
Remember, only two teams in each group move on. The other two teams in the group are Uruguay and Egypt.
“If any of those three teams have a chance, they’ve got to win the first game,” said former U.S. international Tony Meola, who will be the commentator along with JP Dellacamera on FOX. “Even if they draw, I don’t think either of those teams go through.
“The host doesn’t want to be the second team not to go through again like South Africa [in 2010]. There’s so much pressure on that first game. Plus, you go back to the hotel and you breath a lot easier when you get a point in the first game because you know you’re still in it.”
In Group B, Iran and Morocco face a similar dilemma. They play Friday, with games against Spain and Portugal looming in the next two weeks.
“Basically, if you don’t get a result there, you’re probably done,” said former U.S. international Aly Wagner, who FOX commentator. “So those two teams have to push for three. Everyone wants those first three points.”
So, just how important is winning your first match at a World Cup? If you plan on advancing to the second round it is virtually a must.
“Its massive, its massive,” Wagner said. “I think especially in the men’s game it’s even more important because they do have limited time together. Getting that head start, if you will, allows the players to relax and sit in and then to express themselves in the second and third match. And that’s everything. In this tournament, players play their best when they’re on alert but they’re relaxed and their brave and their confident. And that gives you confidence more than those three points.”
Another ex-U.S. international Alexi Lalas, another FOX announcer, talked about teams’ strategies entering the competition.
“You got to get three points in that first game,” he said. “There’s a bunch of groups where its ‘Oh my goodness.’ If this team has a hope, because everybody looks at their group: ‘This team I got to get three points, this team we can find a way to get points. It would be great if we get one, that’s what our goal is.’ And then you take another game and say, ‘OK, we’re going to lose this game.’ Not the top echelon, not teams like Brazil, but teams like the U.S. and stuff like that. There is a calculation.
“If that three-pointer is in the first game and you go out there and the best laid plans it doesn’t go that way, it messes you up because it’s not just [in your] plans. Once the draw comes out, you have the six months: this is what you need to do. Everything is game planned in getting those points in those games. And when it doesn’t happen, and you get hit and something happens that you didn’t expect, then all hell breaks loose.”
Since group play was instituted for the first round in 1950, countries that win their first match have moved onto the next round 82 percent of the time (105-23).
The fortunate 26 nations that lost their opening game, but reached the second round and beyond were Yugoslavia (1962), England (1962), Hungary (1966), North Korea (1966), Argentina (1974), West Germany (1982), which reached the championship game before falling to Italy, 3-1, Argentina (1982), France (1982), Soviet Union (1982), Belgium (1986), which finished fourth, Spain (1986), England (1986), Argentina (1990), which lost in the championship game to Germany, 1-0, Yugoslavia (1990), Bulgaria (1994), which finished fourth, Mexico (1994), Italy (1994), which lost in the championship game to Brazil via penalty kicks, Saudi Arabia (1994) and Turkey (2002), which finished third, Ukraine (2006), South Korea (2006), Spain (2010), Slovenia (2010), Algeria (2014), Greece (2014) and Uruguay (2014).
Spain is the only team to lose its first match and win the World Cup, dropping a 1-0 decision to Switzerland in 2010.
In fact, 13 of those 26 countries advanced thanks to a wildcard berths at the 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994 Cups. Since there are be any wildcard team this year, it will be just about mandatory to win and survive and play at least another day.