By Michael Lewis
Something strange and different occurred on Day 9 of the World Cup Friday.
Did you figure it out?
A team that actually scored the first goal of a game wound up with a loss.
Or, to put a positive spin on it, the team that conceded the first goal rallied from the deficit and won the game.
That’s right, Serbia struck in the fifth minute behind Aleksandar Mitrović, but allowed a pair of second-half goals, the game-winner in the 90th minute by Xherdan Shaqiri in its 2-1 Group defeat to Switzerland.
Until then, teams that had found the net first had recorded a 21-0-4 mark, which reminds us how important it is to score the first goal of a match.
Truly, an incredible and imposing stat.
Counting Friday’s games, national teams that have drawn blood first have a 88.5 winning percentage.
If you’re skeptical, this tournament’s numbers are actually higher than the previous 20 World Cups.
Entering Russia 2018, teams that had celebrated goals first had posted a 78.4 winning percentage, still an impressive figure.
So, what is the significance of scoring first?
A lead will allow a team to feel more comfortable and confident. Many times, it will allow a team to control a game’s tempo and dictate the match. As the game goes on, the opposition gets antsy and starts to push up for the equalizer, the team in the lead can find itself on the counterattack. The losing team winds up chasing the game, which forces it to expend (and perhaps waste) more energy.
Listen, nothing is absolute.
Teams have been known to come back — even from two-, three- and yes, four-goal deficits (once in a blue moon).
Who knows? Over the next five games, the teams that score first could wind up losing and stand these numbers on their collective heads.
Given what has transpired at previous World Cups, that is unlikely, highly unlikely.
While it was nice to see Russia win its opening two matches and reach the Round of 16, the team hasn’t been really tested quite yet in what most observers and pundits feel is the easiest of the eight groups. The hosts beat a pair of Middle Eastern teams that weren’t necessarily ranked very high in the latest FIFA rankings — Saudi Arabia, the poorest of all 32 finalists with a 5-0 result, and Egypt, with a 3-1 final. Would love to see how they fare against the rest of the world and more imposing foes.
And we will starting Monday, when Russia meets Uruguay. The teams — they’re both 2-0-0 — battle for Group A supremacy and an opportunity to avoid the Group B winner (which could be Spain, Portugal or Iran).
Shades of indoor soccer
You’ve probably heard ad infinitum about how M’Baye Niang goal for Senegal against Poland Tuesday reminded many Americans of a hockey player coming out of the penalty box and finding himself at the right place at the right time to score a goal. Niang was allowed to return to play after being on the sidelines with an injury and transformed that into an advantage and a score the second goal of Senegal’s 2-1 win. Needless to say, the Polish players did not like it.
While it certainly has hockey overtones, we’ll bring it home and use a closer comparison to the beautiful game:
Now, that might be a dirty two words to some outdoor soccer fans, but way back in the original Major Indoor Soccer League, two coaches helped refine and revolutionize the game: the San Diego Sockers’ Ron Newman and the Baltimore Blast’s Kenny Cooper. Both coaches took advantage of the fact the players entered one end of the bench and exited the other. So, with a team on a counter or a fast break could pick up valuable yards and produce a scoring opportunity or even a goal.
Oy vey and oops
Did I hear this correctly? After Tuesday morning’s Group H encounter, I could have sworn I heard FOX announcer Jorge Perez-Navarro say that Colombia had lost to Japan, 2-1.
Ahem, it should have been the other way around. When on national and international TV, you have to accentuate the positive, not from the country or the area of the world you are from.
A quick optical illusion
Our eyes can play tricks on us.
When TV cameras showed the inside of the Video Assistant Referee room earlier this week, for a second I thought it said FIFA WAR Room, instead of FIFA VAR Room.
Saying that, so far so good for VAR as it has reversed several penalty and non-PK calls on the field without much disruption to the game. Now, if another type of football, the American gridiron kind via the NFL, could emulate what’s transpired in Russia and cut down the time while reviewing plays.