By Michael Lewis
Well, after 15 consecutive days (and nights) of furious World Cup activity, we finally get a day off to catch our collective breaths and be laid back for a precious 24 hours.
Saying that, one’s World Cup thoughts and opinions never stop, so here’s a historical look at the past as we are ready to bound forward with the knockout round starting Saturday.
Three teams at Russia 2018 completed their respective group stages with a 3-0-0 mark.
Uruguay took Group A, Croatia was perfect in Group D and Belgium captured Group G.
So, do any of those teams have a chance of winning it all?
Well, maybe and maybe not.
In the previous 20 World Cups, only three teams with perfect records — all wins and no draws — have went on to win the World Cup — Brazil (1970), France (1998) and Brazil again (2002).
So, it is not easy running the World Cup table.
Counting the 1930 competition (which had opening round group play and since the World Cup went to group play in 1950, 10 teams — slightly more than half of the 18 teams who have swept through their opening-round games have reached at least the semifinals.
Argentina (1930) lost to Uruguay in the very first championship game as did the Netherlands (2010) and Argentina (2014).
Portugal (1966) finished third, as did West Germany (1970), Poland (1974), Italy and (1990), Germany (2006) and the Netherlands (2014). Spain (1950), Italy (1978), Portugal (2006) took fourth place.
But it hasn’t always a happy ending or even close to one.
The first countries to run the table in the first round and come up way short were England (1982) and Brazil (1982), who were eliminated in their respective second round groups (this was before the cup was expanded to include a Round of 16). The Brazilians, who have more perfect opening rounds (six), than any other country, were ousted in the 1986 quarterfinals, losing to France in a penalty-kick shootout, and to archrival Argentina in 1990, in a 1-0 second-round defeat.
After a promising first round in its Cup debut, Denmark was thrashed by Spain, 5-1, in the second round. Argentina got off to a strong start in 1998, but the Netherlands sent the South American side packing with a dramatic 2-1 quarterfinal triumph. Spain, perennial disappointments, got its supporters’ hopes way high in 2002, sweeping through the first round before it was sent home by Korea, shootout-winners in the quarterfinals.
In recent World Cups, Spain (2006) was shown the door in the Round of 16. Brazil (2006) Argentina (2010), Colombia (2014) and Belgium (2014) were bounced in the quarterfinals.
It must be noted that in the flawed 1954 tournament, three teams did finish unbeaten and untied — Hungary, which went on to lose to Germany, 3-2, in the final, Austria, which was dismantled in the semifinals by Germany, 6-1, and Uruguay, who also was eliminated in the semis, 4-2 decision by the Hungarians.
So, will the Uruguayans, Croatians and Belgians continue to vie for World Cup glory or will they become a disappointing part of history?
Uruguay meets Portugal Saturday, Croatia takes on Denmark Sunday and Belgium will tussle with Japan Monday.