By Michael Lewis
When Qatar kicks off the World Cup against Ecuador Thursday at 11 a.m. Sunday, the host side will find itself under enormous pressure.
Not considered one of the strongest teams in the competition, the Qataris are in a must-win situation to secure three points or face a difficult road ahead in Group A.
Only two teams in each group move on.
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,” FOX commentator and former U.S. women’s national team player Aly Wagner told this writer several years ago. “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.”
Added Former U.S. international Alexi Lalas, another FOX announcer: “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 have their won first match have moved onto the next round 82.2 percent of the time (116-25).
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), Uruguay (2014) and Colombia (2018).
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 wildcard berths at the 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994 Cups. Since there aren’t any wildcard teams this year, it will be just about mandatory to win and survive and play at least another day.
If a team draws in its opener, the odds of reaching the knockout stage is considerably less, but not impossible.
For example, the U.S. national team tied its first group stage games in the 1994 and 2010 World Cups, 1-1 results against Switzerland and England, respectively, accruing wins and three points later in the round.
This year’s U.S. squad will meet Wales in its Group B opener on Monday at 2 p.m. ET (FOX).
“We definitely, as a team, and as a group, we always want to just focus game by game; Wales being the first one,” U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie said. “There’s no way that we’re going to look past them or devalue them or anything because we know that they’re a strong team. We know that it’s going be a hard game.
“We definitely want to win the first game. We want to come out with three points. Just three years, four years of just working up to this moment, I think all the guys are ready to go and the staff is ready to go and put a game plan together. So hopefully we execute that and get the three points on Monday.”