Nobody can deny the importance of a good start to any endeavour, and the FIFA World Cup™ is no exception. Yet that has not prevented a host of sides digging deep and going far at the finals even after shaky beginnings to football’s global showpiece.
A fitting place to start is with 1954 champions West Germany, who kicked off their run to their first ever world title with a 8-3 reverse at the hands of Ferenc Puskas’ Hungary – still their heaviest defeat at the elite competition. Refusing to let their heads drop, Die Nationalmannschaft showed impressive spirit to go all the way to Final, where the mighty Hungarians were edged out in an epic 3-2 success.
Similarly, 1966 hosts England were held to a frustrating goalless draw by Uruguay in their opening game, only to bounce back and storm all the way to the global crown. Three Lions followers will be desperate for a similar story this time around too, having watched their side labour to a 1-1 result against USA in their first game here at South Africa 2010.
European kings humbled
Argentina, meanwhile, very nearly matched these feats after losing 1-0 in their opening encounter at Italy 1990 against Cameroon. Diego Maradona and Co dusted themselves down, however, and scrapped their way to the Final, where they once again went down by a solitary goal, this time to West Germany.
Meanwhile, history has often been unkind to reigning European champions going into this tournament. Indeed, Spain’s Group H defeat against Switzerland here on 16 June was the fourth time the team crowned Europe’s finest lost their opening game at the subsequent FIFA World Cup finals. That said, La Roja can still remain hopeful given West Germany’s showing in 1982. Having lost their group opener against Algeria, Die Nationalelf recovered to reach the Final against Italy, a match La Nazionale won 3-1 after extra time.
Perhaps the most famous recovery of all was that of Italy in 1982. They only qualified from the group stage on goal difference after draws against Poland (0-0), Peru (1-1) and Cameroon (1-1). Yet despite this shaky start, they then confounded their critics by beating Brazil, Argentina, Poland and Germany to pick up their third world crown. History almost repeated itself 24 years later when France drew with Korea Republic and Switzerland before downing Togo to scrape into the knockout round. Once there Les Bleus swept away all challengers, disposing of Spain, Brazil and Portugal, before meeting Italy in the final. Lady luck would desert them at that point, however, with Gli Azzurri triumphing in the penalty shootout that followed their 1-1 draw.
However, this should not come as a complete surprise as La Nazionale and Les Bleus frequently seem to perform better when facing their traditional rivals in the latter stages of the tournament. Brazil and Argentina have also been known to start slowly and hit their stride in the knockout phase, although the latter had the opposite happen to them at the last edition in Germany. Hotly tipped after downing Serbia and Montenegro 6-0 in the group stage, La Albiceleste then crashed out to the hosts in the quarter-finals.
Those quick out of the blocks here in South Africa 2010 will be taking nothing for granted, therefore, just as those who have had a slow start will be hoping the best is yet to come.