The curtain-raiser to a FIFA World Cup™ is always an extra-special occasion. And after four long years of waiting, the football family will be glued to the action this afternoon as South Africa take on Mexico in the Opening Match.
'The whole world is watching'
When the referee blows his whistle to usher in the tournament, all the accumulated tension will simply drain away, not just amid the 22 players on the pitch, but also among fans across the globe, who have had to go four long years without experiencing the magic of the FIFA World Cup. "It's fantastic because the whole world will be watching," Mexico's Carlos Vela told FIFA.com.
Quite apart from marking the beginning of a month of fun, excitement and superb football, the Opening Match has produced a number of shock results down the years.
African sides always good for a surprise
Fittingly, the biggest surprises in the history of the tournament opener have been served up by two African teams. Who can forget the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy, when world champions Argentina set out to tame Cameroon? The Indomitable Lions were not considered a force to be reckoned with at the time, and anything less than a win for La Albiceleste and their legendary captain Diego Maradona was out of the question. Nevertheless, the contest was scoreless at half-time, and 22 minutes after the restart Francois Omam-Biyik headed the goal that secured Cameroon a 1-0 win in one of the biggest sensations in the history of the global game, even though the west Africans ended the match with just nine players.
Opening Match launched in 1966
The Opening Match as we know it today was not introduced until 1966, when hosts England and Uruguay played out a goalless draw. The *Three Lions *progressed all the way to the Final that year and capped a memorable run by lifting the Jules Rimet trophy. No team contesting the tournament curtain-raiser has been able to repeat this feat since, though Argentina and Brazil did make it through to the Final in 1990 and 1998 respectively.
Before 1966 it was common for several games to kick off at the same time at the start of the tournament. In Italy in 1934, all eight first-round matches kicked off simultaneously. The only other time a match took place separately before all the others was in France in 1938, when Switzerland and Germany drew 1-1 after extra time (Switzerland won the replay 4-2), though this did not have the status of a genuine Opening Match.
Long goal drought
None of the first four tournament curtain-raisers was a particularly joyous affair. Mexico and the Soviet Union produced another stalemate in 1970, and the idea to invite the reigning world champions to kick things off from 1974, rather than the host nation, failed to bring about an improvement. Brazil and Yugoslavia were unable to conjure up a goal in Frankfurt, and neither were Germany and Poland in Argentina four years later.
So it was left to Belgium's Erwin Vandenbergh to end the goal drought after no less than 422 minutes on 13 June 1982, when he found the target in an opening 1-0 win over reigning champions Argentina at the FIFA World Cup in Spain.
The 1986 curtain-raiser in Mexico again failed to produce a winner, but at least there was more than one goal. Alessandro Altobelli opened the scoring for Italy after 43 minutes, only for Nasko Sirakov to equalise for underdogs Bulgaria just before the end - a draw the Bulgarians celebrated like a victory. Since Italy 1990, however, the opening matches have gained real momentum. Cameroon's win and subsequent charge to the quarter-finals, where they succumbed 3-2 after extra time against England, enchanted the football world to such an extent that the fixture is now greeted by a feverish sense of anticipation.
Holders notch first win
In the USA in 1994, Germany managed to avoid an upset at Chicago's Soldier Field. With an hour of the game against Bolivia gone and the score still goalless, the German fans and players were beginning to feel a little nervous. But then the South American goalkeeper misjudged a long ball forward, allowing Thomas Hassler to knock the ball square for Jurgen Klinsmann, who steered his shot into the empty net from the edge of the penalty area to secure victory for his team. The three-time world champions thus became the first holders to win a FIFA World Cup Opening Match. It did not bring them much luck, however, as they eventually slipped to a 2-1 quarter-final defeat against Bulgaria.
Brazil fared significantly better in France in 1998. Their 2-1 win over Scotland may have been a shade fortunate, coming as it did after a John Collins penalty had cancelled out Cesar Sampaio's early opener, only for Tom Boyd to put through his own net with 17 minutes left. But Mario Zagallo guided his charges all the way back to the same venue, the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, where a lacklustre Brazilian side were overpowered 3-0 by hosts France in the Final.
A good omen
The tournament start four years later in Korea and Japan may be another good omen for current host nation South Africa. Senegal made it two opening wins out of two for African teams when they beat France 1-0, the goal coming from Papa Bouba Diop, who ironically enough was on the books of French outfit Lens at the time*. *Like Cameroon before them, Senegal surprised everyone by advancing to the quarter-final stage before going down to Turkey after extra time.
In Germany in 2006 the FIFA World Cup curtain-raiser completed its transformation into a fun-filled event bristling with entertainment. For the first time since 1970, the host nation was given the honour of kicking off the tournament, and the game provided the spark for four weeks of sunshine, good cheer and world-class football. Germany's current captain Philipp Lahm curled the ball into the top corner after just six minutes, only for Paulo Wanchope to restore parity for Costa Rica six minutes later. In a briskly contested match, further goals from subsequent adidas Gold Shoe winner Miroslav Klose (2), Wanchope again, and Torsten Frings ensured the 66,000 fans at the FIFA World Cup Stadium in Munich went home happy. The 4-2 success gave Germany a record number of opening match wins - but it was Italy who went on to lift the trophy for the fourth time in their history.
Let the fun begin
So what can we expect this afternoon? "We aren't thinking about a draw, we're going out to win and I don't see what can stop us," South Africa midfielder Siphiwe Tshabalala told FIFA.com. The statistics would appear to back him up. Though Mexico have the edge in the head-to-head with Bafana Bafana, having won two of the three previous encounters, South Africa go into the match brimming with confidence after 13 games without a defeat. The pressure on them will be enormous, as no host nation has ever lost its first game at a FIFA World Cup - there have been 14 wins and five draws - but Tshabalala is determined: "We won't make it easy for them. We have to do ourselves and our country justice on Friday."
South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira says his team have had a good preparation. "We are ready to face the task ahead of us. All the people want is something they can be proud of. I have passed on this message to the players and told them that it is down to them to make this country proud. They are ready to do that." No host nation has ever exited the tournament in the group phase. So in front of a sell-out Soccer City crowd and a television audience of billions this afternoon South Africa aim to lay the foundation to ensure this run continues. Let the FIFA World Cup begin!