The 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ has now entered a decisive phase, with the third and final group matches already under way. For the teams still in with a chance of qualifying, there is certainly no question of shirking responsibility or throwing in the towel.
During the opening round of fixtures, the majority of matches produced narrow victories or draws; out of 16 encounters, six ended in a stalemate, while ten saw a clear winner emerge. Seven of those wins were achieved by a one-goal margin, and only three nations managed to secure three points by scoring two or more goals than their opponents. Goals were hard to come by at this stage of the competition, with Germany being the only side to open the floodgates, disposing of a punch-drunk Australia 4-0.
The nets finally began to bulge during teams’ second set of matches, as Argentina’s rampant front line kept Korea Republic’s goalkeeper on his toes in a 4-1 victory for La Albiceleste. But it was the Portuguese who truly rediscovered their eye for goal, crushing Korea DPR in a memorable 7-0 win, a scoreline that had only come about three times before in FIFA World Cup history.
Irrespective of the level of competition, the feeling among many observers and supporters of triumphant teams has always been that a high-scoring unit has the requisite momentum and morale to continue to improve, and perhaps to even go all the way. This reasoning is even more prevalent when a former trophy winner or heavy favourite for the tournament is involved.
But reality and history tell a very different story. In fact, early victories by more than four goals almost always represent a bad omen, one that usually heralds eventual elimination from the competition. No team that has inflicted a heavy defeat on an opponent has ever gone on to become world champions, with the exception of Italy’s 1934 vintage. After putting USA to the sword 7-1 in the first round, the Italians would lift the trophy a fortnight later, beating Czechoslovakia 2-1 in the Final.
La Nazionale’s maiden victory aside, the statistics backing up this phenomenon are convincing. Germany 2006 provided an excellent example, when an Argentina side that had put six unanswered goals past Serbia and Montenegro saw their hopes dashed in a penalty shoot-out with the host nation in the quarter-finals.
The Germans had already been victims of the curse themselves in 2002, in Asia. An 8-0 win over Saudi Arabia had initially raised hopes of a fourth world title, but these were crushed as Die Nationalelf fell to a 2-0 defeat versus Brazil in the Final.
At France 1998, the Argentinians again came out of the blocks flying, beating Jamaica by five goals in the group stage, a morale boost that did not prevent Gabriel Batistuta and Co from losing 2-1 to a Dennis Bergkamp-inspired Netherlands in the quarter-finals. The Dutch were not destined to be crowned champions either, however, despite having destroyed Korea Republic 5-0 earlier in the competition. Brazil put paid to their chances in the semi-final, and Croatia rubbed salt into the wound by pipping the Oranje to third place. At this particular tournament, the Netherlands were not alone, as shown by Spain’s ultimately fruitless 6-1 win over Bulgaria.
At the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States, there was an aura of Greek tragedy about certain defeats. Neither Argentina nor Bulgaria, both 4-0 victors over Greece, could escape what fate had in store for them. The South Americans were knocked out 3-2 by a skilful Romania side in the Round of 16, while the Bulgarians lost to Italy 2-1 in the semi-final. Further proof to back up the theory was provided by Russia, who failed to get out of their group despite dismantling Cameroon 6-1.
Twenty years ago in Italy, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia both fell foul of the law of the rout, in spite of their group stage victories versus Cameroon (4-0) and United States (5-1) respectively.
In 1986, while a football legend was being created in the shape of Maradona, Denmark were embarrassing Uruguay 6-1 and the Soviet Union were outclassing Hungary 6-0. Neither side would progress beyond the Round of 16, however.
The 1982 edition of the tournament saw Hungary notch up the highest number of goals ever scored in a FIFA World Cup match, but their 10-1 win over El Salvador could not save the Europeans from an early exit.
West Germany arrived in Argentina in 1978 as reigning world champions, and a 6-0 defeat of Mexico marked them out as potential winners yet again. But it was not to be, a second-round elimination shattering the hopes of Helmut Schon’s men.
In 1974, Yugoslavia and Poland were also knocked out at the second-round stage, after having run riot against Zaire (9-0) and Haiti (7-0) respectively.
The most persuasive case in this oddest of footballing patterns is without doubt offered by Hungary, whose blazing start to the 1954 FIFA World Cup – which included 9-0 and 8-3 wins over Korea Republic and West Germany – saw them swiftly installed as favourites for the trophy. In the Final, the Magical Magyars faced the same Germans to whom they had given a lesson in the first round. But despite racing to a 2-0 lead, Puskas and his team-mates eventually succumbed to a German comeback that would henceforth become known as ‘The Miracle of Bern’.
These numerous examples demonstrate that large victories are not necessarily synonymous with ultimate triumph in FIFA’s flagship tournament. History reveals that a steady, sober approach has the potential to yield even greater success.
Will South Africa 2010 provide an exception to this bizarre rule? Will free-scoring teams be struck by the same curse that has foiled so many of those that have gone before them?