Grading the Games: Opening Weekend

The opening round of World Cup group play usually yields some cautious, tepid affairs, and this year has been no exception. While there have been a few lively encounters, most of what we’ve seen through eight games has been battened down, low-scoring, and cagey.

Let’s take a look (ratings on a scale of 1-10—with 10 being West-Germany-v-France, 1982 semifinals, and 1 being Germany-v-Austria, group play in that same tournament):

South Africa 1, Mexico 1

This was an excellent opener, with great atmosphere, wide-open attacking play, lots of chances, one great goal and one good one. And South Africa nearly stole it, hitting the post in the dying moments. Rating: 7

France 0, Uruguay 0

France started well, but then settled into a lifeless, ambition-free mode—a malaise, if you will—while overmatched Uruguay scrapped and scraped its way to a point. Rating: 3

South Korea 2, Greece 0

Did Greece really win Euro 2004? Or was that a collective nightmare of negative soccer that we all somehow shared? Wow, were they bad. Not to take anything away from Korea, but … Greece was terrible. Rating: 4

Argentina 1, Nigeria 0

Did anyone notice the Argentine bear-hug put on the would-be defender to Gabriel Heinze‘s wide-open header for this game’s only goal? The guy was simply wrapped up at the top of the six, giving Heinze free rein. This one opened up gradually; Nigeria keeper was huge. Rating: 5.

England 1, U.S. 1

The anvil-heavy weight of anticipation saddled this one with an almost surreal quality—just ask Robert Green. The U.S. nearly snatched a (somewhat unlikely) winner on Jozy Altidore’s powerful run. Tim Howard okay with Jabulani ball so far. Rating: 6.5

Slovenia 1, Algeria 0

This snoozefest featured the second Group C goalkeeping disgrace of the weekend: Algeria’s Fawzi Chaouchi waving—“volleyball-style” as Ruud Gullit put it—at Robert Koren’s soft shot to the far post. Was this really a World Cup game? Rating: 2

Ghana 1, Serbia 0

Ghana is a tough team to play against, as an experienced and rugged Serbian squad found out. The Black Stars are super athletic, and the way they closed this one out—and nearly made it 2-0 in stoppage time—should give the rest of Group D pause. Fashionable darkhorse Serbia now up against it with Germany calling on Friday. Rating: 6

Germany 4, Australia 0

We tried not to read too much into the U.S.’s 3-1 tuneup win over Australia last Saturday, but maybe we could have: Australia got thoroughly outclassed by Die Mannschaft yesterday—even before Tim Cahill‘s red, which leaves the Socceroos without their best player for the Ghana game. In other words, they’re done. Rating: 7

Average: 5.1

Goals per game: 1.6

Yes, the tournament is off to a slow start. But apart from nerves and general cautiousness, it turns out there’s a very specific reason for these “we’re playing not to lose” types of opening-round games: It’s Paul Gardner of Soccer America. Take it away, Paul:

“My guilt started four years ago, after the USA had lost 3-0 to the Czech Republic in its first game of the 2006 World Cup. I worked on the stats (this was brave of me, because stats tend to give me a headache) and discovered that of the 23 teams that had lost their first game in the previous two World Cups, only one had survived to get into the second round. In other words, the USA was as good as dead. 


“These were new stats, I do believe—certainly I hadn’t seen them before. But coaches being the slow-witted species that they are, failed to cotton on. I repeated the stats—now fortified by the 2006 results (36 losers, of whom only 3 qualified)—in this column 10 days ago—and now I find these dismal stats and percentages are all over the place. 
The news has even reached the hallowed ground of our ESPN experts. ….

“Sadly, it seems that the news has also reached the coaches. It is evidently now acknowledged that a tie in the first game is a good result; but whatever you do, don’t lose that game—or you’re out. ”

Click here for the full article, and take heart: The Netherlands got going today, and Brazil and Spain are still to come. The games are bound to get better.

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