Big guns fire blanks in World Cup week one

Misfire: Lionel Messi missed a penalty as Argentina drew against lowly Iceland. © Getty

Can a new team win the World Cup? Germany lost; Brazil drew; Argentina are on the brink — the minnows now have a chance. Here are five things you may have missed from the matches so far.

1/ Lazy Leo? He has won five Ballon d’Ors, but after the first round of games one stat ranked Lionel Messi last: out of all outfield players, he ran the shortest distance — shorter even than France’s goalkeeper. Laziness? Perhaps not. He often preserves energy to make attacking dribbles and is the play-maker around which Argentina move. Even so, he could not stop an awful loss to Croatia last night.

2/ Home advantage. Unlike the Argentine wonder, the Russians take a different approach. The hosts have run further than all other teams in both of their matches so far. Some point to the encouragement given by passionate home supporters. Football’s 12th man can have a huge impact — research shows that host nations have bettered expectations by an average of 11 places in previous tournaments.

3/ One man team. In two games, Cristiano Ronaldo has already broken several records. He became the first player to score three goals against Spain in a World Cup and the oldest hat-trick hero in the tournament’s history. Another strike against Morocco made him the highest European national goalscorer ever and the first man to score in eight consecutive major tournaments. Portugal have never won the World Cup — can he change that?

4/ Set piece soccer. A mighty 53% of goals scored in the first round of group games came from set pieces (corners, free kicks and penalties). In recent World Cups, the average was 28%. Why the change? Video assistant referees (VAR) let referees penalise fouls that may have otherwise been ignored. This could benefit smaller nations that generally rely on set pieces more than goals from open play.

5/ A continent expects. Senegal, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Nigeria: the five African nations in this year's tournament. But Senegal were the only one to win their first match. Manager Aliou Cisse is “convinced” an African team will win the World Cup one day. Even if it is not Senegal’s year this time, their players’ dancing celebrations and gracious fans have won admirers across the world.

Will a new team win the World Cup?

Going for glory

The old guard’s time is over, some argue. The quality of world football is rising, and the hubris of big teams can lead to downfalls. Belgium and Portugal are the best hope for a first-time winner, but we must not rule out others. We should welcome success being shared and start rooting for the underdog. All is to play for.

Quality will shine through, others respond. Brazil, Argentina, Germany — true champions of the game who turn it on when things get serious. We should not obsess over supporting underdogs. Winning many World Cups is a remarkable achievement that should be celebrated more than freak victories.

You Decide

  1. Who will win the World Cup?
  2. Is football the greatest sport?

Activities

  1. Watch the highlights of the Spain vs Portugal match by following the link in Become An Expert. It was an eventful match with plenty of goals and talking points. Based on the video, write a match report that communicates all the excitement of the game. Use as much descriptive language as you can.
  2. Read the CNN piece on the popularity of the Senegal team (you’ll find it in Become An Expert). Which World Cup team is your favourite so far — it could be England or another squad. Write a 100 word piece explaining why they are the most likeable team (not necessarily the best).

Some People Say...

“Winning — that’s the most important to me. It’s as simple as that.”

Cristiano Ronaldo

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In the initial round of group games there were 38 goals scored in total. That works out as just under 2.4 goals per game. This is lower than the average number of goals scored during Brazil’s 2014 World Cup, but higher than the average in 2010 and 2006. However, it is still a long way off the goal-fest that was Switzerland 1954, in which an average of 5.38 goals were scored per game.
What do we not know?
Who will win the World Cup. Despite drawing their opening match, Brazil still remains the favourite to win (according to Odds Checker). Spain and France follow, with Germany the fourth most likely — even though they lost against Mexico. England are seventh likely to win the tournament, just ahead of Portugal.

Word Watch

Shortest distance
Messi only covered 1.42 kilometres while not in possession during Argentina’s match against Iceland. Opponent Gylfi Sigurdsson managed 6.67 kilometres.
Both
Russia beat Saudi Arabia 5-0 in their opening game, and defeated Egypt 3-1 in their second match.
12th man
A term used to refer to football fans during a match. Read about the influence they can have by following The Economist link in Become An Expert.
Research
From the paper: “The Impact of Seeding, Home Continent, and Hosting on Fifa World Cup Results.”
Highest
He has scored 85 times in 152 appearances for Portugal.
Dancing
Follow the CNN link in Become An Expert to see Senegal’s distinctive celebrations for yourself.
Gracious
Along with Japan’s fans, Senegal supporters have been praised for staying behind after matches to tidy up the stadium.
Old guard’s
Only eight teams have won the World Cup: Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay, England, France and Spain.

Subjects