England are currently trying to convince themselves that they can still qualify for the next round of the World Cup, and of course, they can. But the odds are stacked against them, because in almost every case, a team losing its first game does not get through to the knockout stage.
In 2010, only one team survived after losing their first group game – Spain, who were beaten by Switzerland (0-1) and went on to win the cup. Everyone else, and there were nine of them, fell at the first hurdle. Only two did it in 2006 (Ghana and Ukraine) and one (Turkey) in 2002.
It’s not only the mathematics that goes against first-game losers, but also the psychological damage of losing the initiative. In the kind of group that England are in, losing to a challenger has a double-whammy effect. It might have been better to have lost to Costa Rica.
England’s defeat at the hands of Italy was only their third opening game loss in 14 attempts. The other two were against Hungary (1-2) in 1962 and Portugal (0-1) in 1986. Ironically, all three defeats have been in Latin America. In 1962 and 1986, England recovered to qualify for the next stage.
England invariably start slowly, only five times have they won their first tournament fixture – 1950, 1970, 1982, 1998 and 2006. But they finish the group stage strongly, often because their backs are against the wall!
It’s interesting that the scapegoat for defeat against Italy has shifted from Wayne Rooney to commentator Phil Neville. There’s actually a motley crew of “experts” this year, with Rio Ferdinand bringing a new meaning to the word “bland” (let’s hope he hasn’t got a media career ahead of him) and people like Juninho and Cannavaro seemingly there for decoration. Oh for a Brian Clough, Derek Dougan or Jack Charlton!
Germany v Portugal
Potentially, one the first stage’s best games . This will be Germany’s 100th World Cup match and they’ve lost just 20 of those. They have a good record against Portugal, who only qualified for Brazil via the play-offs and a virtuoso performance from Cristiano Ronaldo. Germany have won nine and drawn five of their 17 meetings, so the portents are positive for Joachim Loew’s side. If Ronaldo fails to beat his fitness problems, then Portugal will struggle. He’s still limping around, apparently, which doesn’t bode well. The German’s have not been without their own issues – Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Manuel Neuer have all been nursing injuries.
Iran v Nigeria
In contrast, this is one of the least attractive of the group games. Neither team has won a game for 16 years in the World Cup finals. Watch out for Iran’s Reza Ghoochannejhad, formerly with Charlton Athletic. He scored nine of Iran’s 11 Asian Cup goals.
Ghana v USA
This will be the third consecutive World Cup in which these two underdogs have met. Ghana have won both previous meetings, 2-1 in 2006 and 2-1 four years ago. American fans have bought more tickets for the finals than any other nation, aside from Brazil, of course. Coach Juergen Klinsmann told the US media: “We need to beat Ghana. Expectations now in the US are high. The game is growing, so we want to drive this as a locomotive – the locomotive is the national team. We embrace that. We want to go far.” Sounds like Klinsmann has a secret hankering to be a train driver!