On Thursday, the much-anticipated 2018 FIFA World Cup will commence, and again the host nation will participate in the introductory match. Russia will square off against Saudi Arabia in the first game of Group A, and as fans prepare for another beginning to what is undeniably the most paramount sporting event in the world, a question is begged: why is the inaugural World Cup match always so seemingly underwhelming?
The simple answer is that a myriad of reasons come into play when considering which country will host the tournament, none of which factor in the quality of that country’s national team. Russia hasn’t advanced past the group stage since the Soviet Union ended in 1990, and the country is currently ranked 70th in the world by FIFA.
There are exceptions, like Brazil finishing fourth when hosting four years ago, or when Germany hosted in 2006 and finished third. But the quality of host teams on the pitch have wavered through history, and that’s not likely to stop as the 2022 World Cup will be held in Qatar.
One might argue that one way to capitalise on World Cup fever would be to begin the event with a heavily-anticipated game, like a Portugal-Spain or a Germany-Mexico. But precedent is set, and it’s just a reality that the host will always play the first match.
The encouraging part is that there can always be surprises. As it goes with any other match in the World Cup, just because the talent of the two teams is not top tier does not mean the game cannot be entertaining or enthralling.
That said, let’s run through the opening matches of World Cups from recent past and see how they compare to the Russia-Saudi Arabia game this week.
Brazil entered the World Cup four years ago as a near-lock to exit the group and a clear favourite over the inferior Croatia. The game seemed like somewhat of a formality, as Brazil would surely have no problem winning its first game.
But in the 11th minute, Croatia did exactly what they needed to in order to sway the momentum in their direction: score first. The crowd was on fire as the game kicked off, but Marcelo’s own goal quelled the noise and allowed Croatia to settle in.
None of that mattered once Neymar began his breakout game. Playing in the first World Cup match of his career, Neymar tied the game in the 29th minute with a straight shot coming from outside the box and put Brazil ahead 2-1 in the 71st with a penalty kick goal that deflected off the goalkeeper.
Thanks to an Oscar goal in stoppage time and game-long suspect goalkeeping by Croatia’s Stipe Pletikosa, Brazil rode on to a 3-1 win.
As first games go, Brazil-Croatia showed that not all lopsided games will turn out boring. The problem is, neither Russia nor Saudi Arabia possess the star power that Brazil did, so the prospect of a player taking over with multiple goals seems unlikely.
This game is unique simply because the crowd in Johannesburg sounded like an angry swarm of bees. The vuvuzela-wielding South African fans filled the air with a constant buzz, serving as an announcement of the country’s wild enthusiasm for the 2010 World Cup.
The horns were really the only action witnessed in the first half, as South Africa and Mexico were tied after 45 minutes. Mexico were the stronger team throughout the match and in general, but South Africa kept them at bay and jumped ahead 1-0 in the 55th minute with a Siphiwe Tshabalala goal. Mexico captain Rafael Márquez tied the match in the 79th, however, and the game ended in a draw.
South Africa vs Mexico was similar to Russia vs Saudi Arabia in that neither country truly had what it took to make a run at the World Cup title. Mexico were one of the two to make it out of the group stage, but were swiftly eliminated by Argentina 3-1 in the Round of 16.
But the relatively low stakes of the match didn’t stop it from being enjoyable and feeling significant. This was the first World Cup in history to be hosted in an African country, and that energy showed.
Thursday’s match in Moscow won’t have the constant drone heard by South African fans eight years ago, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have the feel of a match laced with importance.
A clear positive about the Russia v. Saudi Arabia matchup is that there isn’t a clear favourite. Russia have been given 5/11 odds to win the opening match, but a Saudi Arabia victory is conceivable. That’s what separates 2018’s inaugural match from 2006.
Germany have been an international football powerhouse for quite some time, taking home the World Cup four times and has finishing in the final four on 13 occasions. 2006 was no different, as Germany were one of the strongest host teams in history and placed third behind Italy and France. With such a talented team on such an occasion that is the inaugural match of a World Cup, there was really no scenario where Costa Rica could have won.
They didn’t get completely steamrolled though, and the countries combined for what is now the highest-scoring opening game in World Cup history. Within the first 17 minutes the countries had already combined for three goals, with Germany leading 2-1. The Germans would go on to win 4-2..
The opening match of the 2002 World Cup stood out for two primary reasons: Firstly, it was one of the few times a host country didn’t play in the first match of the World Cup. Secondly, France, the defending champions of the previous World Cup, were beaten by Senegal.
The initial match in 2002 was just the beginning of the horror for France, who didn’t win a match in the group stage and were eliminated after finishing fourth in Group A.
The prospect of a huge upset – especially of a previous champion in the opening game of the World Cup — itself generates much excitement. This is a huge upside to the Russia v. Saudi Arabia matchup. Nothing in sport is more oddly satisfying than seeing an underdog team celebrate in unabashed jubilation in front of a gigantic crowd that’s suddenly fallen silent.
France’s loss didn’t occur on home turf, but Saudi Arabia will have a chance to make Russia feel that pain. Add to the equation the grand stage they’ll play on Thursday, and now we have a beautiful hypothetical. For those who seek out schadenfreude, any opening match is a must-watch.
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Every team in the World Cup plays at least three matches, so increased emphasis given to the opening match is at least a little bit misplaced. But they mean more than a single game in a pool of many: fans and players are finally given a taste of the biggest sports spectacle after a four-year hiatus, and the host city gets to flaunt its local charm.
With the expectations placed on this first match, it’s then easy to become embittered when the matchup isn’t perfect. But perfect matchups don’t always lead to the best outcomes. When watching Russia v. Saudi Arabia, it might be an inescapable thought that neither of these teams will be seen later than the quarterfinals, at best.
It may be hard to ignore the unfortunate narratives surrounding both countries. That Russia has dropped to the cellar this decade and is ranked among the worst of the qualifying teams despite reaching the semi-finals of the 2008 European Championship. That Saudi Arabia is in a troubling state of their own with two coach firings in 2017.
None of that will matter, as the exuberance and hype of the opening match will make those points moot. The World Cup is back, and that’s all that really matters.