I’m still waiting for goals, and I’m still waiting for any team to show that they deserve to win this tournament. Today’s results were Costa Rica falling 0-1 to Serbia, Mexico defeating Germany 1-0, and Brazil drawing Switzerland 1-1.
Four goals. That’s it. Yes, I’m focusing on goals, but that’s what it takes to win. Today’s teams aren’t Iceland, trying to advance on points. These are tournament favorites who can’t find the back of the net. Combine this with a terrible effort from France, and Spain seemed to be the only country that showed they came ready to play. My favorite game so far was Peru’s 0-1 loss to Denmark. Peru played upbeat and exciting, they wanted to win. Am I being critical implying that other nations don’t want to win? Damn right, I am.
Strategically, teams need to win their first game. It gives them control in their group, pressures other teams to push for points, and allows their coaches to manage games as they see fit. They can rest players in the final group game, and start planning for the knock-out rounds. Statistically, teams that win their first game advance to the next round over somewhere in the range of 84%. Psychologically, winning your first game instills confidence in your players and your system, and it puts fear in your opponents. So it makes no sense for a team to not play their hardest and try to win their opening match.
So why the lackluster performances by these top teams? I honestly don’t know. There could be many reasons, like overconfidence, entitlement, indifference, or plain laziness. (The story ‘Casey at Bat’ comes to mind.) There are conspiracy theorists saying the refs are manipulating matchups for more favorable/appealing knock-out round games. Finally, there’s a legitimate concern that the club game has overtaken international competition as players’ and fans’ primary measure of success. Also, that there’s not enough time for national teams to practice together because of club commitments. I don’t believe the club arguments, at least not yet. When measuring all-time great status, players of today are compared to those who’ve won World Cups and national team glory. (Maradona/Messi, Neymar/Ronaldo/Pele, are two that immediately come to mind.) Neymar himself spoke about these comparisons in an interview aired before today’s Brazil game. These are also professional players while dedicated their lives to the sport, grew up together, and have been in their national federation systems for years. So why Brazil can’t beat Switzerland (or Argentina beat Iceland, or France dominate Australia) is just beyond me.
I wish I could point to one thing, say “Fix it!”, and then be treated to nothing but extraordinary soccer for the next two weeks. I know this won’t happen, and I worry for the future of the World Cup without stellar play by the world soccer powers and enjoyable play by the rest, especially in light of an expanded field in 2026. Meanwhile, I’ll keep watching and waiting to see something that truly makes me say “Wow.”
*Spain and Ronaldo’s individual performance being the only exception.