Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist
from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
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Opening Games: A Brief History
As with most things in international football, it took the French to think of it first. In 1930 there was no game to go with the opening ceremony and in 1934 all eight first round matches in the knockout format of that tournament kicked off at the same time on the same day, so Paris in 1938 saw the first opening ceremony followed by opening game format that the World Cup is now used to, Switzerland and Germany battling to a 1-1 draw.
Outside of the Final itself, no other game at the World Cup is watched by as many people as the opening game. It usually takes place three and a half weeks (or two if you’re trying to avoid the Far East monsoon season) after the last big football game in the calendar, the European Cup final. It brings to an end roughly a month of friendlies, hype, speculation and conjecture; all the talking is done, and the tournament starts. It’s as much a relief as anything else. Once underway, we then get to see how heavy-handed the referee will be in enforcing whatever rule FIFA have dreamt up to road test at the world’s biggest football tournament.
The fixture down the years has either involved the hosts or the holders, this year being the first time the host nation has had the privilege since 1970 due to FIFA’s rather childish insistence that the holders must qualify for the next tournament. Germany and Costa Rica will start the tournament in Munich on July 9th, and this will be Germany’s fourth appearance in such a fixture, which is a record. Another point of note is that in the entire history of the World Cup only England have contested the opening fixture and gone on to win the tournament, which with our paucity of World Cup heritage we will take away with us and frame it if you don’t mind.
The 1950 tournament in Brazil was opened in the only just completed Maracana Stadium with hosts Brazil taking on Mexico. The legendary stadium was still being finished and ‘only’ 82,000 people were crammed for this match, smashing any previous attendance record and would later host nearly 200,000 for the final, ill-fated game against Uruguay, approximately one-tenth of the population of Rio de Janiero at the time. That match would spark national depression, but for the opening game it was all sweetness and light as Brazil thrashed the Mexicans 4-0.
1954, like 1938, featured neither the hosts nor the holders as Yugoslavia beat France 1-0 in Lausanne. 1958 and 1962 saw a return to the host nation having the honour, Sweden thrashing Mexico 3-0 in the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm and Chile winning 3-1 against the Swiss in Santiago respectively. Back in the day, this fixture once had goals in it.
After 1962 a 20 year stretch of mind-numbing goalless tedium began. England 0 Uruguay 0 was a painstakingly dull affair that opened the 1966 World Cup, and similarly lacking in entertainment was the 0-0 draw between Mexico and the USSR that opened Mexico 70, although it did have one point of note in Gustavo Pena’s look of bewilderment as he was the first player in World Cup history to have a yellow card waved in his face.
Post 1970 FIFA decreed that the World Cup holders would play the opening game of the tournament in the future. Sadly, this would produce precisely no goals for the rest of the Seventies either; Brazil and Yugoslavia scrapped out a desperate scoreless draw to open West Germany 74 and the West Germans themselves conspired with Poland to provide an equally dull beginning to Argentina 78.
Finally, in 1982, a goal. Just the one, but we should be grateful for small mercies. Erwin Van Den Bergh, a former European golden boot winner, struck in the second half for Belgium in the Camp Nou to give them an unlikely lead over reigning champions Argentina having earlier missed perhaps the easiest open goal in the history of the tournament. The Argentines could be forgiven for having other slightly weightier things on their minds however with the Falklands Conflict coming to its bitter conclusion off the coast of their homeland – in fact no-one in the British Isles would see the goal live as the match was given a TV black-out, the sight of Maradona et al obviously too much for the viewing public despite the televised news coverage of the barbarism in the South Atlantic that dominated the airwaves.
The less said about the bore-a-thon between Italy and Bulgaria that kicked off Mexico 86 with a one-all draw the better, so on to probably the most famous opening game of all which took place in the curtain raiser to Italia 90 at the San Siro in Milan. Cameroon were already down to ten men when Oman Kana Biyik jumped up to some ridiculous height to head the ball past Nery Pumpido and put the African team 1-0 ahead against Argentina and the mighty Maradona. In defending this advantage they were quite literally prepared resort to anything, the apex (nadir you may say, but I like apex) being a brutal but quite fantastic three-man butchering of Claudio Canniggia. Performing some sadistic version of the 110 metres hurdles Canniggia finally came a cropper courtesy of a brutal body check by Benjamin Massing, who was promptly shown a red card. Even with nine men Cameroon held on, and as the tournament proved they had a lot more to show the world as well.
The opener to USA 94 was a drab affair, Germany strolling to a 1-0 win over Bolivia in second gear, aided by a Jurgen Klinsmann goal and a ridiculously soft red card for Marco Etcheverry. Thankfully this turkey of a game was overshadowed by the events of the opening ceremony. The garish Oprah Winfrey introduced Diana Ross on to the pitch (not to sing Love Child or Baby Love but some awful ‘Isn’t the World Great’ FIFA approved anthem) during which she had to run up and take a penalty against a stand-in goalkeeper who would dive out of the way so a goal could be scored. Unfortunately for the former lead singer of the Supremes her she botched her-run up, mis-hit the ball completely and missed the target. A fantastic moment of organisational ineptitude (there is a reason why footballers wear studded boots on grass) and also an ominous portent. The world may have been laughing, but I’m guessing it stopped in Italy before anywhere else.
France 98 opened at the Stade de France for another World Cup encounter between Brazil and Scotland. Two things we learned – Scotland would, due to the usual defensive lapses, be going home after the first round again, and Brazil weren’t actually the supermen those irritating Nike adverts in the airport made them out to be. The match was locked at 1-1 when a Cafu shot rebounded into Tommy Boyd and into the net for a slapstick own-goal that would give Brazil all three points.
Most of you will remember the opening game from the last World Cup in Japan/Korea. Twelve years on from the San Siro an African team toppled the world champions again, this time Senegal upsetting a French team sans Zinedine Zidane with a scrappy goal from Papa Bouba Diop. Trezeguet hit the post but the French misfired all over the pitch to begin a goal drought that would last for all of their brief and embarrassing tournament. Senegal, much like Cameroon, used this win as a platform to reach the quarter-finals, where in a spooky parallel they were also eliminated unluckily.
And so it falls to Germany and Costa Rica to try and up the entertainment value on Friday. With only nine goals in the last ten opening games this fixture is not exactly noted for entertainment value and is nearly always a tense and cagey affair. It will probably prove so again, but don’t take this is a barometer for how the tournament will pan out. One-nil is the most common score in this fixture, a platform I’m sure the Germans would be happy with as they bid to reach the final on July 9th.
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