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ANALYSIS: Does the pressure tell in World Cup opening matches?

The differing tales of how the hosts and defending champions fare in their first games at the World Cup

by Aidan Elder | June 9, 2014

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s magnificent. Magnificent and packed full of pressure.

No, we’re not talking about the average sex life of a Paddy Power Journalist, we’re talking about the World Cup. Four years have passed since we last saw the Netherlands trying valiantly but unsuccessfully to kick Spain off the pitch.

It’s a lot of time to wait. Particularly if you’re the hosts under pressure not to disgrace the nation on football’s biggest stage or the champions hoping to prove they’re all time footballing greats rather than Greece in 2004. There’s only a certain amount of speculating about who should be in the team/squad/luxury Caribbean resort miles away from actually planning any football, now we just want the football to start and let that build-up of pressure release.

Over the years, the honour of kicking off the tournament has mainly gone to the defending champions, but in the last couple of tournaments, the hosts have got things underway. But after the long, long lead-in, how do the opening games go? The Paddy Power Blog has looked at the stats for both host nations and defending champions going back to the beginning of this glorious tournament.

The stats tell two different stories – one that’s very good for the hosts and a bit ‘Mel Gibson’s career since 2006’ for the defending champions.

Hosts With The Most (Impressive Record)

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The hosts have NEVER lost their opening game of a World Cup. That’s astonishing mainly because:

(a) it’s a decent sample size
(b) not all hosts have been top tier nations of international football
(c) you’d think the the pressure would lead to at least one collapse

When Brazil take to the field after all the contemporary dance and needless pageantry of the long-winded opening ceremony, they’ll be the overwhelming favourites to beat Croatia. Not only do they have the better squad and home support in their favour, but they’ve also got the weight of history behind them.

In the 20 games the hosts and co-hosts have opened their World Cup campaigns with, they’ve amassed a record of 14 wins, six draws and zero defeats. What’s most remarkable about the host nations’ successful run is the fact that – very often – the hosts aren’t the traditional superpowers of the game.

Switzerland, Sweden, Chile, Mexico, the US of A, Japan, South Korea and most recently, South Africa have all avoided opening game defeat on their own patch, even when they weren’t rated especially highly. It seems the adrenalin generated from playing a tournament in front of your own fans, does have a positive effect on performance. Well, either adrenalin or total fear.

Whatever it is, it’s working and barring a stunning collapse along the lines of the Liberal Democrats vote, the Brazilians should continue the trend on Thursday night.

Champs to Chumps

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Having already came, seen and conquered, you might assume the defending champions should have a good record as they kick-off the defence of their title. With their medals still glistening on the mantelpiece back home, you’d think they’d mostly have the self-belief to handle anything thrown their way.

But that’s really not the case, particularly in the last 40 years as the overall quality at World Cups continues to improve. In fact, for teams that climbed to the top of the world only four years earlier, it’s a decidedly crap record.

In short, the defending champions have won their opening game (and frequently the opening game of the tournament) just about as often as haven’t. In the 17 opening games the defending champs have played at World Cups, they’ve won nine, drawn four and lost four.

It’s not a catastrophic win rate, but it sticks out in the memory more than most due to the comparative seismic shock of seeing the champs stumble at the first hurdle. Argentina being shocked by Belgium in 1982 then repeating the trick against Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal leaving France more upset than a bunch of Frenchmen who’ve been told there’s no cheese plate – they’re all very memorable possibly because there’s no more satisfying storyline than the defending champs getting their pants pulled down by a comparative minnow.

Spain will need to wary – partially because of the dodgy record of the defending champs but also because they’re facing no minnow. After losing in the 2010 final, the Netherlands get a chance at an immediate rematch – or as close to an immediate rematch as the World Cup cycle allows. If they’re not tearing lumps out of you or indeed each other, the Dutch can be dangerous. And not just to your health.

Could the hosts or the champions be opened up first time out?
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