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Why the first World Cup match is critical

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-06-2014 TCA Sharad Raghavan

It is said that a good first impression is critical. This holds true for the world of football as much as anywhere else. Looking at the last five World Cups, only 13 out a possible 40 instances (eight quarter-finalists in each tournament) saw a team that didn’t win its first game make it to the quarter finals. A draw at the very least seems essential, with only 5 out of 40 instances seeing a team lose its first game and still reach the quarters. This, however, also includes the mercurial Spanish side, which is the only team in World Cup history to lose its first game and still win the World Cup. Brazil, on the other hand, has reached the quarter finals of each of the five World Cups—and has won all its first matches. Seleção supporters must be relieved by the team’s 3-1 win over Croatia despite a dodgy performance helped in no small measure by refereeing largesse.

Germany maintains the same record of reaching the quarterfinals each time it wins its first match.The correlation remains strong for teams like Argentina, Italy and the Netherlands. Argentina reached the quarter finals 3 out of the 4 times it won its first matches, while Italy and the Netherlands both reached the quarter finals all 3 times they won their first matches.

Such predictions have little bearing on the future, though. Goldman Sachs, for example, used a detailed statistical model to reach the conclusion that Brazil had a 51% chance of reaching the semi-finals of World Cup 2010. History, of course, shows that it chose to sit in the remaining 49%. Spain, which went on to win the tournament, had only a 40% chance of entering the semis, a 27% of reaching the finals, and an insignificant 15% chance of winning the tournament. But that said, there is such a thing as a winning momentum, with an early win often helping a team push through to the later levels of the tournament.

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