June 27, 2006

France 3, Spain 1: Two late goals from '98 vets Vieira and Zidane enabled Les Bleus to maintain its perfect all-time record against Spain, and advanced to a quarterfinal rematch with Brazil. The Spanish, on the other hand, maintained its perfect streak of never having failed to disappoint in the World Cup.

Part of the story of this evening's game will be how France has managed to drift aimlessly through the first round, barely doing enough to qualify with a 1-0-2 record, only to "suddenly" catch fire and surprise the Spanish, who had looked so impressive in the first two weeks. It's always a story when that happens, even though it seems to happen every World Cup.

For instance, in 1970, Italy finished the first round with a 1-0-2 record, managing only one goal, and failing to score against both Uruguay and Israel, but still qualified for the quarterfinal. They went on to lose in the Final to Brazil. In 1978, Holland went 1-1-1 in the first round, including an embarassing loss to Scotland, and qualified for the second round only on goal differential. Again, they caught fire, and took Argentina to overtime in the Finals before losing. In 1982, Italy went 0-0-3 in the opening round, and again got out of the group on goal differential. They ended up winning it all, beating West Germany, a team that lost its opener and also only making it out on goal differential.

And so it goes. The West Germans again had to struggle in 1986, losing to Denmark, tying Uruguay, and rallying to beat Scotland in the first round. Even after they squeaked out of their group, they didn't get hot right away. They beat Morocco, 1-0, on a goal in the final three minutes, then knocked out Mexico on penalty kicks (after a scoreless game) to go to the semis, where France completely dominated them from start to finish. However, the Germans scored a fluke goal early, then snatched the clincher when the French sent everyone forward at the end, thereby earning the right to lose to Argentina in the Finals.

Four years later, it was Argentina's turn to live dangerously. After losing to Cameroon in the Cup opener, they needed a late goal to tie Romania and advance to the second round, where Brazil slapped them all over the field for 81 minutes, only to score on their only opportunity of the day, and win 1-0. As with the West Germans four years earlier, the quarterfinal featured a scoreless tie, this time against Yugoslavia, which was then followed by a 1-1 tie against Italy in the semis. In both instances, the gods smiled on them in the penalty kick phase, and the RG's suddenly found themselves in the Finals. And in 1994, Italy started off 1-1-1 in its first round games, again advancing only on goal differential. They never looked that impressive en route to the Finals, scoring two goals late to beat Nigeria, beating Spain 2-1 in the quarters, then getting some questionable non-calls against Bulgaria in the semis to win, 2-1.

In 1998 and 2002, each of the Finalists breezed through the first round, so it's not like the Finals have to include at least one team that started slowly (although France in '98 and Germany in 02' did not set the world ablazin' in the games leading into the Finals). But how well you play in the opening round is not a reliable barometer on who goes all the way, and fans of France and England should be advised that other squads have played even more poorly than theirs, yet have still been able to play for the gold trophy at the end.

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