It’s the World Cup! But it’s November! Everyone’s excited! Ignore all that other, troubling stuff! World Cup! YEAH! And everyone is particularly excited about the opening game between *checks notes* Qatar and Ecuador. It’s sure to be a cracker that takes its rightful place in the pantheon of great World Cup opening games.
Ever since England invented the World Cup in 1966, the opening game has been a crucial part of the fun, fun that was not remotely dampened by a ludicrous 16-year wait for an actual goal to be scored in an opening game.
While we count down the hours, minutes, and seconds until all our football heroes from Qatar and Ecuador step up to write their own page in history, let’s look back at the great games and names they are about to join:
1966: England 0-0 Uruguay
England kicked off their march to World Cup glory with an instantly forgettable goalless draw against Uruguay. No people were on the pitch, nobody thought it was all over, Geoff Hurst was on the bench.
It was the first time England had failed to score at Wembley since 1945, and at the final whistle the disappointed home fans booed the Uruguayans for their dirty foreign tactics of frustrating the hosts with what football scholars now refer to as “defending”.
1970: Mexico 0-0 Soviet Union
It goes on like this for a while. It does get better, I promise. The 90-second YouTube highlights video is not action-packed, at times bringing to mind the legendary match many years later that would determine once and for all which is the greatest nation on earth, Mexico or Portugal.
In a fine piece of early squad number banter, Soviet goalkeeper Anzor Kavazashvili was wearing the No. 2 shirt, thus successfully annoying Yer Da even though he was only about nine at the time or whatever. I don’t know how old Yer Da is.
1974: Brazil 0-0 Yugoslavia
This feature is starting to look like a bad idea. Should’ve just started in 1990. Too late now. Anyway, in a blatant attempt to change the opening game’s dismal fortunes, it was the holders rather than the hosts who kicked off proceedings in West Germany.
It didn’t work, with Brazil spending much of the time trying to score from 40 yards for some reason, while Branko Oblak (no relation) somehow smacked a header into the post from a yard out for Yugoslavia in the second half. Both teams settled for a point in the closing stages, to hoots of derision from the German crowd.
1978: West Germany 0-0 Poland
By now, serious discussions were taking place about whether it would be better to just skip straight to the second game of the tournament, West Germany the latest big name frustrated in a low-key start to the adidas Tango’s reign as king of footballs.
1982: Argentina 0-1 Belgium
A goal! Argentina making a bit of a bollocks of things! Ossie Ardiles wearing the No. 1 shirt because of the alphabet!
Espana 82 was when the World Cup opening game truly and finally came into its own. Both teams would go on to qualify from Group 3, before coming horribly unstuck in the slightly daft second group stage where Argentina and Belgium’s combined record read played four, lost four.
1986: Bulgaria 1-1 Italy
Bulgaria snatched a late point against holders Italy at a packed and noisy Azteca. Alessandro Altobelli gave Italy the lead just before the break and then had to do an awkward half-time interview as he tried to head back down the tunnel, which feels very Modern Football for something that happened… bloody hell, 36 years ago. Italy couldn’t find a second goal and fell to the classic sucker punch when Nasko Sirakov headed an equaliser five minutes from time.
1990: Argentina 0-1 Cameroon
Now you’re talking. Every English 30-and-4o-something’s favourite World Cup – despite constant millennial social-media hoots about ‘lowest goals per game ever’ – kicked off, quite literally, with a superb match that shows you don’t necessarily need a load of goals when you’ve got a team ready and willing to spend 90 minutes just hoofing Claudio Caniggia high into the Milan sky.
Cameroon ended the match with nine men and two points to set them on their memorable way to the quarter-finals, while Argentina, like some kind of proto-Portugal, licked their many literal and metaphorical wounds and recovered sufficiently to somehow shithouse their own way into the final where they were finally thwarted once and for all by a West German lesser of two evils.
1994: Germany 1-0 Bolivia
The 1994 World Cup was absolutely tremendous, and its opening match was no different. Obviously, everybody vividly remembers Jurgen Klinsmann scoring the only goal as Germany famously edged out plucky Bolivia in a game that was in absolutely no way whatsoever overshadowed by an opening ceremony in which Diana Ross’ lip-syncing was every bit as magical as her goal-destroying penalty-shanking.
1998: Brazil 2-1 Scotland
We’re firmly into the golden era of World Cup openers now with what, 24 years on, remains the last great chapter of glorious heroic failure in Scotland’s Big Book of World Cup Misery.
It seems strange now when tournament summers/winters in Scotland consist solely of waiting for the inevitable-but-no-less-enjoyable-for-that demise of England, but back then the Scots were regular guests at FIFA’s top table. At least for the first week or so.
And here they were, Colin Calderwood and Colin Hendry frustrating Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Bebeto. John Collins’ penalty looked like it might earn Scotland a famous point until Cafu’s shot ricocheted off Jim Leighton’s face and Tommy Boyd’s shoulder before bobbling agonisingly out of reach of Hendry’s desperate last-ditch lunge and into the net. Another first-round exit followed for Scotland, who at least haven’t had to endure that specific yet familiar pain since.
2002: France 0-1 Senegal
Le grand fromage of opening games, edging out 1990’s video nasty and 1998’s knockabout slapstick farce to take top spot. France arrived in Seoul as reigning world and European champions and widely tipped to complete a major championship hat-trick. They were certainly expected to see off Senegal in the opening game.
Papa Bouba Diop had other ideas, scoring the only goal to send shockwaves through the tournament from the very first game. And things got no better for the French, who departed Asia’s first World Cup with barely a Gallic shrug, scoring not a single goal as they finished bottom of Group A.
2006: Germany 4-2 Costa Rica
A switch back to the hosts getting the opening-night honour, but happily no return to those dreary goalless days of the 60s and 70s. Germany and Costa Rica got right into the World Cup party spirit with a gloriously daft game in which Miroslav Klose scored twice, obviously, and so too did Paulo Wanchope. Lovely, lovely stuff.
2010: South Africa 1-1 Mexico
GOAL BAFANA BAFANA! GOAL FOR SOUTH AFRICA! GOAL FOR ALL AFRICA! Mexico would later poop the party with an equaliser to silence the vuvuzelas. Not really. Nothing silenced the vuvuzelas. They haunt my dreams still.
2014: Brazil 3-1 Croatia
While the superbly entertaining 2014 group stage really caught fire the following day with a flying Robin van Persie and the Netherlands’ astonishing demolition job on Spain, there was more than a taste of what was to come with a fantastically entertaining and controversial clash between two lovely, lovely football teams.
Croatia stunned the hosts with an early opener before tournament poster boy Neymar swept home an equaliser. Then came the crucial moment, the softest of soft penalties. An incident which football journalism’s euphemism etiquette requires it be described thusly: Dejan Lovren was adjudged to have fouled Fred.
Neymar scored the penalty, Oscar added a wonderful solo effort in stoppage time, and Brazil were up and running. Can’t remember how it all ended for them, but I’m sure it definitely won’t have been mortifying in any way.
2018: Russia 5-0 Saudi Arabia
Not a vast amount was expected of hosts Russia but they would serve notice of the form that would eventually take them to the quarter-finals with an opening-day thrashing of Saudi Arabia. It took barely 10 minutes for Yury Gazinsky to get the first goal of the tournament – a far cry from the years and years spent waiting for such a thing in the opening game – and Denis Cheryshev doubled the lead before half-time. Artem Dzyuba bagged a third midway through the second half before Cheryshev and Aleksandr Golovin added the glossiest of finishes with a couple more goals in injury time.
Russia would follow that win with an even more impressive one, 3-1 against Mo Salah’s Egypt, before pulling Spain’s pants down on penalties in the last 16 and only going out after more spot-kick drama against eventual finalists Croatia.
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