KAZAN, Russia — Wow. What a start.
If you’re among those who suspect this World Cup has the makings of one of the best ever, the numbers from the just-completed group stage of the football showcase suggest you may be right. Aside from a few snoozers, the essential ingredient for engrossing sporting spectacle — uncertainty — triumphed.
Games were tighter than ever. Traditionally strong teams still dominate, with the obvious exception of now dethroned ex-world champion Germany, already licking its wounds back at home. But increasingly better drilled, prepared and ambitious so-called “smaller” nations are continuing to narrow the gap. World Cup debutant Panama was the only team to look seriously out of its depth.
The most common result in the 48 games was 1-0, which is how the score finished a record-equaling 13 times. That illustrates not only how close games were, but that teams, once ahead, are increasingly able to protect their leads. An example of that was Mexico 1, Germany 0. In the second half at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, Die Mannschaft took 17 shots, had six corner kicks and six shots blocked and still couldn’t cancel out Hirving Lozano’s first-half winner.
Since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998, only once before has it seen so many 1-0 games in the group stage. That was in South Africa in 2010, when teams struggled to score with the Jabulani ball. The 16 teams that advanced that year to the knockout round did so by scoring just 67 times, a record low. They did much better this year, scoring 83. That was down from 90 at the last edition in Brazil and the record-high 91 goals scored by group-stage qualifiers in 2002 but still illustrated the attacking intent shown by teams in Russia.
Some other numbers:
—Again illustrating the narrowing gap between winners and losers, 24 games were decided by just one goal. That is a record high. And 11 of those games saw both teams score. That reinforces the impression that this group stage offered good entertainment, with teams going at each other, aiming for goals, and often succeeding.
—Further proof that teams didn’t hold back: Just nine games ended in a draw. That equaled the record low set in Brazil four years ago. At the first 32-team World Cup in 1998, exactly one third of group-stage games finished in a draw, a record-high of 16 draws not seen since. And some of the draws this time were spectacular, none more so than Portugal 3, Spain 3, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s late free-kick curling past the Spanish wall to complete his hat-trick and level the score.
—Just once, at Denmark vs. France, did fans come away without seeing a goal from either team . Again, that record low of scoreless draws illustrates the ambitious mindset of teams and was a vast improvement over previous editions. There were five scoreless draws in Brazil and six — the record high in the 32-team format — in South Africa.
—The group stage again saw very lopsided wins (Russia 5, Saudi Arabia 0; England 6, Panama 1) but not as domineering as at previous tournaments (Portugal 7, North Korea 0 in 2010; Germany 8, Saudi Arabia 0 in 2002). Just eight of the games saw four or more goals scored. That equals the record low from South Africa and is sharply down from 2014, when there 16 four-goals-or-more matches in the group stage. Again, that reflects how smaller football nations frustrated star teams and players this time, notably the defensive master-class from Iceland that prevented Argentina’s Lionel Messi from scoring in a 1-1 draw at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium. But Messi redeemed himself with his strike against Nigeria, the tournament’s 100th goal and a contender for goal of the tournament, exquisitely controlling the ball with his left thigh and left foot in one fluid movement before scoring with his right.
The group stage wasn’t without blemishes, but was without major scandal. Uruguay’s Luis Suarez managed not to bite anyone, an improvement from 2014, and the French haven’t gone on strike as they did on their way to an early exit in 2010. The record 24 penalties awarded, of which 18 were scored, are an unfortunate, game-distorting side effect of video refereeing’s debut at the World Cup, which has caught officiating mistakes but is also messing with the rhythm of matches and seen some very debatable decisions. And using yellow cards as a tie-breaker to separate Senegal, sent home, and Japan, which stays, seems unfair, given that some referees are more trigger-happy with cards than others.
Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin has lucked out. Russia’s team that seemed unlikely to progress earned itself a marquee match-up with 2010 champions Spain and the football spectacle is competing for global attention, instead of novichok, Syria, flight MH17, Crimea, east Ukraine, election interference and other issues that have chilled relations between Russia and western capitals.
In a tournament as famous as the World Cup, picking the best will always be a subjective choice. But with this one: So far, so good.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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