In June 2018 the eyes of the world will descend on Russia as the greatest tournament in football begins in earnest. The 2018 World Cup will see the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Chris Smalling battling it out for their countries in order to stake claim to being the best on Earth and follow in the footsteps of the sport’s legends – Pele, Diego Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer, and Franck Lebouef. At the time of writing, twenty-nine teams have already booked their place at the tournament, and by Thursday the identity of all thirty-two competitors will be known. After slogging their way through two years of qualification a handful of sides were in action over the past week to determine the final few participants in World Cup play-offs, and my word have they been dull.
In the six first-leg play-off games taking place across the world this week, only one had more than the solitary goal in it, as Croatia swept Greece aside 4-1 in Zagreb. Of the other five, three were goalless. So far, the second legs have been worse, with three goalless draws in three matches . The reason of course, is simple. In these high-stakes games teams are afraid of making mistakes and coaches are reluctant to let their side go out and play attacking football lest they lose. The high-profile errors in previous qualifying campaigns, David Ginola springs to mind, clearly weigh on the minds of players, and keeping it tight takes precedence over getting the game won. For the uninitiated, Ginola received the ball in the corner of the pitch as France’s final qualifier against Bulgaria for the 1994 World Cup ticked into stoppage time. With the scores level at 1-1, all Ginola had to do was play for time, but instead the mercurial winger played an over-hit cross that landed at the feet of Bulgaria’s left-back. The visitors, knowing they needed a win to secure their own qualification, countered quickly and Emil Kostadinov hit at 91st minute winner to send France out. Gerard Houllier, manager of Les Bleus at the time, accused Ginola of ‘murdering’ French hopes in the post-match interview, stating “He sent an Exocet missile through the heart of French football and committed a crime against the team.” Ginola never played for France again. So you can see why players are cautious in these knockout ties, but have the play-offs always been so tense and tight?
The play-offs for qualification to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan enjoyed an average of 2.25 goals a game. That average was bumped up significantly by eventual semi-finalists Turkey, who hammered Austria 5-0 at home in the second leg of their tie. Crucially, there were no goalless draws in any of the six play-off games, with Belgium recording two single goal victories against the Czech Republic and the vanquished Australia and Iran both recording 1-0 wins in their ill-fated ties against Uruguay and Ireland respectively. In 2006, the average dropped to 1.91 – again there was one rout among the ties as Spain put Slovakia to the sword in the first leg of their play-off with a 5-1 victory. Turkey were again among the goals as they turned around a 2-0 home defeat to Switzerland by winning 4-2 in the away leg and progressing on away goals. Uruguay and Australia renewed their rivalry in the Intercontinental playoff, exchanging single goal wins before the Socceroos progressed on penalties. Again, there were no goalless draws. The goal average dropped significantly during the 2010 play-offs, with only 1.2 per game. This was thanks, in part, to Greece doing what Greece do best and absolutely stinking the place up. Anyone that was unfortunate enough to witness the meeting between Greece and Ukraine in the 2006 World Cup will have been reaching for the cyanide when the two were drawn together in the 2010 playoffs. Greece triumphed 1-0 on aggregate. With Australia moving over to the Asian qualifying section, New Zealand became the perennial OFC qualifiers, and their playoff with Bahrain saw just the one goal in 180 minutes of action. The only game in all twelve fixtures to harvest more than two goals was Russia’s 2-1 home win over Slovenia – that away goal would prove crucial when Slovenia nicked a 1-0 victory in the second leg. Ahead of the 2014 World Cup big scores were back, with the playoffs yielding a whopping three goals per game on average, and some highly entertaining ties to-boot. France overturned a two goal deficit from their first leg tie with Ukraine to win 3-2, Greece (?!) managed to score four in their tie against Romania, Portugal put four past Sweden, and the intercontinental ties were walkovers. New Zealand, still proudly crowing about their unbeaten campaign at the 2010 World Cup were soundly humbled by Mexico 9-2 on aggregate, while Uruguay continued their personal vendetta against Peter Andre and got the job done early doors against Jordan with a five goal spanking in the first leg, before recording one of only two 0-0s in the second leg.
So there’s no discernable pattern to be taken from the previous four campaigns, but does this attitude in knockout situations give us any idea of how tactics are changing in international football? Or is the lack of goals down to the lack of quality in the playoffs – Switzerland are the highest ranked team to take part this time out, having gamed the rankings and risen past other, clearly better, teams, whereas previous editions have seen Germany, France, Spain, and Uruguay take part. When thinking back to the last few World Cup tournaments, South Africa 2010 jumps out as being the least entertaining, while Brazil 2014 was considered one of the best tournaments for years – the corresponding playoff results seem to tally up with general consensus. Indeed, there were 171 goals scored at an average of 2.7 in Brazil, and only 145 (2.3) in South Africa – a tally aided by Portugal’s 7-0 demolition of North Korea. Only two more goals were scored in Germany in 2006, but the average dropped from the 2.5 a game recorded in South Korea and Japan in 2002. With this in mind, would it be reasonable to expect a dull World Cup next summer, given that the play-off games this time round have, so far, only given us an average of 0.77 goals per game?
The thrilling end to the group stages of qualifying in October will have had fans across the world salivating at the thought of next summer’s showpiece. In particular the drama in CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, where Messi dragged Argentina to qualification almost single-handedly while Copa America holders Chile lost out to Peru, and USA, against all the odds, failed to qualify to the delight of Panama, was a night of high-stakes, winner takes all action. The playoffs have thus far failed to deliver the same level of heart-stopping moments, with Sweden’s elimination of Italy being a major talking point glossing over the meagre amount of goalmouth incident. Having said all this, put your house on Ireland and Denmark sharing an eight-goal thriller this evening to ram the words right back down my throat.