Every team has had its opening match, and the 2010 World Cup is well on its way to being the lowest scoring tournament of the modern era...by a long shot.
For a bit of history, since the last 16-team tournament in 1978, there have been four World Cups with a 24-team field (1982, 1986, 1990, and 1994) and three completed Cups with a 32-team field (1998, 2002, and 2006).
This year's tournament, for the arithmetically impaired, also has 32 teams.
In those last seven tournaments since the '80s, the combined average goals per match comes out to 2.53.
1990, for the record, was the lowest scoring of any one of those World Cups, with only 2.21 goals per match. Appropriately, that tournament was played in Italy, the home of soporific soccer since the 1960s.
With vertically challenged, undersized, and overrated Spain blanked 1-0 by the not-exactly-mighty Swiss and their clockwork counterattack, there have been just 25 goals scored in 16 games so far in 2010. That's only 1.56 goals per match, or about 40 percent lower than the average over the last 30 years.
For a bit of perspective, imagine taking the average American football game, where about 42 points are scored, and shaving 17 points off the total. Or imagine watching a pre-shot clock era NBA game. How about nothing but Orioles-Pirates baseball games for an entire season? You get the picture.
Only the First Round? Guess Again.
"But wait!" chimes in generic know-it-all fan A, "This is only the group stage, where favored teams are wary of giving away goals and ruining their seeding for the second round! The first round is hardly an indicator of what the rest of the competition will look like."
Not so, my learned friend.
In three of the last seven tournaments (1990, 2002, and 2006), the average goals per match was higher in the first round than over the course of the tournament. Of the remaining four tournaments, only once was there a measurable difference between the first round average and the tournament average. That came in 1986, when a measly 2.33 goals in the group stage increased to 2.54 by the end of the Cup (Maradona's Hand of God notwithstanding).
In fact, the first round average goals per game from 1982-2006 was 2.52. That's one 1/100 of a goal less than the tournament average in that time span.
"But wait!" objects ESPN's pleasant host, Mike Tirico, brimming with world football truisms, "The opening matches of tournaments are often characterized by cagey, cautious encounters between teams looking to avoid losing. After all, a loss in the first game puts any team deep in the hole."
Wrong again, at least if you believe in the merits of historical precedent and statistics.
Teams who lose early are certainly hurting their chances of advancement, but the difference between goals in opening matches and the average number of first round goals is almost negligible.
The average goals scored in the opening matches of the last seven tournaments is 2.46. That's not even 1/10 of a goal less than the first round average, or the tournament average.
The lowest in any one tournament was 2.0 goals per game in the opening matches of 1986. That's still half a goal higher than this year.
In 1982 and 2002, as a matter of fact, there were actually more goals scored in the opening 16 matches than in the rest of the group stage. Granted, those two tournaments featured memorable routs of Honduras by Hungary (10-1) and of Saudi Arabia by Germany (8-0). Take away half the Hungarian goals and divide the Deutsche tally in two, though, and 1982 remains among the higher scoring sets of openers, while 2002 remains by far the highest.
So far in this tournament, the 1.56 goals per match is far lower than the average for any previous tournament, any previous first round, or any previous set of opening matches. Traditional explanations do not hold water here.
Clearly, 2010 is striking an unprecedented note of offensive futility. Or is it defensive mastery? Or is the the vuvuzela, the Jubilani ball, and the quality of the pitch?
Parity: the Watchword of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa
Fewer goals are being scored because there are fewer obscene mismatches being played. Even where there is a serious imbalance in the overall level of talent, the tactical and strategic competence is, with only a few exceptions, extraordinarily high across the board.
Thus, North Korea, who few would say were ever competitive in their match against Brazil, only allowed two goals, while even managing to catch the Seleção napping to leave the final tally at 2-1. In much the same way, Switzerland out-muscled Spain for a 1-0 shocker, the United States shut down England to draw 1-1, Denmark held off the Netherlands until their unfortunate own goal, and toothless Honduras limited the potency of Chile's compelling offensive play.
Only Germany, who scorched Australia for a 4-0 win, truly looked masterful from start to finish in the attacking third. They only scored their third and fourth goals, however, after Tim Cahill's 56th minute red card.
There are minnows as always, but those minnows have clearly evolved effective team (school?) strategies. Despite the lack of scoring, these first 16 encounters have for the most part been more than watchable. The exceptions, to my mind, have definitely included Uruguay-France, Algeria-Slovenia, Japan-Cameroon, and New Zealand-Slovakia. That's only four out 12, though, which is not a bad percentage on the whole.
Some Early Plotlines to Monitor: Stars, Favorites, and Arsenal FC
1. Thanks to Nike, I've seen a lot more from Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Franck Ribery, and the entire Spain squad in between the matches than I've seen from them on the pitch.
Can the guys who sell us shoes and shirts please start serving up some meaningful shots?
2. I picked Brazil and Germany in the final and after having seen every team play, I stand by that pick.
With the possible addition of the Netherlands, who truly looked dangerous with their retooled second half lineup, these were the only teams that struck me as "masterful" or "championship caliber." It's still early, but it was even earlier when I filled out my bracket.
3. Spain losing to Switzerland is definitely a shock, but Spain not living up to their pre-tournament hype is exactly what I expected.
Andrew Jordan wrote a good article a few weeks back, for which he was generally lambasted for saying Spain won't live up to their hype. I was one of the few people who defended his pick, though for different reasons, noting that the Spaniards are small on their front line, they don't relish the physical game, and they don't really play defense either...in other words, they play the same way they do in La Liga.
Again, it's early, but Spain have already shown off the three flaws I identified back in May. Of course, on the flipside, I was not expecting them to come up this flat this early either. They won't meet another team that combines defensive discipline and size until the knockout stage, but I wonder how they'll respond to the next team that plays like Switzerland? Say, Germany, Italy, or maybe Denmark.
4. Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song haven't seen the pitch, but Carlos Vela, Robin van Persie, and France's Arsenal trio have been anonymous at best.
My Gunners are lamentably silent...
Emmanuel Eboue was solid and energetic for the Ivory Coast, and Nicklas "the Baron" Bendtner showed his improving maturity and passing ability for Denmark, but that's about it. I'm hoping for a more memorable tournament from the Arsenal from here on.
Come on, you Gunners!