Here’s an interesting statistic: in South Africa’s first set of group matches, there have been twenty-five goals scored total.
Let me repeat that: 25 goals, 16 games.
Korea/Japan’s opening round saw 46 goals, Germany’06 and France’98 saw 39. That mark is overshadowed by the 24 team tournaments from 1982-1994, who oversaw an average of 28.5 goals in the first round. That mark even gets out-classed by Switzerland’54, the first postwar sixteen-team tournament where everyone showed up and 34 goals were scored in the first eight games.
Not the Best First Impression
Running the numbers for the mathematical types in the room:
World Cup Goals in the First Set of Group Matches, 1954-2010
Korea / Japan
*Statistical significance (α = 5%)
South Africa 2010 has put out the worst goals-per-game in the first round of group matches in the post-war World Cup era. While not statistically significant, from a fan’s perspective, this is significantly disappointing. Yes, football is not all about the numbers, but the cautious stalemates, the howlers, and the triumph of generally negative, defensive football has cast an ominous first impression on the first African World Cup’s footballing quality.
There must be a good explanation for this...
Is it the weather?
Weather should not be an issue. Argentina’78 and Chile’62 were winter World Cups, and both Cups outscored South Africa in goals per game. Many of the best players on the best teams (the ones that would score the goals) in the World Cup play their trade in Europe in winter months. When it’s cold.
Is it the ball?
There has been quite a fuss about the new ball: Jabulani. The ball has been blamed for goalkeeping howlers and the many errant shots from distance. But the Jabulani is not lighter than Teamgeist , the Germany’06 ball. This tradition to make the ball lighter and rounder has occurred almost every modern World Cup, and that hasn’t seemed to affected the average goal count in previous years.
In short, carpenters blame their tools at times, too.
Is the talent gap closing?
Another argument has been that the talent gap between the traditionally superior sides and the young guns is closing. The distribution of goals across games this World Cup has also been relatively even, meaning that aside from Germany’s thumping of Australia, meaning there has been no exciting 8-0 or 10-1 or 7-3 blowout. The distribution also implies that games have been close: games have settled with one or two goals, if any goals are scored.
The higher occurence of close games can imply that the emerging soccer powers are catching up, but that does not acquit the fact that so little goals have been scored. Case and point: USA 3-2 Portugal, Germany 4-2 Costa Rica, and Japan 2-2 Belgium are World Cup first round games from 2006 and 2002 that showed this talent gap was closing as well.
My turn: what if everyone is just being too nice?
Ultimately, though, I believe that the primary explanation for such a poor first round is that the pressure placed on sides to perform well (see France-Uruguay, England-USA, Portugal-Ivory Coast), save face (Chile-Honduras), or play with their food (Spain-Switzerland, Brazil-North Korea) has produced a respectful, defense-first mindset in the World Cup.
But, should a team forget that respect, stop playing with their opponent, and produce a more direct attack, the footballing quality (and goals scored) should improve. Hey, it worked for Uruguay.
We can only hope the will to win (and score) triumphs this next round as well.