Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Slow Start

The slow start is almost engrained in our conscience as a prerequisite for a lengthy run in the World Cup, or any other tournament. The truth is however, there is a finite number of teams afforded a slow start (and the implication is these are the big ones). Germany and Italy have historically been slow starters, but it must also be pointed out that the last time each of them have won the World Cup, they were getting wins on the board from the off, and Germany's 4-1 hammering of a superb Yugoslavia side in 1990 was as explosive a start as you'll ever get.

Some people I know also seem to have got it into their heads that France start tournaments slowly though I think this may be because the last World Cup looms large in their mind. France do start slowly often enough but, 2006 aside, they usually proceed slowly and then exit the tournament with the leisurely gait of a Left Bank flâneur. Their previous wins, at the Euros of 1984 and 2000 and the World Cup of 1998, started with straight wins in the group stages (a sole defeat to the Netherlands in 2000 came when both sides were already through to the quarter-finals). When France get off to a shocking start, it's usually a bad sign. Of course that will all change if they beat Mexico tonight but then, with two games out of a maximum seven gone, it can hardly qualify anymore as a slow start.

A piece on Tim Vickey's blog over at the Beeb said that World Cup winners pace their tournaments. Viewed through the wide-angled lens of history that might seem as profound as saying World Cup winners win a few games here and there, but it's obviously intended as a corrective to those that think Germany and Argentina's free-scoring starts make each of them bound for glory. Of course they can't both be, not least because they are now likely to meet at the Quarter-Final stage.

Spain don't start slow too often but they are given to bottle it at the moment of truth. Their 1-0 defeat to Switzerland* may yet prove as fatal as their early defeat to Nigeria in France 98 but I think the greater space afforded them by both Honduras and Chile will favour them and see them through to the second round. But then they may have to get their world-beating hat on sharpish, with the possibility of playing Brazil in the last 16 and, should they win, the Netherlands in the quarter-finals. The slow start will have to knocked on the head. But that's only fitting, really because, in most cases future champions don't get off to a slow start, even if they rarely blaze from day one either.

*I'm still mystified as to the over-reaction in the international media to this result. Yes, it is surprising, and Spain are a clearly superior side to the Swiss but with Ottmar Hitzfeld, one of only three men to win the Champions League with two different clubs, pulling the strings, surely taking Spain down was within their capabilities? After all, one need only look at the last two sides to defeat Spain, Northern Ireland in a European Championship qualifier in 2006, and the US at last year's Confederations Cup. Two very ordinary sides, indeed.