A pall of excessive defensiveness hung over the first round of the 1990 World Cup. In a deplorable number of games, neither side was really trying to win. Notable examples were Spain-Uruguay (0-0) and Romania-Argentina (1-1), and nearly all the games between the teams in the F group--England, the Netherlands, Egypt and Ireland. In fact, in the first four games of that group, only four goals were scored, and two of the games were scoreless ties.
Modern soccer is a defensive game, but most of the teams in the first round carried defense to absurd lengths. In its game with Ireland, England shot in the general direction of the goal only five times, and only two reached the area of the goal. Costa Rica did not have a single shot on goal in its game against Brazil. Nevertheless, there are ways to make the first round more exciting. They can--and should--be adopted in time for the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
Offensive-minded teams attack all over the field, but in the first round only the West Germans consistently played the game this way.
Instead, most of the teams withdrew to their half of the field and waited for their opponents. Even the Brazilians, known for years for their waves of attack, played with only two forwards and four defenders, one of whom hung farther back as a sweeper. For all lovers of Brazilian soccer, the team's newly defensive posture is disillusioning. It sacrifices inspiration to such an extent that Brazil scored only one lucky goal against Costa Rica's semiprofessionals.
There are three reasons for the unexciting soccer of the first round.
The first is that there are too many weak teams among the 24 who start in the World Cup, whose sole hope is to steal a tie. This is a problem that cannot be cured without restructuring the two-year tournament that leads to the World Cup. No observer of international politics, or for that matter the politics of FIFA (the world soccer federation), can reasonably expect this to happen.
The second reason for the inconclusiveness of the first round is the prevailing concept of strategy, which is almost exclusively defensive. A defensive style can be entertaining, as Cameroon showed with its acrobatics. But the prevailing defensive style in the first round was too destructive to the game.
The most important reason for the disappointing first round is the way teams are advanced. As it is, only eight teams of the starting 24 are eliminated in the first round. Of the 24, two or three or four are usually so weak as to have no chance to win or even to tie. The United States and the United Arab Emirates are in this category. Another handful--in this World Cup, Brazil, Germany, Italy--are strong enough to be sure to advance. The rest play for ties. That is because teams are given two points for winning a game and one point for tying a game.
The 24 teams are divided into six groups of four teams each. Each plays the other. Under the scoring system, the top two teams in each group of four advance to the second round. The four teams placing third with the highest point totals are added to the top 12 to make the 16 of the second round, which is the point at which a team that loses a game is eliminated from the tournament. For all practical purposes, any team that gets three points--that is, three ties--advances.
A notorious example was the first-round game between Argentina and Romania. Each team was certain to advance if they tied; if one lost, it would be eliminated. The result was a predictable 1-1.
A simple procedural change might open up the game for the next World Cup. Let only the top two teams from each of the six groups in the first round advance. This way a team would have to get four points to be sure to advance. This means it would have to win at least one--and probably two--games. Have these 12 play six games, with the winners to advance to the quarterfinals. Add to them the two teams with the most goals from the losing six teams. In the case of equal goals, the total number of goals in the first round would decide. This would guarantee more playing for victory in the first round and better teams in each succeeding round.
This would, we think, add greatly to the interest, indeed, to the excitement of the tournament, and it would emphasize going for the goal. It would make it too dangerous to play for a 0-0 tie in the first round. It would bring back to World Cup soccer some of the zest inherent in the game.