Misix Library

Do First Impressions Matter at the World Cup?

June 16, 2014

It’s game day for the U.S. Men’s National Team and for the rest of the World Cup’s Group G, which has earned the dubious distinction of the “Group of Death” If you’ve paid attention to any of the buildup regarding this year’s event and our boys in the red, white and blue, you’ve probably heard a lot about the importance of this first game against Ghana, the country that has knocked the United States out of the past two World Cups. With the fourth-ranked Cristiano Ronaldos (aka Portugal) and the second-ranked German squad to follow, locking up three points against the 37th-ranked team in the world seems essential — and probably is.[1]

Let’s forget about the opponents to come and see what history tells us about the importance of a team’s first game of the World Cup in relation to its likelihood of advancing out of the group stage. To do this, we’ll consider every group-stage game played from the first contest of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden to the last one in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.[2] Of the 320 teams that played a World Cup match in that time, 116 recorded a win in their first game of the group stage. Of those winners, 80.2% finished in the top two of their groups and advanced out of the initial group stages. Of the teams that tied their opening match, 54.5% advanced. Of the teams that lost their first game, only 16.4% advanced, including the 2010 World Cup champions, Spain.

All Teams% Moved On% Did Not
Won Game One80.2%19.8%
Won or Tied Game One69.1%30.9%
Tied Game One54.5%45.5%
Lost Game One16.4%83.6%

From this first look, it seems as though the initial result has the power to make or break a team’s World Cup chances and would most likely be the most important of the group stage. But let’s take a look at how this compares with games two and three.

All Teams% Moved On% Did Not
Won Game Two80.2%19.8%
Won or Tied Game Two68.9%31.1%
Tied Game Two56.1%43.9%
Lost Game Two14.4%85.6%
All Teams% Moved On% Did Not
Won Game Three77.3%22.7%
Won or Tied Game Three66.2%33.8%
Tied Game Three50.0%50.0%
Lost Game Three22.7%77.3%

This helps put things in perspective. The third game certainly seems to be the least important, most likely due to the fact that some teams had already locked up their spot in the next round or had been mathematically eliminated. However, game two seems to hold at least equal importance as the first game, with 80.2% of winners advancing and only 14.4% of losers advancing. To further put this in perspective, 111 teams within our sample period won their second game. Of those, 49 (44.1%) did not win their first game — 32 lost, while 17 tied.

These numbers for all group-stage games seem to suggest the first result isn’t the ultimate indicator of success. But let’s take a look at how these numbers compare with those belonging to the teams unfortunate enough to be placed in the terrifyingly named Group of Death.

When in Group of Death% Moved On% Did Not
Won Game One88.2%11.8%
Won or Tied Game One74.2%25.8%
Tied Game One57.1%42.9%
Lost Game One5.9%94.1%
GoD and All Teams Game One Comparison

The table and chart paint an interesting picture. Historically, the teams that won their first game while in the Group of Death advanced to the next round 88.2% of the time — a much higher percentage than all teams that won their first game. At the same time, those that lost their first game advanced at a much lower rate. These numbers suggest winning your first game in the Group of Death carries a great deal of weight, while losing your first game has historically been quite detrimental. This is most likely due to the fact that in the Group of Death, the quality of teams is such that every team has the potential to beat any other team, hence the clever name. Losing the first game means missing out on one of only three opportunities to gain points against some of the toughest competition in the tournament.

The second and third games paint another interesting picture:

When in Group of Death% Moved On% Did Not
Won Game Two81.0%19.0%
Won or Tied Game Two77.8%22.2%
Tied Game Two66.7%33.3%
Lost Game Two14.3%85.7%
When in Group of Death% Moved On% Did Not
Won Game Three57.1%42.9%
Won or Tied Game Three52.9%47.1%
Tied Game Three50.0%50.0%
Lost Game Three42.9%57.1%

The percentages for the second game in the Group of Death moved closer to that of the entire sample, and the third game once again seems to carry the least importance. However, in the Group of Death, the first game clearly holds the greatest weight and the third even less than it did when considering all teams. In fact, 42.9% of the teams that lost their third game still managed to move into the next round, while only 57.1% of the teams that won advanced when in the Group of Death.

Here’s another way to look at the games’ relative importance:

All TeamsGame OneGame TwoGame Three
Teams that Won116111119
% Won Another Game in the Group Stage67.2%63.1%60.5%
When in Group of DeathGame OneGame TwoGame Three
Teams that Won172114
% Won Another Game in the Group Stage70.6%47.6%50.0

The tables present the number of teams that won each of the three group-stage games and the percentage of teams that won at least one of the other two games. When looking at all teams, the percentage of teams that won at least one other game was nearly equal — between 67.2% and 60.5% — no matter which game you look at. The Group of Death’s numbers tell a completely different story, with about 71% of the teams that won their first game winning at least one more game in the group stages and only about 50% of the teams that won in game two or game three able to win another game.

If knowing that Portugal and Germany are still to come after Ghana wasn’t enough to make you believe in the importance of this first game for the United States, this look at historical results has hopefully put things in perspective.

It doesn’t necessarily take many points to move out of the Group of Death — about 42% of the teams that advance do so with four or fewer points, which translate to a record of 1-1-1. But getting those points early seems to be the best way for a team to avoid an early demise.



[1] Rankings according to the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings.

[2] World Cup tournaments before 1958 used a different group-stage format than what is used today.

  • Ben Bruden

    Excellent article, much more interesting than the drivel on ESPN. Can’t wait for the game, I think the US advances with a win against Ghana, anything less and they are out. I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN