The World Cup can be a lonely place when things are not going well. Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni and Germany manager Hansi Flick will be feeling that isolation after their defeats in the opening round of matches. However, while football fans across the globe enjoyed the two big shocks that have kickstarted the World Cup, Scaloni and Flick will know their early struggles do not have to define this tournament for their teams.
It’s long been considered football lore that World Cup winners tend to make slow starts and there is inspiration to be found from previous teams who have begun poorly and gone on to great things. History suggests that coaches should not panic after an early defeat. The teams that stick with the plan that took them to the World Cup normally fare better than those who make sweeping changes.
For Argentina, one of the big pre-tournament favourites, Spain’s triumph at the World Cup in 2010 may provide the most solace. Vicente del Bosque’s side arrived at the World Cup in South Africa on the back of a fearsome run of form, having won Euro 2008 two years earlier. So their 1-0 defeat to Switzerland rocked the tournament.
Despite the team’s previous achievements, the Spanish press reacted angrily. They questioned if the players were good enough to win the World Cup, called for midfielder Sergio Busquets to be dropped and criticised Del Bosque. It had all the ingredients for a high-profile meltdown.
Del Bosque recognised the importance of the moment and called a summit meeting with his senior players, inviting them to air their feelings in an open forum without fear of recrimination. The unanimous decision was not to veer off track but to stand firm and, in true football parlance, trust the process.
History suggests that was the right decision. Spain won their next group game against Honduras before completing their rescue mission by beating Chile and qualifying for the last-16 stage. Once that hurdle had been passed, they never looked back. Spain won their four knockout games – all 1-0 – and became world champions for the first time in their history.
Loyalty was also the theme when Italy won the World Cup in 1982. While the Azzurri avoided defeat in their opening match of the tournament, a disappointing 0-0 draw with Poland set the tone for a turgid group stage, with three draws against low-ranked nations seeing them squeeze into the next round.
As with Spain, the vitriol aimed at the team was fierce, with Italy manager Enzo Bearzot – and misfiring striker Paolo Rossi – the target of most of the national press’s ire. Bearzot’s faith in Rossi, who had only just returned following a two-year ban, was seen as a key factor, but instead of relenting, the Italy boss doubled down.
The team was now war with the media, with Bearzot and captain Dino Zoff dead-batting away any questions fired their way. And Rossi? He was just getting warmed up. He scored six goals in Italy’s last three games – including a hat-trick to knock out favourites Brazil in the second group stage – as the Azzurri won their third World Cup. Rossi, who ended up winning the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball, knew who to thank for his success. “The fact that Bearzot trusted me was fundamental,” said the striker. “Without a coach like Bearzot, we probably wouldn’t be having this interview about this victory and how I became top scorer.”
Argentina’s run to the World Cup final in 1990 followed a similar pattern. Their manager, Carlos Bilardo, stuck to his pragmatic principles and helped the holders recover from a shock defeat to Cameroon in their opening match.
Holding firm is often the best approach, but some managers have benefited from shuffling the pack after an early setback. In 1974, hosts West Germany started slowly, edging past Chile 1-0 before beating Australia in their second game. Helmut Schön had led the team to the World Cup final in 1966, third place in 1970 and then won the European Championship in 1972, but his team was not clicking in the same way.
There was particular focus on their final group match, a grudge match against neighbours East Germany – the first time the divided nation’s two sides had faced off. To add to the tension, Schön was born in Dresden on the east side of the Berlin Wall, before escaping to the west and working up the coaching ranks.
So, when West Germany’s sluggish start continued with a 1-0 defeat to East Germany – which meant that East Germany took top spot in the group at the West’s expense – Schön suffered something of a breakdown. He shut himself away from his squad and asked his senior players to help pick the bones out of the defeat.
Schön’s instinct to involve the players was similar to what Del Bosque would do several decades later but, instead of deciding to stick with the same approach, the manager – along with the help of captain Franz Beckenbauer – moved in a new direction, most notably bringing in young midfielder Rainer Bonhof. The changes did the trick. West Germany beat Yugoslavia, Sweden and Poland to book their place in the final, where they beat the Netherlands 2-1, with Bonhof setting up Gerd Müller to score the winning goal.
Whichever way Scaloni and Flick go as they try to pick up their sides after shock defeats in Qatar, they won’t be able to avoid the eyes of the world on them. So what will it be – stick or twist?