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Opening game jitters - Today's Russia- Saudi Arabia match likely to be a cagey affair

Published:Thursday | June 14, 2018 | 12:00 AMHubert Lawrence/ Gleaner Writer
Russia's players arrive at yesterday's official training session of the team on the eve of the Group A match against Saudi Arabia at the 2018 World Cup at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow.
Saudi Arabia's Salman Alfaraj (left) challenges for the ball with teammate Abdulmalek Alkhaibri at the official training session of the team on the eve of the opening match of the 2018 World Cup at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia yesterday.

Don't expect a dazzling opening to the World Cup today. That's not just because the teams that will get the action going - hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia - are the lowest ranked two teams in football's biggest tournament. It's because opening World Cup games are most often cagey affairs.

At 70 and 67, the Russians and the Saudis aren't separated by much on the FIFA world-ranking list. With home advantage being a big factor in sport, the Russians might fancy their chances. However, if previous opening World Cup games are anything to go by, it won't be a goal fest. In 1966, 1970, 1974, and 1978, not a single goal was scored in the first fixture of the World Cup.


History beckons


Belgium broke the drought with a 1-0 win over 1978 champions Argentina in 1982 and since then, opening game goals have been trickling in. Bulgaria drew with Italy 1-1 when the 1986 World Cup started and one goal decided the opening games in 1990 and 1994.

Since then, Brazil, Senegal, and Germany have won the World Cup opener, with the Brazilians successful in both 1998 and 2014.

Clearly, no one wants to lose their first game in a big tournament, and a draw is far better than beginning with a loss. Added to that caution, a new ball is often used for the first time at the World Cup. With those two elements combined, it's no wonder opening games can be touch and go.

Russia may be able to ride home advantage to edge the Saudis, but it won't be easy. The host team has lost three of its four games in 2018 and has scored just twice. Last year, the Russian results looked better with three draws from four matches and a 4-2 win over Korea and a 3-3 tie with Spain.

There is one bit of history, however, that will help the Russians overcome any opening- game jitters they may encounter. When hosts England drew 0-0 with Uruguay in 1966, it was the start of a winning World Cup campaign. It's against the odds, but Russia will hope to do the same.