It wasn’t the rousing, festive opening that we’re used to seeing from World Cups – the types that helped usher in Brazil (2014), South Africa (2010), Germany (2006) and Japan/South Korea (2002) – but the first day of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia was, at least, a first day. Our four-year drought that reached its apex in these final days, weeks and months before the World Cup's return finally ended at 8:00 a.m. PT today when, seemingly from the opening whistle, Russia absolutely pasted Saudi Arabia.
Russia is the host nation, but they’re not expected to make much noise in this tournament. In fact, grouped with Uruguay and Egypt, many aren’t picking them to make the knockout round. For one day, though, in front of a crowd that was the predictable mix of home-nation support, corporate opulence, and world travelers intent on seeing game one, the world’s 70th-ranked team had the spotlight to themselves. Their 5-0 win was more that most could have reasonable foresaw.
Cast into the shadows was a Saudi Arabia team making its first World Cup appearance since Germany 2006. In that context, even making it to Russia was noteworthy, but with their lopsided loss on the tournament’s opening day, the Green Falcons (amazing nickname) joined a somewhat ignominious list – teams that were sacrificed at the altar of the home nation’s debut.
Brazil was a kind host in 2014, opening their World Cup with an own goal against Croatia. That the Seleçao came back to thump the checkered Modrićes, 3-1, only made that initial gift more pleasant. Welcome to São Paulo, beloved guests. We’ll treat you better than most, but not for long.
In 2006, Germany posted four on Costa Rica in a six-goal, opening match shootout, while in 2002, South Korea augured a semifinal run by taking a 2-0 win over Poland. Four years before, it was France dousing South Africa, 3-0, the most one-sided host debut since Brazil’s 4-0 drumming of Mexico in 1950, but nowhere near as bad as the 7-1 embarrassment the U.S. suffered at the boots of Italy in 1934.
Hosts have stumbled in openers, before. It was only eight years ago the South Africa was held to a 1-1 draw with Mexico to open the 2010 competition. By in large, though, hosts have had their way to open their tournaments. All-time, host nations are now 18-0-6 and have outscored their opponents by 38 goals.
So take heart, Saudi Arabian fans! You’re not the 1934 U.S. side! You’re not the 2018 one, either. You’re actually at a World Cup, and while, yes, the flood gates opened late, at least the tournament has finally come.
What’s going on here?
World Cup coverage? On Timbers.com? It may seen counterintuitive, but let’s be honest: When this tournament arrives, it the center of most fans’ focus.
We’re still going to be covering our three professional teams – the Timbers, Thorns FC, and T2 – but every day, we’re also going to talk about the World Cup, and not just what’s happening halfway across the world. On the field, on social and in our communities, we’ll talk about what’s happening with the biggest event in sports, following our players as well as our fans as this quadrennial celebration reaches its crescendo.
The one-match day that opens each World Cup provides a nice, smooth runway for those of us who will, inevitably, have our lives defined by this tournament. Remember that feeling at the final whistle today? Treasure it, because tomorrow, that feeling will be replaced by the urgency of another game coming right on its heels. Kiss your children and hug your significant others, now. They’ll grow to hate you over the next month.
Speaking of hate, what must the Saudi Arabia defense be feeling in light of this, the second goal Russia posted on them, today:
Go find another angle on this. We’re using this because it’s the one FOX Soccer’s got up on social. If you saw the live broadcast, though, you saw Denys Cheryshev, a first-half sub, touch the ball over two sliding defenders before doubling his team’s lead. It a little was Matrix-esque, and easily the biggest highlight of the Cup’s opener.
Russia’s 5-0 win puts them in great shape as far as goal difference is concerned, but with their group’s two toughest matches still to come, there’s no guarantee the host nation makes the second round. Against both Egypt and Uruguay, they could be seen as underdogs.
The fun stuff
1. Vladimir Putin’s reaction to his royal Saudi guest (sitting beside FIFA president Gianni Infantino) was about as, “you didn’t think I let this game play out on its own, did you,” as you could get.
2. Finally, the second-half appearance of one of sports’ hotly contest traditions caused surprisingly little debate on social media. Alas, as Statbomb’s/The Athletic’s Mike Goodman notes, the wave – regional/cultural affiliation or not – made its first appearance of the tournament today at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Congratulations, Internet, on not taking Mike’s bait. I, for one, was not as strong.
Guzmán and Polo
For the first time, the Portland Timbers have players in a World Cup, and although neither play until the weekend, their preparations are obviously ramping up:
David Guzmán and Costa Rica struggled coming into the World Cup, dropping 2-0 and 4-1 results to Egypt and Belgium in the week before the tournament. Sunday marks the beginning of their competition, with a winnable game against Serbia also casting the Ticos as underdogs. However Costa Rica performs this month, Major League Soccer has been a major reason why it's reached Russia, as ESPN reported.
By the time Costa Rica takes the field, Andy Polo and Peru will already know how their World Cup has started. On Saturday, la Banquirroja take on Denmark in a game pitting the two teams most likely to advance with France out of Group C. Only one of them can, though, making Saturday’s game (as well as each team’s matchup with the group’s other nation, Australia) so vitally important.
Tomorrow, things get real. That’s when us Pacific timezoners put the coffee pots to the test, with the 5:00 a.m. kickoff between Egypt and Uruguay finally answering one of the buildup’s most persistent questions: Will we see Mohamed Salah?
The Liverpool star suffered a shoulder injury in the UEFA Champions League final and has been the subject of doubts ahead of the Pharaoh’s long-awaited World Cup return. With him, Egypt’s a threat to reach the knockout round. Without him, they’re … well, far less of a threat.
That’s Group A. Over in Group B, the day’s most anticipated matchup kicks off at 11:00 a.m., with European champions Portugal facing 2010 winners Spain in Sochi. The Spaniards came into the tournament as one of its favorites but fired their head coach, Julen Lopetegui, on Wednesday amid news he’d signed a contract to join Real Madrid post-tournament. Former La Roja standout Fernando Hierro has taken up Lopetegui’s responsibilities, but whether the former champs can still be considered a tournament favorite will have to be tested tomorrow.
Before then, Iran and Morocco face off in Saint Petersburg, the second in a three-match set that should inch us closer to our full World Cup rhythm. Three matches tomorrow, four-a-day after that, with games starting a 3:00 a.m. Pacific through this opening, group stage round.
We can’t promise you we’ll watch every game, but we’ll make sure you know what goes down. Strap yourselves in, friendos. The World Cup is finally upon us.