Let the games begin: 3 memorable World Cup openers

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The wait is finally over. With baited breath, the world has yearned for the chance to watch Stanislav Cherchesov’s Russia team take on Juan Antonio Pizzi’s Saudi Arabian outfit.

Expect a wholesome football feast…and Robbie Williams singing Angels in front of a baffled, packed-out Luzhniki Stadium.

It’s likely to kick-start the tournament for the host nation and hopefully allows the furore around match-fixing and dubious refereeing decisions to fizzle away. Or at least until next Tuesday when Russia take on Egypt.

But the World Cup is finally here!

1. Dubious refereeing in the 2014 opener in Rio

Talking of dubious refereeing, this was a humdinger. Four years ago in Rio, referee Yuichi Nishimura, god bless him, seemed determined for Brazil to beat the plucky Croatians in the tournament opener.

Nishimura gave Brazil a late penalty, because, why not. The host nation eventually triumphed 3-1, much to the delight of a football-mad country, and Nishimura.

That night, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitić were immense but not even they could prevent the refereeing injustice which Dejan Lovren described as ‘scandalous’.

The Brazilians meanwhile seemed to suffocate under the theatrical expectation of the home crowd. Neymar appeared to be playing the tournament on his own. So hell-bent was he on single-handedly leading his nation to glory that he broke his back under the sheer weight of it all. Aha. Quite the burden indeed.

There’s an oft-used term from the 2014 tournament that Germany’s 7-1 defeat of the home nation ‘shook the world’. In truth, anyone who’d even caught a few fleeting glimpses of the group stages knew the whole thing was inevitable.

Alas, the shadiest referee in the world could not prevent Brazil’s quarter-final washing at the hands of Germany.

Neymar sat on the sidelines as his team were dispatched in such cartoon fashion that even some German fans couldn’t watch, as though witnessing the demise of the Krusty Burglar:

“Stop! Stop! He’s already dead”

2. Senegal shock holders France in 2002

In their first ever World Cup match, Senegal shocked the holders France in the opening game of World Cup 2002. Papa Bouba Diop – ‘the Wardrobe’ – announced himself to the world as they deservedly beat a lacklustre French side who looked worryingly short of ideas.

Senegal battled their way through a tricky group stage, eventually being knocked out by a tough Turkish side at the quarter-final stage.

The plucky underdog story was a doozy, although the most disheartening thing about Senegal’s campaign in 2002 was the emergence of El Hadji Diouf on the Premier League radar. Gerard Houllier signed the Senegalese forward prior to the tournament opener, although his performances in Japan and South Korea raised expectations to a disproportionate level.

Diouf played for Liverpool for three full seasons before moving on to a host of clubs across England. It never quite worked out for him at Anfield. Still, at least Jamie Carragher has fond memories of his old Liverpool team-mate:

“He has one of the worst strike rates of any forward in Liverpool history. He’s the only no. 9 ever to go through a whole season without scoring, in fact he’s probably the only no. 9 of any club to do that. And he was always the last one to get picked in training”

3. Brazil narrowly beat Scotland in 1998

In the glorious Paris sunshine, this was an opening match almost laughable in its mismatched nature. At the time of kick off, Brazil had the first and second best players in the world; Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos respectively. In contrast to Brazil’s front three of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Bebeto, Scotland had Gordon Drurie and Darren Jackson.

Scotland boss Craig Brown phoned his old mate Bobby Robson to ask him how to play against his former player, Ronaldo. Robson said:

“You don’t stop him. He’s the best I have ever dealt with. Cut off the supply, find out where he gets the ball”

Brazil predictably opened the scoring within five minutes through Cesar Sampaio, but Scotland rode the storm and equalised from the spot through John Collins.

The Scots were desperately unlucky not to come away with a point – the game being decided by a late bobbled own-goal by Tom Boyd.

Their manager looks back with great fondness:

“The first thing I think of when I think of France 98 is pride. It was a proud time for the Scottish team because we qualified for two consecutive tournaments. Overall I was very proud of the team”

For all the jesting pre-tournament about the squad being brim full of cloggers, Scotland battled valiantly but tragically lost out in the final match of the group stages in France ’98.

Perhaps more worrying still, they haven’t qualified for a World Cup ever since.

Chris Henderson

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