Ahead of Russia vs Saudi Arabia, we rank the World Cup’s best opening matches from bottom to top. We’ve excluded the World Cups where there were numerous opening matches played simultaneously (in 1934 for instance there were eight).
15. Mexico 1970 – Mexico 0-0 Soviet Union
An underwhelming start as the Soviet Union’s abrasive approach saw them pick up four yellow cards to successfully break up the game and kept the hosts at bay.
Not only was this a drab opening to the World Cup but there was a full day’s rest afterwards for everyone to wait around frustratingly for another match.
14. England 1966 – England 0 Uruguay 0
A tournament that ended in ecstasy for the host nation began with England playing out a turgid 0-0 draw with Uruguay.
In fact the Wembley supporters were so angered by Uruguay’s spoiling tactics that the final whistle was met with whistles and jeers.
A very disappointing start to a tournament that ended with probably the most entertaining final in the competition’s history. Just goes to show the folly of making rash judgments based on very little evidence – something that would never happen nowadays of course.
13. Argentina 1978 – Germany 0-0 Poland
Bizarrely, this was the fourth straight World Cup in which the opening game finished goalless. Germany were the reigning champions, but this was a tricky opening match against a team that ended up winning the group.
12. Germany 1974 – Brazil 0-0 Yugoslavia
No goals but plenty of incident, as Brazil dominated the first half but Yugoslavia came back in the second. Jairzinho should have put Brazil in front after a sumptuous Brazilian free-kick routine, before Branko Oblak headed onto the post for Yugoslavia late on.
11. USA 1994 – Germany 1 Bolivia 0
A match played in sweltering conditions in Chicago slowed to a pedestrian pace for long periods, and included an impromptu drinks break for both teams in the second half.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s second-half goal decided the match despite suspicions that Thomas Hassler was offside in the build-up.
Bolivian striker Marco ‘El Diablo’ Etcheverry then livened up proceedings by getting sent off for kicking Germany captain Lothar Matthaus just four minutes after coming on as a substitute.
10. Spain 1982 – Argentina 0-1 Belgium
The holders were humbled in Barcelona as they were beaten by the highly-rated Belgians.
The match was supposed to be a chance for Barcelona’s new signing Diego Maradona to enchant the Nou Camp, but instead things fell flat for ‘El Diego’ and his team-mates.
Erwin Vandenbergh’s cooly taken goal in the second half ensured the defending champions would get off to the worst possible start.
9. South Africa 2010 – South Africa 1 Mexico 1
A decent game lit up by a truly spectacular goal that briefly allowed South African fans to dream that they could achieve something special at the first African World Cup.
With the incessant din of Vuvuzelas ringing in his ears, Siphiwe Tshabalala raced clear of the Mexican defenders and hammered an unerring finish into the top corner to put the hosts in front.
Mexico ended up equalising and South Africa ultimately failed to make it out of the group stages. But at least they had one golden World Cup moment to remember.
8. Mexico 1986 – Bulgaria 1 Italy 1
Italy and Bulgaria kicked off the 1986 World Cup with a game played right in the middle of the day, which wasn’t ideal for acclimatising to the brutal heat and humidity.
The defending champions Italy thought they had done enough to win when Alessandro Altobelli put them ahead in the first half, but they ultimately thew the lead away because as Barry Davies would later remark “they will not learn”.
After sitting deep and defending what they had in the first half, Nasko Sirakov’s header from barely inside the penalty area pegged them back with four minutes left.
Curiously, this was the only World Cup opening match between 1966 and 1994 inclusive in which both sides scored.
7. France 1938 – Switzerland 1 Germany 1 (aet)
The first World Cup to start with just a single game, and although not a thriller, it wins plenty of novelty points for a. being a knockout match; b. going to extra time; c. going to a replay.
Germany, ruled by Adolf Hitler at the time, took the lead through Josef Gauchel but were pegged back by Andre Abegglen’s eqauliser just before half the time.
After 120 minutes the teams still couldn’t be separated, so the match went to a replay that Switzerland won 4-2 five days later.
6. France 1998 – Brazil 2 Scotland 1
Fresh from showcasing their skills skills in an airport as part of a superlative Nike advert, Ronaldo and co arrived in France as favourites to retain the World Cup they had won four years earlier.
Scotland were expected to roll over in the opening match, but actually equipped themselves well until a second-half own goal from Tommy Boyd handed Brazil victory.
An exciting match though, which also included an early Cesar Sampaio headed goal and a nerveless John Collins penalty.
5. Brazil 1950 – Brazil 4 Mexico 0
As World Cup openers go, the host nation and favourites producing a thrilling performance in a thumping win is right up there.
The convincing nature of the win at the Maracana – which included two goals for tournament top-scorer Ademir - convinced Brazil that they were going to get their hands on their first ever World Cup.
Three weeks later their dreams were dashed in heartbreaking fashion by Uruguay.
4. South Korea/Japan 2002 – France 0 Senegal 1
The world and European champions were stunned in Seoul by a sensational performance from the unheralded Senegalese.
France, missing the injured Zinedine Zidane, looked leaden-footed in the face of a high-tempo Senegal performance. El Hadji Diouf in particular was outstanding and made Papa Bouba Diop’s goal with a dart down the left. Both of those players earned moves to the Premier League based partly on their impressive World Cup displays.
The World Cup had started in thrilling style, and Senegal’s fearlessness set the tone for a tournament full of surprise results.
3. Brazil 2014 – Brazil 3 Croatia 1
A high-octane start to the tournament four years ago that set the tone for an extremely entertaining group stage. Defensive ineptitude from Brazil saw Marcelo prod into his own goal after just 11 minutes, before two goals from Neymar inspired the hosts to a comeback win.
Croatia were furious though at the penalty won by Fred that enabled Neymar to put Brazil 2-1 up in the second half. They were still raging when Oscar scampered through the heart of their defence and secured the win with an unconventional prod from outside the box in stoppage time.
2. Germany 2006 – Germany 4 Costa Rica 2
Comfortably the highest scoring game in this list, and like Brazil eight years later it set the tone for what was a very enjoyable event.
As well as kicking off the tournament perfectly, as a standalone game it had everything. Germany started and finished the match with glorious long-range goals – from Philipp Lahm and Torsten Frings – and in between times Premier League cult hero Paulo Wanchope and World Cup superman Miroslav Klose each scored twice.
The match was also significant for heralding a transformation in German football. Out was the efficient, functional football of years gone by; in was a progressive, young side that would charm the world with its enterprising style of play.
1. Italy 1990 – Argentina 0 Cameroon 1
A match that would go down in World Cup folklore, as the holders Argentina were chopped down (literally) by the heavily patronised Cameroonians.
Prior to the game, no-one gave Cameroon a chance of a victory and the players bristled at the lazy stereotypes of witch doctors and juju magic that they felt many reporters threw at them.
After Francois Omam-Biyik put them ahead in the 67th minute, Cameroon – already down to 10 men after the goalscorer’s brother André Kana-Biyik had been sent off – settled into a defensive shape and stifled Diego Maradona with their rugged approach.
Argentina sent on Claudio Caniggia to try and break down their opponents stubborn defence, but he was brutally poleaxed by three consecutive fouls that eventually ended with Benjamin Massing hitting him with such force that one of Caniggia’s boots came flying off.
Massing was sent off, but the nine men of Cameroon held on. Perceptions of African football were never quite the same again.
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