The World Cup can be a lonely place when things aren’t going well. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni and Germany coach Hansi Flick will feel this isolation after their opening round defeats. While football fans around the world savored the two big shocks that kick-started the World Cup, Scaloni and Flick will know their early struggles needn’t define this tournament for their teams.
It’s long been a football tenet that world champions tend to start slow and you can draw inspiration from previous teams that started badly and achieved great things. History suggests that coaches shouldn’t panic after an early loss. The teams that stick to the plan that got them to the World Cup usually do better than those that make sweeping changes.
For Argentina, one of the big favorites ahead of the tournament, Spain’s triumph at the 2010 World Cup may be their greatest consolation. Vicente del Bosque’s side arrived in South Africa for the World Cup in frightening form, having won Euro 2008 two years earlier. The 1-0 defeat against Switzerland shook the tournament.
Despite the team’s past successes, the Spanish press reacted angrily. They questioned whether the players were good enough to win the World Cup, called for midfielder Sergio Busquets to be dropped and criticized Del Bosque. It had all the ingredients for a high-profile meltdown.
Realizing the importance of the moment, Del Bosque called a summit meeting with his veteran players and invited them to express their feelings in an open forum without fear of reproach. The unanimous decision was not to stray off course, but to stand firm and, in true football language, trust the process.
History shows that this was the right decision. Spain won their next group game against Honduras before ending their rescue mission by beating Chile and qualifying for the round of 16. Once that hurdle was cleared, they have never looked back. Spain won their four knockout games – all 1-0 – to become world champions for the first time in their history.
Loyalty was also the theme when Italy won the 1982 World Cup Azzurri Avoiding defeat in the tournament’s opening game, a disappointing 0-0 draw with Poland set the tone for a turbulent group stage, and three draws against lower-ranked nations saw them through to the next round.
As with Spain, irritation directed at the team was intense, with Italy coach Enzo Bearzot – and misfiring striker Paolo Rossi – the target of the greatest ire of the national press. Bearzot’s faith in Rossi, who had only just returned from a two-year suspension, was seen as a key factor but instead of giving in, the Italy coach doubled down.
The team was now at war with the media, with Bearzot and captain Dino Zoff smashing away any questions that came their way in one fell swoop. And Rossi? He was just warmed up. He has scored six goals in Italy’s last three games – including a hat-trick against favorites Brazil in the second group stage – as an Italian Azzurri won their third world championship. Eventually winning the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball, Rossi knew who to thank for his success. “It was elementary that Bearzot trusted me,” said the striker. “Without a coach like Bearzot, we probably wouldn’t be doing this interview about that win and how I became top scorer.”
Argentina’s run to the 1990 World Cup final followed a similar pattern. Their manager, Carlos Bilardo, stuck to his pragmatic principles and helped the defending champions recover from a shock defeat by Cameroon in the opening game.
Holding on is often the best approach, but some managers have benefited from reshuffling the pack after an early setback. In 1974, hosts West Germany started slowly, beating Chile 1-0 before beating Australia in the second game. Helmut Schön had led the team to the World Cup final in 1966, to third place in 1970 and then to European champions in 1972, but his team didn’t click that well.
Particular attention was paid to their last group game, a grudge against neighbors East Germany – the first meeting between the two sides of the divided nation. To add to the suspense, Schön was born in Dresden on the east side of the Berlin Wall before fleeing west and rising through the coaching ranks.
As West Germany’s poor start continued with a 1-0 loss to East Germany – meaning East Germany finished top of the group at West Germany’s expense – Schön suffered a kind of meltdown. He cut himself off from his squad and asked his veteran players to help them recover from the loss.
Schön’s instinct to involve the players was similar to what Del Bosque would do a few decades later, but instead of deciding to stick with the same approach, the coach – along with the help of captain Franz Beckenbauer – took a new direction, particularly that Bring in young midfielder Rainer Bonhof. The changes did it. West Germany beat Yugoslavia, Sweden and Poland to secure their place in the final, where they defeated the Netherlands 2-1, with Bonhof setting up Gerd Müller to score the winning goal.
Whichever route Scaloni and Flick take as they try to revive their side after shock defeats in Qatar, they will be unable to draw the eyes of the world to them. So what will it be – Stick or Twist?