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World Cup Comebacks

With the 2010 World Cup now a slowly fading memory, we continue our series of tournament reviews by looking at the excitement factor. It was a World Cup without a signature ‘classic match’ standing out to be remembered in years to come. Yes, it had it’s fair share of dramatic incidents, memorable moments and some tremendous goals but there was no real thriller of a game to keep us on the edge of our seats throughout the ninety minutes and send us on a roller-coaster of emotions.

This was probably due to the defensive outlook of many teams. It was the norm to approach any game against one of the tournament favourites with a plan to simply defend and frustrate the opposition. Many teams showed little ambition to score themselves. Two defensive midfielders were de rigeur for most coaches and defences were better organised than ever before, with all eleven players usually being well drilled in their defensive duties. These tactics left little scope for beautiful football to flourish and precious little chance of any high scoring games, especially in the opening rounds of the group stage where, more than ever before, teams were simply desperate not to lose.

The winners can usually be relied upon to weigh in with their fair share of goals, but on that front Spain were disappointing. They played neat and tidy passing football, keeping possession effortlessly, but repeatedly failed to find a cutting edge in the final third. Their main goal threat actually came from set pieces, where Puyol and Ramos were dominant in the air, and their tally of 8 goals in 7 games was comfortably the lowest ever for a World Cup winner. Their four knockout phase matches were all won 1-0.

Of the 64 matches at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, only 28 (43.75%) saw both teams find the net. This was probably because most teams that did manage to take the lead immediately became even more defensively minded once they had something to hang on to. Instead of pushing forward in search of more goals to extend their lead, they typically shut up shop and attempted to kill off the game. There were even fewer games where the lead actually changed hands: Greece 2-1 Nigeria, Denmark 2-1 Cameroon, Holland 2-1 Brazil and Germany 3-2 Uruguay were the only 4 matches in which both teams had the lead at some point. It’s a shame that Germany against Uruguay was the Third Place Play-off match because if was arguably the best game of the tournament and the only one in which the lead changed hands twice. Had it been a semi final, it could have been the classic match the tournament needed.

This brings us on to the subject of comebacks, which are surely one of the most exciting football spectacles. Those four matches could be called comebacks but they only involved a team recovering from one goal down. The biggest comeback, and only recovery from two or more goals down in World Cup 2010, was by the USA in their group game against Slovenia. They came back from 2-0 down at half time to draw level and even had a late winner wrongly disallowed. England also fought back from 2-0 down - or they would have done had the referee spotted the ball crossing the line for Frank Lampard’s ‘equaliser’ – in their knockout match against Germany. The goal was disallowed and we were denied the spectacle of only the 29th fight back from two goals down in World Cup history.

A closer examination of the previous 28 World Cup fightbacks shows what a crucial decision that proved to be, because 75% of the teams who have managed to come back from two or more goals down have gone on to secure a win or draw in the match. Taking only the data from World Cups post-1954 (to discount most of the freak scores from early tournaments), the figure is even higher – 88% of teams who have come back from a two (or more) goal deficit have gone on to win or draw the game. The last time a team lost having cancelled out a two goal deficit was back in 1994 when Holland drew level with Brazil at 2-2 only to concede again and lose 3-2 in their quarter final. Germany had only once previously thrown away a two goal advantage at the World Cup and on that occasion they went on to lose 4-2 to Switzerland. England had come back from two down once before and ended up drawing 2-2 with the USSR.

The consequences of letting a two goal lead slip are plainly there for all to see. Once you’ve lost such a lead, you are very unlikely to get it back. The psychological impact on the players is immense as they see their hard work undone before them and the momentum swinging firmly towards their opponents. On one side heads drop, on the other the adrenaline is rushing and they can almost feel the wind behind their sails. It takes a very mentally strong group of players to recover from the hammer blow of losing a two goal cushion to regain the initiative and score a winner. It has happened only twice in the last 56 years, so perhaps England would have taken Germany to extra time and penalties had Lampard’s goal been allowed.

The full list of World Cup matches during which a team has come back level from a deficit of two (or more) goals is shown below. Credit must go to Portugal (1966), Colombia (1962) and Austria (1954) for the only three-goal comebacks – perhaps the greatest World Cup comebacks of all time. Incredibly, Germany have come back from two or more goals down on six occasions. The next best is Mexico on three and the team to have lost the most two goal leads at the World Cup is Hungary, also three times.

(The team that made the comeback is shown first in bold and in green where they went on to win the game or red where they went on to lose)

World Cup Comebacks

2010 USA 2-2 Slovenia
2006 Ivory Coast 3-2 Serbia
2002 Uruguay 3-3 Senegal
2002 South Africa 2-2 Paraguay
1998 Mexico 2-2 Belgium
1998 Mexico 2-2 Holland
1998 Germany 2-2 Yugoslavia
1994 South Korea 2-2 Spain
1994 Holland 2-3 Brazil
1986 Germany 2-3 Argentina
1982 Germany 3-3 France
1970 Peru 3-2 Bulgaria
1970 Germany 3-2 England
1966 Portugal 5-3 North Korea [3 goal comeback]
1962 Colombia 4-4 USSR [3 goal comeback]
1958 Germany 2-2 Czechoslovakia
1958 England 2-2 USSR
1954 Mexico 2-3 France
1954 Belgium 4-4 England
1954 Austria 7-5 Switzerland [3 goal comeback]
1954 Uruguay 2-4 Hungary
1954 Germany 3-2 Hungary
1950 USA 2-5 Chile
1950 Paraguay 2-2 Sweden
1938 Poland 5-6 Brazil
1938 Switzerland 4-2 Germany
1938 Brazil 4-2 Sweden
1934 Egypt 2-4 Hungary

NB: There were no comebacks from two or more goals behind in the 1930, 1974, 1978 or 1990 World Cups.

All Time Record:
TOTAL: 28 teams have come back from 2 or more goals down at the World Cup
8 went on to win (29%)
13 went on to draw (46%)
7 went on to lose (25%)

Since 1954:
TOTAL: 17 teams have come back from 2 or more goals down at the World Cup
4 went on to win (23.5%)
11 went on to draw (64.7%)
2 went on to lose (11.8%)

More than one 2-goal comeback:
Germany 6
Mexico 3
USA 2
Uruguay 2

Lost a 2-goal lead more than once:
Hungary 3
Serbia/Yugoslavia 2
Brazil 2
France 2
England 2
USSR 2
Sweden 2

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