The World Cup can be a lonely place when things aren’t going well. And after making losing starts to their campaigns in Qatar, Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni and Germany manager Hansi Flick will be feeling that isolation right now – despite the number of people currently stuffed into the Gulf state.
But while the globe’s football fraternity is basking in the two big shocks that have kickstarted the 2022 World Cup, Scaloni and Flick will know opening-day struggles don’t necessarily translate into a disastrous tournament.
It’s long been considered football lore that World Cup winners tend to make slow starts and it’ll be the examples of these past champions – and not those of big nations wilting early on – that will provide inspiration for a recovery.
If that’s going to happen, history suggests that not panicking is key and, more often than not, those managers who refuse to completely abandon the plan they arrived at the World Cup with normally fair better than those that make sweeping changes.
For Argentina as one of the big pre-tournament favourites, Spain’s winners from 2010 may provide the most solace.
La Roja had arrived at the World Cup in South Africa on the back of a fearsome run of form and had blown the competition away to win Euro 2008 two years earlier, so a 1-0 defeat against Switzerland rocked the tournament.
Despite what the group had achieved previously, the Spanish press reacted angrily, questioning if the players were good enough to win the World Cup, calling for midfielder Sergio Busquets to be dropped and criticising manager Vicente Del Bosque. It had all the ingredients for a high-profile meltdown.
Del Bosque recognised the importance of the moment and called a summit meeting with his senior players, inviting them to air their feelings in an open forum without fear of recrimination. And the unanimous decision was not to veer off track, stand firm and, in true football parlance, trust the process.
History suggests that was the right decision, with Spain winning their next group game against Honduras before completing their rescue mission to beat Chile and qualify for the knockouts. Once that hurdle had been passed, they never looked back.
Loyalty was also the theme of Italy’s 1982 World Cup win. While the Azzurri avoided defeat in their opening match of the tournament, a disappointing 0-0 draw with Poland set the tone for a turgid group stage, with three draws against low-ranked nations seeing them squeeze into the next round.
As with Spain, the vitriol being aimed at the team was fierce, with Italy manager Enzo Bearzot – and misfiring striker Paolo Rossi – the target of most of the national press’s ire. Bearzot’s faith in Rossi, who had only just returned following a two-year ban, was seen as a key factor, but instead of relenting, the Italian boss doubled down.
It was now war with the press, with Bearzot and captain Dino Zoff dead-batting any questions fired their way so not to give anything away. And Rossi? He was just getting warmed up, as he scored six goals in Italy’s last three games – including a hat-trick to knockout favourites Brazil in the second group stage – to help the Azzurri win their third World Cup. Rossi was clear why.
“The fact that Bearzot trusted me was fundamental,” Rossi said in an interview for Fifa.com. “Without a coach like Bearzot, we probably wouldn’t be having this interview about this victory and how I became top scorer.”
Argentina’s run to the World Cup final in 1990 followed a similar trend, as manager Carlos Bilardo stuck to his pragmatic principles to help his holders get over a shock defeat to Cameroon in their opening match.
So if holding firm can be the key to recovery after making a poor start, are there any examples of managers who have shuffled the pack to find the answer?
The most famous instance of this was back in 1974, but not after an opening-day defeat. Instead, hosts West Germany had started out with a win as they edged past Chile 1-0, following up with a 3-0 defeat of Australia to book their passage into the second phase after only two matches.
This doesn’t sound much like a story that fits the criteria of a slow start, but it was clear to all observers that West Germany weren’t clicking in quite the same way as they had done in previous tournaments.
There was particular focus on their final group match, a grudge match with neighbours East Germany – the first time the divided nation’s two sides had faced off. To add to the tension, West Germany’s manager Helmut Schon was born in Dresden on the east side of the Berlin Wall, before escaping to the west and working up coaching ranks.
So when West Germany’s sluggish start continued with a 1-0 defeat to East Germany, which meant the East took top spot in their group at the West’s expense, Schon reportedly suffered what was close to a mental breakdown. He shut himself away from the squad, requesting the input of senior players to help pick the bones out a defeat that could have had catastrophic consequences.
Schon’s approach may have echoes of what Del Bosque would do several decades later with Spain in 2010, but instead of deciding to stick, the German boss – along with the help of captain Franz Beckenbauer – changed the team’s success and moved in new personnel, most notably young midfielder Rainer Bonhof.
The changes did the trick, with West Germany winning each of their next three second group stage matches and the final to clinch the title.
Whichever way Scaloni and Flick go as they try to pick their sides up from shock defeats in Qatar, they won’t be able to avoid the eyes of the world on them. So what will it be – stick or twist?
Chris Evans is the author of How to Win the World Cup: Secrets and Insights from International Football’s Top Managers (Bloomsbury), which is out now and includes exclusive interviews with the likes of Sir Geoff Hurst, Roberto Martinez and Jamie Carragher.