As I type this, Algeria and Slovenia are convincing me I shouldn’t have woken up at 6am to watch them both hamfistedly try to score a goal. It has just finished 1-0 to Slovenia and that comes after the first two days of the World Cup produced a pitiful 1.4 goals per game, the lowest total for that period of games since 1986. We are now at 1.33.
So where are all the goals, despite a couple of terrible goalkeeping blunders already?
It’s very, very early to be drawing the conclusion that we could be headed for a historically low-scoring tournament, though we do have a sample of almost 10% of the games already.
But in the broader sweep of World Cup history, it would be no surprise if the number of goals declined again in this World Cup, as the following list of goals average per World Cup illustrates:
Uruguay, 1930: 3.9 goals per match
Italy, 1934: 4.1
France, 1938: 4.7
Brazil, 1950: 4.0
Switzerland, 1954: 5.4
Sweden, 1958: 3.8
Chile, 1962: 2.8
England, 1966: 2.8
Mexico, 1970: 3.0
Germany, 1974: 2.6
Argentina, 1978: 2.8
Spain, 1982: 2.8
Mexico, 1986: 2.5
Italy, 1990: 2.2
USA, 1994: 2.7
France, 1998: 2.7
Korea/Japan 2002: 2.5
Germany, 2006: 2.3
If we divided the 18 World Cups into three eras of six tournaments each, we’d have:
The first era (1930-1958): 4.3 goals
The second era (1962-1982): 2.8
The third era (1986-2006): 2.5
The first era saw teams travelling long distances in an uncomfortable manner, often extremely ill-prepared for the games, with just a day or two of training together. The variation in the quality of teams was extraordinary, leading to some seriously lopsided games that were probably less fun to watch than a 0-0 draw from a standpoint of serious sporting competition: Italy shellacking the United States 7-1 in 1934, Hungary beating the Dutch East Indies 6-0 in 1938, Brazil beating Sweden 7-1 in 1950, Hungary crushing Korea 9-0 in 1954, and so on. Indeed, in that ridiculous 1954 tournament, the six matches in Group 1 saw the following results: 4-1, 9-0, 8-3, 7-0, 7-2. I guess if you like your football as a 101 Best Goals Compilation, this was the tournament for you.
In the second era from 1962-1982, football as a modern game settled into something that now seems more like “normal”. Creative genius from a Pele or Cruyff could unlock a defense, but teams were now better organised, players more familiar with each other from international club play. Teams also became more cynical, with deliberate fouls injuring key players, and tighter tactics. All this led to a decline in the number of goals, but games were also more even, yet often still high-scoring. The goals scored in the actual World Cup final itself across these eras are interesting in this regard. In the second period, the results were: 3-1, 4-2, 4-1, 2-1, 3-1, 3-1. Every team in the final scored at least one goal.
The first era (1930-1958): 5 goals
The second era (1962-1982): 3.7
The third era (1986-2006): 2.8
In the third era, as the goals per game across all the games in the tournament and in the six finals themselves show, the sport became much lower-scoring and much more attritional.The results in the final games were 3-2, 1-0, 0-0, 3-0, 2-0, 1-1: so on four occasions, at least one of the two finalists did not score a goal.
Dunga, from 1994 to the present day as a player and a coach, epitomises this change, as does Brazil’s style of play, which appears to be increasingly inverse to the Nike hype surrounding them. Players are bigger, stronger, faster and fitter; the pitch and the goal have essentially shrunk, with goalkeepers taller and having greater reach (Robert Green aside).
FIFA has made efforts to reverse the drastic decline in goals scored, with some limited success: the nadir of Italia ’90 with just 2.2 goals per game was turned around to go back up to 2.7 at USA ’94, thanks to the new restrictions on the backpass put into place and, arguably, a greater clampdown on cynical fouls by referees.
But by Germany 2006, we were back at just 2.3 goals per game. Should this World Cup see the number decline below the low of 1990, FIFA and the football world at large will surely have to give serious consideration on how to stop the game becoming ever more dull and turgid on its biggest stage.