World Cup 2018: The best World Cup debuts as Iceland and Panama prepare to make their bows

Matt Jones 30/05/2018
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Iceland will appear at their maiden World Cup, having reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.

The World Cup is a wonderful occasion – drawing together some of the biggest and most obscure names in football.

Since the first two tournaments where, naturally, most teams appeared for the first time, 2006 featured the third-most debutants, with Angola, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago and Ukraine all making their bows.

The World Cup usually turns out to be a colourful affair, with nations from all four corners of the world congregating in one place.

Who can forget iconic Zaire defender Mwepu Ilunga, who broke from the wall prior to the referee’s whistle with legendary Brazilians Rivelino and Jairzinho stood over a free-kick and booting the ball away at the 1974 tournament.

While Zaire’s debut will live in infamy, at least they have a spot reserved in World Cup folklore, unlike many of the minnows who serve as little more than cannon fodder for the big fish.

But, there have also been some scintillating performances on debut. Here’s a look at some of them.

CROATIA

Third place 1998

Croatia sensationally finished third in 1998.

Croatia sensationally finished third in 1998.

Croatia’s performance in 1998 was among the best debuts at the World Cup, equaling Portugal’s third place in 1966 and the USA in 1930. As a result, they rose to number three in the January 1999 FIFA world rankings, their highest ranking to date.

Led by Miroslav Blazevic, a golden generation beat Jamaica and Japan and lost to Argentina in the group phase, before defeating Romania to reach a quarter-final tie against Germany, then ranked second in the world.

Croatia won 3-0 with goals from Robert Jarni, Goran Vlaovic and Davor Suker, thanks in large part to Christian Worns’ red card. They lost to hosts France 2-1 in the semis but claimed third place by beating the Netherlands 2-1, with Suker winning the Golden Boot after netting six goals in seven games. Incredible.

PORTUGAL

Third place 1966

Eusebio's goals took Portugal to third place in 1966.

Eusebio’s goals took Portugal to third place in 1966.

“Without doubt, Eusebio was one of the finest players I ever had the privilege to play against”. The words of Manchester United and England legend Sir Bobby Charlton.

England won on home soil but the tournament belonged to Portugal and their undoubted star, known as the Black Panther, and he certainly pounced to make his mark.

The 1965 Ballon d’Or winner scored nine goals in the tournament, including four in a 5-3 quarter-final victory for the debutants against North Korea, who had raced into a 3-0 lead at Goodison Park. He had earlier scored a brace in a 3-1 group stage win over reigning two-time champions Brazil that saw Pele and Co make an early exit.

They came up against Charlton and England in the semi-final, Eusebio again scoring but unable to have quite the same impact as they were defeated 2-1.

That placed Portugal into a third-place play-off against the Soviets, during which Eusebio scored his ninth goal of the tournament and finished as tournament top scorer as he led his country to a 2-1 win.

UNITED STATES

Third place 1930

More renowned for playing the game of football with their hands and helmets, the US have nevertheless been regulars at the World Cup, making 10 appearances.

They featured in the first tournament, in 1930, beginning in style by beating Belgium 3-0. Bert Patenaude, who was originally credited with two of the goals, was awarded the third by FIFA in 2006 and he is thus credited with being the first player to score a hat-trick at a World Cup.

In the semi-finals, the US lost to Argentina 6-1. There was no third place game but, using the overall tournament records in 1986, FIFA again came to their aide and credited them with a third-place finish ahead of fellow semi-finalists Yugoslavia.

This remains America’s best World Cup result, and is the highest finish of any team from outside South America and Europe.

UKRAINE

Quarter-finals 2006  

Andriy Shevchenko starred for Ukraine in 2006.

Andriy Shevchenko starred for Ukraine in 2006.

In their first World Cup, Ukraine emerged from a group containing Spain, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. They recovered from a 4-0 thrashing in their opener against the Spanish to defeat the other two and reach the knock-out stage.

In the round of 16, they overcame Group G winners Switzerland, claiming victory on penalties. In the quarter-finals, they were finally beaten 3-0 by eventual champions Italy.

WALES   

Quarter-finals 1958  

A 17-year-old Pele (l) scored the only goal was Wales were beaten by Brazil in the 1958 quarter-finals.

A 17-year-old Pele (l) scored the only goal as Wales were beaten by Brazil in the 1958 quarter-finals.

When Wales tend to get to football’s grandest stage, they make the most of it. The problem is their presence is very rarified, having only appeared at one World Cup. Though they made a triumphant return to the global stage at the 2016 European Championships – where they made it to the semi-finals and lost to eventual champions Portugal – their one previous appearance at the World Cup was 60 years ago, in 1958.

How was their debut? Pretty impressive as it turns out. Jimmy Murphy’s men made it all the way to the quarter-finals, where a little known 17-year-old Brazilian wonderkid – Pele – scored the only goal in a 1-0 win as the Samba Boys lifted their first trophy.

SENEGAL

Quarter-finals 2002

Senegal sensationally beat France at the 2002 World Cup.

Senegal sensationally beat France at the 2002 World Cup.

The Lions of Teranga will be roaring again in Russia, qualifying for just the second time. They reached the quarter-finals on their debut in 2002, one of only three African teams to do so (the first being Cameroon in 1990; the other being Ghana in 2010).

After defeating a French team dogged by in-fighting in their opener, they drew with Denmark and Uruguay, enough to see them emerge from the group. They would sensationally beat Sweden in extra-time in the round of 16, before losing to Turkey in the quarter-finals, Ilhan Mansız’s strike cruelly knocking them out in extra-time.

NORTHERN IRELAND

Quarter-finals 1958

Northern Ireland’s best World Cup performance was on debut at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, where they reached the quarter-finals after beating Czechoslovakia 2-1 in the play-off. They were knocked out by France in their following game, thrashed 4-0. But they had certainly made their mark.

They became the least populous country to qualify for the World Cup, a record that stood until Trinidad and Tobago made it to Germany in 2006.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND          

Quarter-finals 1990

Pat Bonner saves a penalty as Ireland overcame Romania in a shootout.

Pat Bonner saves a penalty as Ireland overcame Romania in a shootout.

Having reached the last eight of Euro 88 on their major finals tournament debut, three draws in the group stage against England, Egypt and the Netherlands was enough to see the Republic make the knockout stages of Italia 90. Virtually the entire country watched as they beat Romania on penalties, with Pat Bonner making a vital save and David O’Leary scoring the decisive spot-kick.

Ireland were then beaten cruelly 1-0 by hosts Italy in the quarter-final at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. During the tournament, the team were afforded an audience with Pope John Paul II, the only team to receive such an honour.

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Thiago Silva says Brazil will turn on the style at World Cup

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Brazil captain Thiago Silva has promised his side will deliver great football at the World Cup this summer.

The Samba Boys, who were the first team to qualify for the tournament in Russia, have a point to prove after their humbling on home soil four years ago.

They will be among the favourites to lift a sixth World Cup in July, but whatever happens, Silva expects it to be entertaining.

“We have prepared for this World Cup, first with Dunga and now with Tite, and in the two years we were developing,” he said.

“We have the chance to play in another World Cup and rewrite our story. We cannot promise the title, we can promise great matches.

“You will see we will play really well in the next match and by the time of the World Cup you will see great football.”

Brazil are famed for their extravagant style, with people fondly remembering the way they played, particularly in 1970.

With some of the top attacking talent in the world in the shape of Neymar and Philippe Coutinho, they are sure to be easy on the eye again, but Silva says they have some way to go before they emulate those famous sides of the past.

“I think that every generation has had their style and history and titles,” he added.

“We are different and I don’t want to make comparisons. We are making another moment in football, with other players.

“We are trying to reach our objectives and we are close and also a little bit far.

“We are doing our preparation right now and we have two friendlies to get more prepared and confident for the World Cup.

“Year by year we are growing and developing our football and getting more experienced.”

On his own form, the Paris St Germain defender added: “For me I am living my best moment in my career, playing a high level.

“I am 33 but feel like a child. I am giving the maximum I can.”

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Confusion reigns over Mohamed Salah's fitness after Liverpool physio rules him out of World Cup

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Mohamed Salah leaves the field injured in Kyiv

Mohamed Salah faces a fight to play in any of Egypt’s World Cup group games, according to one of Liverpool’s physiotherapists.

Club physio Ruben Pons has estimated Salah would normally need “three to four weeks” to recover from the left shoulder injury he sustained during Saturday’s Champions League final against Real Madrid.

A three-week absence would keep Salah out of action until June 19 while four weeks would see the forward sidelined until June 26, the day after Egypt’s last group game.

Salah may also then need to regain a degree of match fitness.

Egypt’s opening fixture in Group A is against Uruguay on June 15. They then face Russia on June 19 and Saudi Arabia on June 25.

“He is sad about what happened but he is totally focused on recovery and seeing when he can be ready,” Pons told Spanish daily, Marca.

“In principle it will be three to four weeks but we are going to try to reduce those deadlines, that’s the big goal.”

Salah has flown to Spain to undergo treatment, accompanied by doctors from both Liverpool and the Egyptian national team.

The 25-year-old had to be substituted during the first half of Liverpool’s defeat in Kiev after being pulled to the ground by Sergio Ramos.

He left the field in tears but appeared more optimistic on Sunday, when he wrote on Twitter: “It was a very tough night, but I’m a fighter.

“Despite the odds, I’m confident that I’ll be in Russia to make you all proud. Your love and support will give me the strength I need.”

Pons remarks go counter to Egypt’s national team’s doctor who said he was optimistic that Salah could play in the World Cup.

“Through follow ups on the phone with the national team’s delegation in Italy… the officials at Liverpool said an X-ray on Salah’s shoulder” showed the injury to be in the ligaments, the Egyptian FA said on Twitter on Saturday.

The national team’s doctor, Mohamed Abou al-Ela, “expressed his optimism that Salah would make it for the World Cup matches according to this diagnosis”, the Association said.

The Egyptian Minister Youth and Sports Khaled AbdElaziz also expressed optimism. “Mohamed Salah, God willing, will be on the national team’s final list for the World Cup, which is to be announced on June 4,” Abd Elaziz said on Facebook.

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