Off to Qatar Part 7: Sport Psychology of the First round

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In this addition, here are the top 5 sport psychology observations from the first round

1 – How teams, coaches, and players handle the press

The World Cup is the biggest sport event on the planet. Beside the two year qualification process, the skills and teamwork on the field, which brings enough pressure in itself, there are the off-the-field elements. One of which is being in front of the press and the entire world.  How teams handle that element of the tournament is a fascinating and important part of it.

Exhibit A – Belgium = too old? 
The Number 2 ranked team in the world was only able to manage one goal, a long ball vs Canada, in their 3 group stage matches.  The team clearly did not have a winning mentality, as their comments in the papers showed. Star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne said the team was “too old” to win, and captain Eden Hazard said “Our defenders are not the fastest and they know it,”  to which defender Jan Vertonghen retorted a few days later “I guess we attack badly because we are also too old up front. We didn’t create enough chances.”
This is not the mentality a competitive team should be voicing.

Exhibit B – Canada Coach motivates Croatia

After Canada’s near miss against Belgium (they lost 1-0 despite having out-played them most of the game), Coach John Herdman tried to talk up his team in the press:  “I told them they belong here. And we’re going to go and eff Croatia,” the coach said with a smile, using a single letter F to avoid a televised profanity. “That’s as simple as it gets.”
This did not go over well in Croatia, who went over to demolish the Canucks 4-1 (despite giving up the earliest goal of the tournament in the 2nd minute).  After the win, Croatian Andrej Kramaric (who scored two goals) said: “I want to thank the Canadian coach for the motivation, In the end, Croatia demonstrated who eff’d who.”
**On a side note, the USA team has handled press conferences brilliantly.  Coach Gregg Berhalter is very intelligent and well-spoken, and Captain Tyler Adams is wise beyond his years.  If you haven’t already, check out Adams’ answer to this Iranian reporter, who seems to be trying to stir up controversy.   Very proud of the USA in this regard.

2 – Qatar – Host country freezes up

The host country gets an automatic bid to the World Cup (part of the controversy in Qatar being awarded the tournament is lack of a soccer history).  A country of just under 3 million people (only about 350,000 are Qatari citizens, the rest are immigrants), it’s the smallest country competing.     

Last summer, they played in the Gold Cup in the USA and did quite well.  After 3 wins and a draw, they lost to eventual champion USA 1-0 in the semi-final of that tournament. This World Cup tournament was a different story entirely.  The Qataris never looked comfortable, and in fact looked downright nervous, playing tight in all 3 games, losing all 3 and being outscored 7-1.

After the first game vs Ecuador, Coach Felix Sancez put it this way:  “Our nerves betrayed us. We were unable to string together four passes in a row. Also, many defensive gaps. The team was not balanced and that hurt us a lot. When you play against a team of this level … you pay for it.”

Was there too much pressure put on them?  Externally or internally or otherwise? It certainly seemed so.

**The USA/Mexico/Canada will be the hosts of the 2026 tournament.  How will these 3 teams handle the pressure of hosting?  Canada didn’t handle 2022 very well, but that’s understandable being their first World Cup since 1986.  Mexico also didn’t handle the pressure well, being held scoreless in their first two matches and not advancing through their group.  The USA looks to be well positioned for 2026, being the 2nd youngest team this year.  Will the pressure of hosting factor in? 

3 – If you don’t finish your chances, everyone is good enough to counter you.

This may be the most balanced tournament in history.  No team won all 3 games in the group stage.  Heavyweights Argentina, Brazil, France, and Portugal all lost a game.  Top ten ranked teams Belgium, Germany, and Denmark were all bounced in the group stage.  One of the trends was that despite being the better team, and dominating the run of play early, if you don’t finish your chances, the opponent will take advantage.

These matches were among the most obvious of this trend:

Canada – Belgium  (Canada out-shot Belgium 22-9 in this match, but lost 1-0)
Argentina – Saudi Arabia (Argentina actually scored 4 goals in the first half, but 3 were off-side.
Saudi Arabia went on to pull the major upset 2-1)
South Korea – Ghana (South Korea outshot Ghana 22-7, but lost 3-2)
Germany – Japan (Germany outshot Japan 26-12, but lost 2-1)

I attended 3 of these matches, and the stats do them all justice. Each of the losing teams were dominate from the start of the match.  But something happens and the confidence starts to swing from high confidence for the attacking team to not be able to score, and the confidence starts to build for the team that withstands the opening rush.  Then once the first goal goes in opposite the run of play, confidence completely changes teams.

**Fortunately (from this fan’s perspective), the USA never fell behind in the group stage. We were the only team that didn’t give up a goal from the run of play (a 83rd minute PK from Gareth Bale of Wales was the lone goal against suffered by goalie Matt Turner and the USA defense). For tonight, if we come out and dominate, we really need to score one early!

4 – The beauty of the  group stage –  humiliating beat downs in the first games don’t necessarily knock you out

The round-robin group stage is the most unique way to run a tournament. No other sport does it this way.  It gives each team a chance for a mulligan, and still be able to advance.  


Exhibit A – Costa Rica lost their first game to Spain 7-0. But they didn’t give up, and beat Japan 1-0, and were leading Germany 2-1 with 20 minutes left in the 3rd match. Had they been able to hold on, they would have qualified for the round of 16.  They fell just short, but have to admire the grit and determination.

Exhibit B – Iran lost their first game 6-2 to England.  But instead of giving up, they turned in an incredible performance against Wales, scoring in the 98th and 101st minutes against Wales to win 2-0.  They needed just to draw with the USA to advance, but fell just short, losing 1-0.  A team that was definitely outmatched in all 3 games talent-wise, made up for it with passion and belief. 

This is the psychology of the sport at it most pure, and it’s a joy to watch.
**The USA didn’t have to face this, but with only 2 draws in the first 2 matches, they had to win against an extremely hungry Iran squad.  Kudos to the team for handling the pressure and getting the job done.

5 – That’s why they play the game!

Several favorites are out!  

#2 Belgium
#6 Italy (didn’t qualify)
#10 Denmark
#11 Germany
#13 Mexico
#14 Uruguay
#17 Columbia (didn’t qualify)
#19 Wales
#20 Iran

These teams outside the top 20 are moving on:

#24 Japan
#26 Poland
#28 South Korea
#38 Australia

**USA was ranked #16 coming in (may have had the most difficult group with all 4 teams in the top 20 (Iran, Wales, and England #5)

Bonus – Fun with stats. When goals get scored

For fun I tabulated all the goals and when they were scored in 5 minute increments (1-5, 6-10, etc).

There were 120 goals scored in the group stages.  

43 in the first half (36%)
77 in the second half (64%)

Least goals in a time frame – 11-15th and 16-20th minute (2 goals each)
Most goals in a time frame – 46-50th minute and 66-70th minutes (10 goals each)

Stoppage time goals – 3 in the first half, 11 in the second half
Earliest goal – 2nd minute (Alphonso Davies’ of Canada vs Croatia)
Latest goal – 101st minute (Ramin Rezaeian of Iran vs Wales)

More to explorer

Talent vs Hard Work

You’ve most likely heard this quote. I am a big fan of it, because for the field of sport psychology, hard work

The Mental Game? It’s Simple!

As a high school athlete, I was a pretty good soccer player. My confidence went through it’s ups and downs during those

Back from Qatar – by the numbers

Here’s a numerical representation of my time in Qatar at the 2022 World Cup: 3,000,000  Population of Qatar 315,000  Qatari citizens (that’s