Every World Cup has one. Some are more memorable than others, some mark the arrival or departure of a nation on the footballing scene, and some simply serve as the official start of a monthlong party. Here are the 10 best World Cup opening matches.
10. France 4-1 Mexico, 1930
Let us start at the beginning. The first-ever World Cup game (well, the joint first-ever World Cup game, as the U.S. were beating Belgium at the same time) was won by the country from which this whole fandango sprung.
The opening goal in World Cup history was scored by French forward Lucien Laurent, a volley in the 19th minute to set his nation on the way to glory. Well, perhaps not quite glory; while France won this game -- further strikes coming from Marcel Langiller and a couple from André Maschinot -- they went on to lose their next two 1-0 to Argentina and Chile and limped back to Jules Rimet and the rest of France eliminated and humiliated.
9. Chile 3-1 Switzerland, 1962
In truth, none of the four games that kicked off the 1962 World Cup were classics, with Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay all recording fairly routine victories, but that the games took place at all was somewhere between a triumph and a miracle. Preparations for the tournament were well underway by spring 1960, but on May 30 that year, a colossal earthquake hit near the city of Valdivia, causing near-catastrophic damage, killing up to 6,000 people and triggering floods, landslides and a tsunami so powerful it reached as far as Japan, some 10,000 miles away.
Argentina was waiting in the wings to take over hosting the tournament, but a phenomenal effort led by Carlos Dittborn, head of the Chilean FA, meant the country was ready by the time the first game was played. "We have nothing. That is why we must have the World Cup," said Dittborn, who tragically died just before the tournament began, suffering a heart attack that most believe was brought on by the stress of organising the tournament.
8. Italy 7-1 U.S., 1934
It would perhaps be naive to think that FIFA has ever been an entirely squeaky-clean, virtuous organisation, but one thing's for sure: In 1934, it could make decisions based on things other than maximising the amount of money it could make from the World Cup. Today, everything is done with the intention of raising exposure and so forth, so no games are played at the same time, other than the final group games, to ensure each game gets the most time on TV as humanly possible. Not so in 1934, when all eight first-round games (in a 16-team knockout format) were not only played on the same day but at the same time.
And there were some belters in there, such as Sweden storming back to beat Argentina 3-2 and a 21-minute Edmund Conen hat trick giving Germany a 5-2 win over Belgium. However, the standout result was eventual champion Italy steamrolling the U.S. 7-1, with goals from Angelo Schiavio, Raimundo Orsi, Giovanni Ferrari and Giuseppe Meazza. It was a scoreline that, according to The New York Times, could have been even uglier were it not for the efforts of American goalkeeper Julius Hjulian.
7. Germany 4-2 Costa Rica, 2006
Hosting the 2006 World Cup probably came a little too early for Germany. The remarkable generation of players who currently populate the team was still largely in footballing short-trousers when the tournament arrived. Had the likes of Mesut Ozil, Marco Reus and Mario Goetze been ready, Germany might have won the whole thing -- not that they didn't make a decent go at it anyway.
The opening game of that tournament looked like a signal of intent, with Jurgen Klinsmann's men playing some fine attacking football, but it was also an open, free-flowing affair in which the nominal whipping-boys Costa Rica put up a decent fight. If nothing else, the game featured a couple of fantastic goals, the opener a Philipp Lahm curler plus a late thunderbolt from Torsten Frings to cap the victory.
6. Brazil 4-0 Mexico, 1950
The 1950 World Cup was supposed to be a jamboree, a buildup to a final party that would crown Brazil, the country to whom football arguably means the most, as champion for the first time. It all started so well, with the Selecao opening the tournament against Mexico at the newly opened Maracana, a stadium so fresh that some spectators reported wet concrete dripping on them during the game.
Brazil won the game in the manner that they were supposed to win the tournament, sashaying to victory thanks to a brace from Ademir and one apiece from Jair and the splendidly named Baltazar. The tournament stretched ahead of them like a glorious youthful summer, but we all know how it ended a few weeks later.
5. Belgium 1-0 Argentina, 1982
Diego Maradona's time with Barcelona was, it's fair to say, not exactly a resounding success. Tales of debauchery that would make Motley Crue blush, contracting hepatitis and the destruction of his ankle ligaments by Andoni "The Butcher of Bilbao" Goikoetxea all added up to make the two years he spent in Catalunya rather forgettable.
However, when defending champion Argentina were drawn to face Belgium in the first game of the 1982 World Cup at the Camp Nou, Maradona's transfer having been sealed before the tournament, Barca fans were understandably keen to catch a glimpse of the man they thought would be their new hero. Alas, that glimpse would arguably be a portent of what was to come, as Argentina fell to a 1-0 defeat thanks to a goal from Erwin Vandenbergh. This was also the game that famous photo showing Maradona seemingly surrounded by half the Belgian team came from, although it was slightly misleading as it occurred as the wall was breaking up from a free kick.
4. France 7-3 Paraguay, 1958
Brazil won the 1958 World Cup, but the top scorers in the tournament were France, who bagged a remarkable 23 times in their six games. With 13 goals, Just Fontaine alone scored more than all but two teams in the tournament. But because of the way the votes split (half voted for him as right-sided player, half as a left-sided player), the Frenchman didn't make it into the team of the tournament.
France started as they meant to go on, finding the net seven times in the curtain-raiser -- sort of; host Sweden played the actual first game, a straightforward 3-0 win over Mexico a few hours earlier. Fontaine helped himself to a hat trick against the Paraguayans, who kept pace until just after halftime, when Raymond Kopa, Roger Piantoni, Maryan Wisnieski and Jean Vincent confirmed a thorough battering to kick the tournament off in fine style.
3. Ireland 1-0 Italy, 1994
This is cheating slightly, as Germany vs. Bolivia was the actual first game of the 1994 World Cup. Since that was a rather tedious 1-0 win for the defending champions, we'll use some artistic license and instead focus on Ireland beating Italy, one of the favourites for the tournament and an eventual finalist.
The Italy side on that day looked intimidating to say the least, featuring six players from the brilliant Milan side that had just won the Champions League as well as Roberto Baggio and Giuseppe Signori up top. The Irish, on the other hand, fielded a more workmanlike XI that featured Terry Phelan in defence, John Sheridan in midfield and Tommy Coyne on his own up front.
After just 11 minutes, Ray Houghton picked up a weak defensive header by Franco Baresi, chested it down and looped a slightly mishit half-volley over Gianluca Pagliuca, who watched it sail over his head in the manner of a man who knew there was still 79 minutes for the 10 superstars in front of him to claw this one back.
That they didn't was largely down to one of the great defensive performances in World Cup history. Paul McGrath, playing that day despite a shoulder injury, produced the sort of majestic display that one could only describe as containing touches of genius, even if such descriptors aren't traditionally associated with centre-backs.
"When the Italians did get sight of the goal, Paul presented a final, insurmountable obstacle," said Roy Keane, not a man to dish out praise lightly. "Paul inspired us as much as in the end he demoralised Roberto Baggio and the other Italian players."
Back home Ireland, of course, went berserk.
2. Senegal 1-0 France, 2002
There have been quite a few feeble defences of titles in the past, but France's lamentable effort at the 2002 World Cup four years after winning the thing on the back of Zinedine Zidane and a wave of public emotion is a strong contender for the worst. In case you needed reminding, not only did France go out at the group stage, not only did they not win a game, but they didn't even score a goal.
This is a team that contained the previous season's top scorers in England, Italy and France and featured players with a whopping 652 caps among them. An injured Zidane was absent from the opener against Senegal, but France should have been more than capable of dismissing their inexperienced opponent with the likes of Marcel Desailly, Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Patrick Vieira in their ranks.
But that wasn't the case, with Papa Bouba Diop forcing home the only goal after a half hour. "We cannot say, after this result, that the future of the French team in our group is finished," said France coach Roger Lemerre after the game. How wrong he was.
1. Cameroon 1-0 Argentina, 1990
Obviously this is No. 1. What else could possibly be? With the benefit of 24 years hindsight and some good performances at the Africa Cup of Nations, it's possible to forget just how big of an upset Cameroon beating Argentina -- defending champion and led by Maradona -- was. While everyone remembers the red cards, it often seems that this is disconnected with Cameroon being denied two players for a chunk of the game.
To recap, Cameroon, a team of players largely gathered from the French lower leagues, beat the reigning champion with nine men. Cameroon were also in something of a mess before the tournament. They exited the Africa Cup of Nations in the first round, there were rows about training and bonuses, and once the World Cup was actually upon them, goalkeeper Thomas N'Kono discovered he was going to play only five hours before kickoff -- first-choice Joseph-Antoine Bell having been dropped after some less-than-encouraging words about the rest of the squad.
The game started as predicted, with Argentina having the majority of play. In the second half, Andre Kana-Biyik was sent off -- rather harshly -- for a foul on Claudio Caniggia. According to Argentina coach Carlos Bilardo, that's when it all started to go wrong for his side.
As they lost their discipline, Francois Omam-Biyik rose to meet a cross, and despite slightly mistiming his jump, his headed ball toward goal squirted through Nery Pumpido and into the net. Remarkably, Cameroon held on, despite another red card for Benjamin Massing for the infamous assault on Caniggia.
"No team could ever again do what we did in 1990," said Roger Milla years later. "The element of surprise is not there. Everybody knows everything about all the teams now."