Over half the teams have now played and to be honest - with the exception of the impressive Germans - I am pretty underwhelmed. Too many team have been overly cautious and are scared of losing rather than trying to win. As a keen amateur economist I must once again point to risk aversion - the fear of losing something weighs greater on the mind than the joy in gaining. So, the fear of losing a point prevents teams risking it all to win three (a two point gain).
How true then is the notion that you simply can't lose your first game? Let's look at the data from the last 3 World Cups to see the trends:
2006 - of the 16 teams that qualified there were 11 wins, 3 draws and 2 losses in the first game
2002 - of the 16 teams that qualified there were 9 wins, 6 draws and 1 losses in the first game
1998 - of the 16 teams that qualified there were 11 wins, 5 draws and 0 losses in the first game
The above data shows that if you lose your first game, the chance of making the last 16 based on historical (if crude) results is just 6.25%. Furthermore, in the last 3 tournaments no team has ever made the last 16 after losing to a team in round 1 that did not top the group having come into the competition as a top seed (the three advancing teams were Ghana who lost to Italy and Ukraine who lost to Spain in 2006 and Turkey who lost to Brazil in 2002).
This would suggest that Greece (lost to S Korea), Algeria (lost to Slovenia), Serbia (lost to Ghana) and Cameroon (lost to Japan) are already done.
Exclude the first seeds
If you look purely at the non-first seed results (who we would expect to win a majority of the time anyway - 88% have qualified for the last 16 in the last 3 tournaments) the results show the teams who ultimately qualified started with:
2006 - 4 wins, 2 draws, 2 losses
2002 - 4 wins, 4 draws, 1 loss
1998 - 6 wins, 3 draws, 0 losses
This backs up what we noted above that losing to a top seed is not a disaster and you can still bounce back. The chance of qualifying is now up to 12%, hardly a wild encouragement for the likes of Nigeria, Australia and Denmark.
It would be appear on the face of it that conventional wisdom is actually correct for once and losing your first game is indeed close to disaster. I would note however that of the progressing teams, only 30% of them drew their first game so risking a draw (30% chance) for a win (65% chance) is still a worth while best, even if you do risk losing (6% chance).