The Five Worst World Cup Title Defenders

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JUNE 18, 2014: Casillas of Spain is seen during the 2014 World Cup Group B game between Spain and Chile at Maracana Stadium. NO USE IN BRAZIL.

Winning a World Cup is the pinnacle of achievements for players, coaches, and fans. The celebrations run wild, and the euphoria can last for years. Four years, to be precise. But when the time comes and the next tournament begins, everyone starts from scratch. Sometimes, arriving at a World Cup as a winner, and having to defend your title, can be more of a burden than a boost. These five stories prove it. 

5. Brazil 1966

Arriving in England in 1966, Brazil wanted to defend not one but two consecutive World Cup wins. On paper, the Seleção had everything they needed to achieve the impossible. They had experience and young, up-and-coming stars, 25-year-old Pelé was at his peak, and their confidence was sky-high. But that’s the beauty of football, isn’t it? The theory just isn’t enough. A 3-1 victory over Bulgaria in the first game ended up being their only one in the tournament, followed up with losses by the same result to Hungary and Portugal. “The 1966 World Cup was the toughest experience I have ever had in football,” Pele remembered. “ … I went away from that World Cup determined never to play for A Seleção again. I decided to play in 1970 only because I was in great form with Santos. The scars of 66 were still there, though.”

4. Italy 2010

Italy is the most inconsistent out of the leading football nations. Their highs are great, but they are usually followed by embarrassing lows. Such was the case after their somewhat surprising 2006 World Cup win. A Euro 2008 group stage exit helped cool expectations. By the time the 2010 World Cup kicked off, they were hardly considered title contenders. And still, the minimum required was to qualify from a group with Paraguay, Slovakia, and New Zealand. Instead, they finished last, not winning a single game for the first time in their history. At least they left us with the memory of Fabio Quaglierella’s fantastic yet meaningless goal.

3. Germany 2018

Just like the case with Italy, here, too, the writing was on the wall. Many in Germany felt that the Jogi Löw era peaked in the 2014 World Cup winning campaign, and by the time they headed to Russia, his term was long overdue. The longtime serving manager refused to inject new blood, snubbing in-form Leroy Sané. In addition, Die Mannschaft was distracted by events not related to football. Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan were involved in a controversial meeting with Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while he was in a row with then-German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The incident helped surface the split in German society, and distract the team when they needed to focus.

The group stage opened with a shock defeat to Mexico, followed by a narrow win over Sweden. Despite coming to the last game when they are dependent on themselves, it just wasn’t meant to be, and the World Cup winners from Brazil bowed down with a loss to South Korea. Thomas Müller came as a World Cup ace, having scored five and six goals in his first two tournaments, but finished his third with nothing. Özil retired shortly after, and Löw’s legacy was tarnished. 

2. Spain 2014

Spain didn’t only come into the 2014 World Cup as world champions. They arrived as the most dominant side in the history of football, having also won Euro 2010 and Euro 2012. Regardless, Vicente Del Bosque, like Löw, was criticized for preserving the spine of the squad that brought him success rather than handing the reins to a new generation. It blew up already in their first game, with a 1-5 humbling by the Netherlands on an unforgettable night in Salvador. 

La Roja’s defense just wasn’t up for the task, and the opponents learned how to neutralize the Tiki Taka. In the attack, Diego Costa joined as the main refresher but carried an injury and was out of his element in front of a hostile Brazilian crowd. The title-defense campaign officially ended in the second match with a 0-2 loss to Chile. 

1. France 2002

So, remember what Spain did? France did it first. By that, we mean winning a World Cup and Euro double. Add to that a cheeky Confederations Cup win, and Les Bleus looked unbeatable. Zinedine Zidane was the best player in the world at that moment in time. 16 days before the World Cup kicked off, he led Real Madrid to a Champions League triumph with one of the most iconic goals in history.

Unfortunately for them, the midfielder came off injured during a friendly against co-hosts, South Korea, and was ruled out for the first two games. With the eyes of the world all on them, they opened their campaign with a stunning loss to Senegal, who were playing their first World Cup game ever.

Roger Lemerre’s players couldn’t find the net in the two following games, a 0-0 draw with Uruguay and a 0-2 defeat to Denmark. The result: France was out of the tournament, being the first-ever World Cup holder not to score in the following campaign. Having been a part of the 1998 winning team, but retired one year before the 2002 title-defense campaign failure,  Didier Deschamps, will probably tell his players the story they all want to avoid. At least he can attempt to pay Denmark back in the group stages in Qatar. 

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