At the greatest show on earth, winning comes with a price.

For the fourth time in five Fifa World Cups, the defending champions have.... well... not been so good at defending, as they were at being champions. It’s never been easy to win the tournament back-to-back, that’s always been the case. In the tournament’s 88-year history, only twice have we seen teams win titles in successive editions. Italy did in 1934 and ‘38. Brazil, and Pele, did it in 1958 and ‘62. And that’s it.

But, of late, it’s not only tough to defend the title, it’s come with a curse. The curse of not progressing past the first hurdle.

France in 2002. Italy in 2010. Spain in 2014.

And now Germany in 2018.

When South Korea pulled off one of the greatest upsets of all time in the tournament history by defeating Die Mannschaft 2-0 at the Kazan Arena, the curse struck again. Not just the World Champions were sent home packing, it was the current world No 1 side. A side that’s been improving, by most accounts, since their triumph at the Maracana in 2014. To say this result was an upset of seismic proportions was putting it mildly.

Abysmal starts

In fact, Pele’s Brazil in 1966 was the first defending champs to eliminated at the first stage. But for the purposes of this analysis, that will not be considered – because, 1) it was a completely different era and 2) teams just kicked Pele out of the tournament (although some similarities do remain).

When France were dumped out of the World Cup in 2002, it was unprecedented. That was the first time in history that a defending champion had been sent home without scoring a goal, without a single win to their name four years after winning the whole thing. And since then, Brazil in 2006 are the only exception to the rule – but only just, more on that later.

A look at the group stage finishes tells you the story.

Defending champions & their group stage plight

World Cup Defending Champions Group stage result Goals
2002 France Played 3, Lost 2, Drawn 1 - finished last Scored: 0
Against: 3
2010 Italy Played 3, Lost 1, Drawn 2 - finished last Scored: 4
Against: 5
2014  Spain Played 3, Lost 2, Won 1 - finished third Scored: 4
Against: 7
2018 Germany Played 3, Lost 2, Won 1 - finished last Scored: 2
Against: 4

In all the above cases, the teams started the tournaments with shock results. Except Italy against Paraguay, the remaining three lost their opening games. And that’s not an easy situation to recover from. The maximum any team has managed to score in the group stages is four – Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014 – in three matches. Struggling in front of the goal has been one constant theme among all four teams, as we saw to devastating effect for Germany on Wednesday. They couldn’t buy a goal if they wanted to.

While only Italy can have the excuse of not having great attacking talent, the other teams boasted of some of the biggest goal-scoring threats the game has seen. France had Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet in 2002, Spain had the core of Barcelona’s golden generation minus Leo Messi, and Germany had so many options that they left Leroy Sane out of the 23-man squad.

Now, in all the four instances, there are unique reasons specific to that particular team that was behind the humiliation.

In 2002, Zinedine Zidane, the greatest of his era, suffered a thigh injury days before the competition began, that kept him out of the first two games against Senegal and Uruguay. When he was left with no choice to play in the third game against Denmark, it was with heavy strapping – he was a shadow of his own self. In 2010, Italy missed Andre Pirlo’s service for the first two games as they struggled against Paraguay and New Zealand. Those are two major injuries to the team’s engine rooms that were tough to cope with.

But we are talking about teams of great pedigree here. Surely France of 2002 were capable of beating Senegal – playing their first ever World Cup – and Uruguay? Surely Italy of any era should be able to overcome Paraguay and New Zealand?

And that’s where other common threads start to emerge.

Ageing squads

France in 2002 had Fabien Barthez (31), Marcel Desailly (33), Frank Leboeuf (34), Bixente Lizarazu (32), Lilian Thuram (30), Youri Djorkaeff (34) and Emmanuel Petit (31) – all core members of the team who were carrying too much weight on their legs. When Papa Bouba Diop scored that famous goal for Senegal which set the tone for the upset-filled 2002 World Cup, Djorkaeff, Desailly and Barthez were all made to look their age.

Italy in 2010 was no different, but in their defence, the 2006 squad was not young either when they won. The 2010 squad featured nine players that were 30 or older. The likes of Gennaro Gattuso and Fabio Cannavaro were caught out by unheralded teams. In 2014, Spain’s tiki-taka was famously ripped apart by the pace and energy of Netherlands and Chile. Xabi Alonso and Xavi were made to look their age.

It is worth mentioning here that even if Brazil avoided a group stage exit in 2006, their reasons for an undoubtedly below-par performance against a Zidane-inspired France was the lumbering, lethargic display of some of the senior players. It’s not easy to forget the image of Roberto Carlos, bent down, holding his knees, when Zidane delivered the perfect free kick to Henry at the far post – the player he was supposed to mark.

Which brings us to Germany. It seemed initially that Germany wouldn’t necessarily have the problem. With Phillip Lahm and Per Mertesacker announcing that they would make way for the next generation after that triumph, it seemed, like always, Germany were ahead of the curve. They were, one thought, already thinking four years ahead. That thinking was further reiterated when Joachim Loew brought a bunch of kids to the Confederations Cup last year and won it as well. An ageing squad? Not really. With an average age of 27.1, Germany were the seventh youngest squad in Russia.

Lack of fresh ideas

Familiarity, in these cases, bred a lack of creativity. In a quest to keep the continuity going, World Cup-winning sides do not show a tendency to turnover their squad. There is too much importance assigned to the ‘been-there-done-that’ factor. It is no surprise that the worst performances by defending champions have come since the turn of the century – the information age. With the amount of analytics involved in sport these days, there is very little teams do not know about the style of play of the biggest teams in the world. And if a team becomes the World Champions, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will be the most studied team. To be the best, you got to beat the best.

This was personified perfectly by Spain in 2014 and Germany this year. Two teams who were so in love with their system, that they failed to evolve, blinded, perhaps, by the confidence in their methods. Spain’s tiki-taka didn’t die with 2014, but after their years of dominance, teams figured out that going at them with sheer pace would do the trick. Germany’s classic European style will remain relevant even after 2018, but Manuel Neuer and Co were found ill-equipped to deal with teams pressing them in their own half and counterattacking down the flanks.

The importance of being well-prepared to tackle a set style cannot be underestimated, as smaller teams have showed repeatedly in this World Cup. As is always the case with evolution, only the fittest and smartest survive.


And finally, the old foe.

Loew made specific references to being unaware of his team being under pressure during the tournament, but that is just PR-speak for not wanting to admit that his team was, in fact, feeling the heat. It’s a cliche, but winning once is hard, but repeating it the next time that is always harder. When you are the winner of the greatest show on earth... pressure comes with the territory. You start double-guessing your instincts, the mind isn’t as relaxed (or as hungry) as it was four years ago. This is true not just for the football World Cup, but for any sport at the highest level. Abhinav Bindra noted during the Commonwealth Games – “the medals where an athlete is “expected” to win are generally the toughest internally for the athlete.” There are few challenges greater in sport than overcoming the burden of expectations and that’s why those who do it often are heralded as the greatest.

Marcelo Lippi, Italy’s coach in 2010 (and, incidentally, in 2006) alluded to it, when he accepted responsibility for Azzurri’s ignominy in South Africa.

 “There are no excuses because when a team comes to a match as important as tonight’s [against Slovakia, lost 2-3] with terror in their legs, their heads and their hearts, and don’t manage to express themselves, it means that the coach hasn’t prepared them in the right way (....) for psychological reasons I think, nothing worked.”

“Terror in their legs, their heads and their hearts.”

That is, often, the biggest threat to overcome. Because, in sport, fear of failure breeds failure.