Top 5: Worst World Cup title defences
With defending champions Spain smarting from their shock elimination from the 2014 World Cup, there is no better time for us to count down the top five worst World Cup title defences:
5. Italy, 1950
There was so much time between Italy's World Cup tournament win in 1938 and their exit in the first round 12 years later, it's almost unfair to include them on this list. That's a whole football generation, a point proved by the fact that no players from the 1938 squad were still around in 1950, even the youngest of them having retired by then.
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There was another contributing and perhaps more important factor in their early departure from the 1950 World Cup -- something hinted at by the most internationally experienced player having just 11 caps to his name, and the whole 22-man squad having just 85 between them.
This wasn't a conscious choice by coach Feruccio Novo to take a young and inexperienced team to the World Cup. He didn't have a choice because of the disruption caused by World War II and also because the heart of the side had been ripped out a year earlier, when the peerless Torino side of the 1940s were almost completely wiped out in the Superga air crash. The Italy side had contained up to 10 players from that Torino side in the preceding years.
Not only did the disaster leave a scar on Italian football that would take years to heal, it also meant that the Italian team traveled to Brazil by boat. That trip took two weeks, and by the time they reached South America they were in such bad shape that they lost their first game, effectively putting them out. Because India withdrew, there were only three teams in Italy's group, so after they lost to a Sweden side who subsequently drew with Paraguay, they were out, a title defence basically ended in 90 minutes.
4. Brazil, 1966
In 1958 and 1962, Brazil were pretty good. They had Pele, for a start. And Garrincha. And Vava. And so on, and so forth.
Therefore, it possibly wasn't a massive surprise that when the holders arrived in England in 1966 to defend their title, the opposition came to the conclusion that the best way of stopping them was to do so with a a degree of "physical certainty."
Pele in particular was subject to some particularly harsh treatment, picking up an injury in the first game (a 2-0 win over Bulgaria) that kept him out of the second (a 3-1 defeat to Hungary), and while he was in the lineup for the final game against Portugal, he quite possibly shouldn't have been.
Not wanting to pass up this potential advantage, the Portuguese took to booting the great man all over Goodison Park; one foul in particular by Joao Morais left Pele a limping passenger who could barely walk, let alone run and be the sort of player Brazil needed him to be.
This violence, along with a chaotic lead-up to the tournament that saw coach Vicente Feola call up some 42 players due to political wrangling to placate all the clubs in Brazil's complicated domestic system, combined to make this perhaps Brazil's worst World Cup ever.
For all the poor preparation, though, the lasting image from Brazil's defence of their crown will be Pele, limping after being repeatedly hacked to the ground, to the extent that he very nearly quit international football.
3. Spain, 2014
It's relatively clear that this is the end of an era for Spain. Vicente del Bosque might leave, along with many of the players that made them perhaps the greatest international side of all time.
It's telling that 10 players were selected in all of the last four tournaments, something that might have been hailed as admirable consistency if things had gone well. That it has all very flamboyantly gone south merely suggests a staleness, an insistence on sticking with the trusted rather than the new and in-form.
It's interesting to ponder how this team will now be remembered: as the great team that not only won three tournaments in a row but did so with a wondrous flair, or as the only holders to lose their first two games of the next tournament and crash out with a whimper?
Luckily for them, one catastrophic failure is not usually enough to wipe out three glorious victories in the eyes of history. But Del Bosque, Iker Casillas et al will always be the men who shuffled out of the World Cup in Brazil bereft of ideas, looking like relics that had been quite emphatically found out.
Interestingly, since the turn of the millennium no fewer than four defending champions have finished bottom of their group the next tournament: Germany at Euro 2000, France in 2002, Greece at Euro 2008 and Italy in 2002.
Prior to 2000, this had never happened before in European championships and World Cups (although Euro 1984 winners France failed to qualify in 1988), perhaps emphasizing how difficult it is to maintain excellence at international football in the modern era.
Spain will need to beat Australia to ensure they aren't added to that list, but the way this World Cup has gone so far, you wouldn't bet on that happening with any confidence.
2. Italy, 2010
Italy were surprise winners of the 2006 World Cup with Marcello Lippi at the helm. After that tournament, Lippi retired to sail his boat, but after failure under Roberto Donadoni at Euro 2008, the old man was tempted back for one last tilt at the big pot.
Of course, the tilt didn't work, with the Italians first drawing with Paraguay and lowly New Zealand before losing the final game against Slovakia, meaning they finished bottom of their group, a final indignity after a desperate tournament that barely started.
"Going Home in Shame" read the headline in Gazzetta dello Sport, while La Republica declared it worse than the defeat to North Korea in 1966. Not that the players themselves tried to absolve themselves from blame; Andrea Pirlo noted that it was "shameful to have not got out of a group like this," while Gennaro Gattuso called it Italian football's "rock bottom."
1. France, 2002
"We were a little bit arrogant," Patrick Vieira said recently about France's 2002 World Cup side, which must rank among the biggest understatements in football history.
That said, it's easy to see why France were pretty sure of themselves, given that not only were they defending world champions, but European champions as well, having dramatically beaten Italy in the final of Euro 2000.
They had on their squad the top scorers from the previous season in England (Thierry Henry), Italy (David Trezeguet) and France (Djibril Cisse), as well as Vieira in his leggy prime, Lilian Thuram, Claude Makelele and (albeit injured) one Zinedine Zidane. Despite all of that, they crashed out in the first round.
Only that would have been a mere failure, though. What made this campaign a work of art, an astonishing calamity and the standard against which all other footballing shambles will be judged, is that not only did they go out without winning a game, but they went out without scoring a goal.
That's almost impressive.
It of course began with defeat to Senegal, Papa Bouba Diop bundling home a chance to embarrass the French in the very first game. But the 0-0 draw with Uruguay in the next game was arguably worse, a dispiriting exercise in attacking futility in which Henry was sent off.
Their exit was confirmed with a 2-0 defeat to Denmark, suffered despite the presence of Zidane, rushed back and half-fit, a symbol of desperation and hope above logic. Their first-round departure in 2010 was arguably more shambolic, but they weren't the defending champions that time, making this one much, much worse.