Until 2002, only once had the world title holder been eliminated in the group stage. In the last 20 years, it has happened four times.
Brazil was the last national team to defend its world title. After the success in 1958, in Sweden, he also took the trophy 4 years later, in Chile. Then, in 1966, she became the first world champion to fail to make it past the group stage. Pele’s injury and an aging and declining Garrincha were two of the reasons why the Selecao finished 3rd in a group with the emerging powerhouses of that edition, Portugal, Hungary, and Bulgaria. The “swan song” of the Pele-Garrincha tandem was the victory in the first match, 2-0 against Bulgaria, in which both scored. The failures of the Hungarians (1-3) and the Lusitanians (1-3) followed, synonymous with premature elimination from the tournament held in England.
The South Americans would return stronger 4 years later, in Mexico, where they won the competition thrillingly and took possession of the Jules Rimet trophy for good. For nearly four decades, what happened in 1966 seemed like the exception that proved the rule. But with the new century, the elimination of the world champion in the group stage has become a constant.
In 2002, France went to the first World Cup held in Asia as the big favorite. She was not only the holder of the world title but also of the European one, won 2 years earlier. He had an exceptional squad, led by Zinedine Zidane, who had just won the Champions League with Real Madrid in a final in which he had scored THAT iconic goal in Glasgow. But Zizou was injured and, without a leader, “Les Bleus” lost their landmarks. The shock opening game 0-1 defeat against debutant Senegal was followed by a 0-0 draw with Uruguay. The match in the last stage, against Denmark, was decisive. Zidane returned to the team, but to no avail: the Nordics won 2-0 and the 1998 winners finished bottom with just one point and no goals scored.
Like Brazil almost 40 years before, France came close to getting revenge in the next edition and taking the trophy. However, he lost 2006 final with Italy on penalty kicks, but at least he sent home the Brazilians, the holders of the title, in the quarter-finals. The edition of the World Cup held in Germany is the only one of the last 5 in which the champion passed the groups.
In 2010, in South Africa, it was Italy’s turn to exit the World Cup prematurely as title holders. Marcello Lippi went with the nucleus that triumphed in 2006, and his bet was not a winner. After two draws with Paraguay and New Zealand, both with the same score, 1-1, Squadra Azzurra lost the dramatic decisive match against debutants Slovakia, score 2-3. Like Freanta, 8 years earlier, the Italians finished last in the group. At least they scored 4 times…
Spain went to the 2014 World Cup trying to win a fourth consecutive finals tournament, after Euros 2008 and 2012 and WC 2010. They could only manage a consolation victory, 3-0 against Australia, when it already didn’t matter. Failures against the Netherlands (1-5) and Chile (0-2) had already condemned the Iberians and announced the end of the best period in the history of “La Roja”.
The last on the list of world champions eliminated from the group stage is Germany, 4 years ago. At the World Cup in Russia, the national team still coached by Joachim Löw began the defense of the title won in Brazil with a setback against Mexico (0-1) and continued with a dramatic victory over Sweden (2-1), brought by a sensational performance by Toni Kroos. In the last match of the group, against South Korea, the Germans conceded two goals in extra time and not only were they eliminated, but they were also sent to the last position.
In Qatar, 4-year-old World Cup winners France are in a group with Denmark, Australia and Tunisia. Can Didier Deschamps’ national team stop what seems to have turned into a curse for the world champions?