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After Germany’s shock 1-0 loss to Mexico in its opening game on June 17, German broadsheet Die Welt implored Joachim Löw’s side to “wake up.” The newspaper’s concerns are well-founded. Germany failed to perform to the high standards it set in 2014 when it took home the trophy, exhibiting none of the incisive passing, defensive brilliance and clinical finishing that was so impressive four years ago. Recent history doesn’t seem to be on its side, either: Three winners from the last five World Cups have limped out of the competition in the opening round. With two more group matches to play, will Die Mannschaft be able to avoid the same fate as the teams below?
After winning the 1998 World Cup on home turf, France traveled to the Japan and South Korea tournament in seemingly good shape. Aimé Jacquet, the mastermind behind that title win, had retired as head coach, but his successor, Roger Lemerre, was performing well, overseeing victory at Euro 2000.
Lemerre took the same core group of players to Korea, where big things were expected of his team. Before the tournament France was second favorite (behind Argentina) to take home the trophy, with forwards Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet both among the favorites to be the top goalscorer.
There were a few concerns, though. Robert Pirès, who had starred in Arsenal’s English Premier League title win, was ruled out with cruciate ligament damage. Then, just before the tournament, Zinédine Zidane, then the world’s most expensive player, who had been instrumental in both the World Cup and Euro titles, picked up a thigh injury.
Meanwhile, a New York Times article noted that France had a “potentially brutal draw, which could have it face England in the second round, Brazil in the quarterfinals, Argentina in the semifinals and Italy, Germany or Spain in the final.”
Still, France’s group stage opponents—Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark—were not seen as major obstacles, and Les Bleus were certainly strongly favored to beat World Cup debutant Senegal in the tournament’s opening game. Amazingly, though, France went 1-0 behind just half an hour in. Lemerre’s shell-shocked players struggled and failed to find an equalizer, and Senegal held firm to pull off one of the greatest upsets in international soccer history.
France looked to set things right against Uruguay in the second game, but their hopes took a dent when Henry was sent off after 25 minutes for lunging into a late challenge. After an end-to-end battle with both goalkeepers making several impressive saves, the game ended 0-0.
France was left needing to turn its fortunes around against Denmark in its final group match, and it would need to do so with Zidane still nursing his thigh injury and without the suspended Henry. Lemerre’s side got off to a terrible start, with the Danes going 1-0 ahead after just 22 minutes, and France’s misery was compounded when Denmark doubled its lead with half an hour remaining. France was unable to respond and fell to a 2-0 defeat.
France finished bottom of the group with just one point, having conceded three goals and scored none. It was a far cry from the team that had scored 15 goals and conceded just two at the previous World Cup, as well as being statistically the worst ever performance in a World Cup by a defending champion. There was a sense that it was time for a changing of the guard, and as France began the process of rebuilding its team, Lemerre was promptly fired, while veteran players Frank Leboeuf and Youri Djorkaeff retired.
If France needed a changing of the guard in 2002, Italy had already begun that process by 2010. Alessandro Nesta and Francesco Totti, heroes of the 2006 championship team, retired from international football, while captain Fabio Cannavaro, then 36, was toward the tail end of his playing career and planning to retire after the tournament. In all, only seven players from the previous World Cup returned to form the 23-man squad.
Nevertheless, legendary coach Marcello Lippi was still in the dugout, and he still had world-class players such as Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo on his team. And Italy was in a group with New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia—arguably one of the weakest groups in the tournament.
But Italy started poorly, going 1-0 down to Paraguay just before halftime in its first match. The Azzurri pulled a goal back in the second half but could not find a winner as the two sides struggled to a 1-1 draw. Italy then fell behind early in its next game as New Zealand took the lead after just seven minutes. Again Italy equalized but could not score a winner.
Going into the final game, against Slovakia, Italy needed a victory. Lippi’s side continued its pattern of starting slow and going a goal down in the first half. Slovakia doubled its lead after 73 minutes before Italy got onto the scoresheet with nine minutes of normal time remaining. Slovakia restored its two-goal lead with a minute left. Italy grabbed a goal in injury time, but it turned out to be only a consolation goal as the champion was defeated 3-2.
With no wins, two draws and a defeat, Italy was eliminated, finishing bottom of a group it was expected to win comfortably. Lippi resigned, taking all the blame for the team’s inept displays. “If a team shows up at an important game with terror in its heart and head and legs, it must mean the coach did not train them as he should have done,” he said. “I thought the men I chose would have been able to deliver something different but obviously I was wrong.”
Spain prepared for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with plenty of reasons to be optimistic. With victories in the 2008 and 2012 European Championships either side of its 2010 World Cup win, it had achieved the remarkable feat of winning three major international tournaments in a row. Coach Vincente Del Bosque was rated among the best in the world, and the team’s tiki taka style was regarded by many fans as not just the best way to play but also the only way to play.
Ever dependable defender and leader Carles Puyol had retired and forward Fernando Torres’s performances had declined, but the squad was otherwise very similar to that of 2010. And though it had tough group stage opponents—the Netherlands, Chile and Australia—it seemed highly likely that Spain would progress to the knockout stages.
Spain began the tournament doing what they had been doing for years: winning. Halfway through the first half against the Netherlands, Xabi Alonso scored a penalty to give Spain the lead. But if Robin Van Persie’s equalizer just before half time was disappointing, what followed was devastating. Arjen Robben put the Netherlands in the lead seven minutes after the break; the Dutch team then ran riot, adding three more goals in the following 25 minutes in a 5-1 thrashing.
La Roja had a chance to set things straight against Chile, but from the first whistle it was the South American team that looked more likely to score. Chile got an opening goal after just 19 minutes, and Spain went 2-0 down just before half time. Though Del Bosque’s players rallied in the second half, their efforts were fruitless and the score remained the same at full time.
After two matches, Spain had scored one goal and conceded seven, collecting zero points. A six-year reign of international dominance had come to end in two games less than a week apart, and Spain became the first team eliminated from the competition.
With a much-changed team, Spain cruised to a 3-0 victory against Australia, earning three points and taking third place in the group, but the damage had already been done. In the fallout, legendary midfielder Xavi quit international football shortly after the tournament, while Del Bosque remained as coach for another two years before resigning after disappointing again at Euro 2016.
All is not lost, though. Veterans from the 2010 World Cup winning team Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta are now in Russia, taking another shot at redemption.