World Cup | The defending champion paradox

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With a surprise 2-0 loss to South Korea, Germany crashed out the 2018 World Cup.

Despite a poor run-up to the tournament, nobody dared predict that a strong German team would fail to make the knockout stages, which they had made in every World Cup since 1938. How could such a talented fail?

Amazingly, it was the fourth time in the last five World Cups that the defending champions exited at the group stage. In 2014, it was Spain, it was Italy in 2010, France in 2002.

Reputations grow

It is no surprise either that three of the four defending champions went down with the manager that they had at the previous World Cup, the other was with the assistant manager (who then won the Euros for France). Both France and Spain won the European Championship before they defended their World Cup crowns, suggesting they were clearly the best team in the world, yet both still went out in the group stages. All good things must come to an end, and for even the best managers, ideas become stale.

With a World Cup win, players and managers become overnight legends of the game, and it takes a long time for their reputations to take a hit. When a player has a bad game for his club after the World Cup, you will often see him defended with the words “well, he’s a World Cup winner”.

It is a tremendous achievement to be a part of the winning squad and nothing will take that away. But reputations go out the window once the World Cup starts, and the tournament is only concerned with who the best teams and players are over that month period.

Thomas Muller has been in steady decline for club and country since 2016.

The World Cup is the biggest prize in all of sport, and the physical and mental energy of fulfilling the hopes of your country carries a large burden. When you achieve that like Germany did in 2014, it is subconsciously hard to put in the same effort again. Most players dream of winning one World Cup. Winning two World Cups is not something they have contemplated.

The likes of Jerome Boateng, Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller led Germany to glory in 2014. Yet look more closely at their season heading into the World Cup, and you will see that injury-prone Boateng had only played 83 games for Bayern Munich over the past three seasons, Neuer has only played four games since April 2017 with injury, Mesut Ozil has come off his worst club season in years and Thomas Muller has been in steady decline for club and country since 2016.

Leroy Sané, the Premier League’s Young Player of the Year, was not even picked for the German squad. Goalkeeper Ter Stegen had an outstanding season for Barcelona, but unfit Neuer was chosen instead.

Waning legends

At the 2014 World Cup, Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque persisted with goalkeeper Iker Casillas, even though he had been dropped by Real Madrid for poor form. A slow midfield included legends Xavi (34) and Xabi Alonso (32), which might have worked with some runners along with them, but not with the more technical than physical midfielders Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Sergio Busquets. They were outrun by their opponents, losing 5-1 to Netherlands and 2-0 to Chile.

Unlike Germany and Spain, Italy had a weak group in 2010 of Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand, yet still went out at the bottom. Again, there were some loyalty issues, Fabio Cannavaro was superb when Italy won the cup in 2006, but he should not have played all three games at the back at 36. Gennaro Gattuso (32) and Gianluca Zambrotta (33) were also used.

It was a similar story for France in 2002. The backline was one of the all-time greats in 1998, and it returned, Laurent Blanc aside. It did not help that Blanc had been replaced by 34-year-old centre-back Frank Leboeuf, keeping up the age profile. The defence had an average age of 32, while Lemerre was also loyal to 31-year-old Emmanuel Petit and 34-year-old Youri Djorkaeff from 1998, while the younger Claude Makélélé stayed on the bench.

In 2002, France were unlucky that one of the world’s best players, and their saviour on so many occasions, Zinedine Zidane, was injured for the first two games of the tournament. Zidane returned to be man of the match in the final game against Denmark, but he could not rescue France this time.

All teams suffered from retirements and withdrawals from their winning teams. For Germany, they badly missed Philip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, two of the finest players of their generation. Germany went out scoring just two goals in their first World Cup without Miroslav Klose, the top goalscorer in World Cup history.

For Spain, it was loss of outstanding captain Carles Puyol at the back that unsettled them, as well as the waning powers of David Villa, who was barely used. For Italy, there was no Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta or Francesco Totti to be used. For France, the retirements of Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc removed some leadership from the dressing room.

The defending champions that escaped the group stages were not immune to this staleness either. An incredibly talented Brazil side in 2006 reached the quarter-finals, with 33-year-old Roberto Carlos at fault for the goal that knocked them out. In 1994, Germany shockingly lost to Bulgaria in the quarter-finals – 1990 heroes Rudi Voller, Andreas Brehme, Guido Buchwald and Lothar Matthaus were all 33 and over.

The defending champions thus are left with managers and teams that have a mixture of issues from overconfidence to too much loyalty to stale ideas. With no team defending the World Cup since Brazil in 1962, the defending World Cup curse continues until 2022.

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