Champions curse: the worst defences of the World Cup in recent history

As France won their opening two games of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, it felt like a weight had been lifted from their shoulders. Didier Deschamps and co, fresh off the back of victory over Croatia in the Russia 2018 tournament, had become the first defending champions since 2006 to make it out of the group stage. Wins over Australia and Denmark ensured their place in the round of 16, but why have teams struggled so much in years gone by?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where things have gone wrong. Either the weight of expectation was simply too much to cope with, or the sheer number of fresh faces earning a call-up to the squad in the four years between campaigns, there had been something in the water for defending champions for the best part of 15 years. Indeed, Qatar’s first-ever winter tournament gave France extra time to prepare and now as we look back at their reign as champions, you wonder just how other teams fared so poorly.

As we prepare for this year’s final, and check the World Cup betting odds, let’s revisit the last few campaigns for reigning champions and just see how bad their defence of the World Cup really was. 

Germany – 2018 

When Germany won the World Cup in Brazil after beating Argentina in the Maracanã, many thought they would go on to build a dynasty. A stalwart of the last four since the turn of the millennium, the likes of Thomas Muller, Marco Reus — returning from injury after his absence in 2014 — and extra time hero Mario Gotze, were all approaching their prime years for Russia, yet the squad felt disjointed.

It proved to be Joachim Low’s last tournament in charge when the Germans won just one game. A loss to Mexico meant their opening defence was already concerning, but a 2-1 win against Sweden did little to mask the embarrassment around the camp when South Korea beat them 2-0 to dump Germany out of the competition. 

Spain – 2014 

By the time the Brazil World Cup rolled around, Spain’s tiki-taka style of football was well past its sell-by-date. The sleek, intricate style of Xavi and Iniesta was simply outrun by the industrious group the 2010 champions faced in South America. In a rematch of the final in Soccer City four years ago, the Spaniards were hammered 5-1 by the Netherlands, something no one would have expected when Xabi Alonso’s penalty gave them the lead. 

What followed was a shock 2-0 loss to Chile which sealed their fate before the group was up. While they beat Australia 3-0 to end the campaign, it was a mere consolation for their Golden Generation, who won two European Championships and a World Cup in their heyday, before bowing out rather underwhelmingly in Brazil. 

Italy – 2010 

Despite winning the Euros last summer, international tournaments haven’t been kind to Italy in recent years. Their 2006 World Cup victory really felt like a ‘now or never’ situation, and after heading to South Africa with a lot of the old guard either in the autumn of their careers or already retired, the Azzuri really struggled. While they only lost one game — a narrow 3-2 encounter with Slovakia — draws to Paraguay and New Zealand are simply unacceptable given the sheer gap in not only FIFA rankings but sheer footballing ability. This was an Italy team with the likes of Antonio Di Natale, Claudio Marchisio and Gianluigi Buffon, but Marcello Lippi’s time as boss had run its course, and the Italian left his second stint in charge at the end of a dismal group stage in which they finished rock bottom.