Defending champions Germany have crashed out of the FIFA World Cup in Russia! Losing 1-0 against Mexico, scraping through 2-1 against Sweden with an injury-time winner, and finally, a 2-0 defeat against a supremely gritty South Korea have booked the Germans their early tickets back home.
Germany’s loss makes them the latest victims of ‘The Curse of the Defending Champions’, an unbelievable coincidence that has seen numerous titleholders crashing out of the tournament in the group stages, four years after winning the World Cup! Believe it or not, it’s happened in each of the last three World Cups, and in four of the last five!
Here’s a look back at the times underdogs have upset the ambitions of the defending champs.
2002: Senegal Stun France
In the opening match of the 2002 World Cup, defending champions France locked horns with a nation that had been a French colony till 1960.
World Cup debutantes Senegal had a score to settle.
Zinedine Zidane’s side had thrashed then four-time champions Brazil 3-0 just four years ago for France to lift their maiden World Cup. What’s more, the Frenchmen had won Euro 2000 too! So naturally, as the 2002 edition of the FIFA World Cup kicked off in Japan and South Korea, France were billed as one of the favourites.
Thierry Henry. Patrick Vieira. David Trezeguet. On paper, France looked formidable. But those in the stands that day at the Seoul World Cup Stadium had another thing coming. Senegal was about to make history on their World Cup debut. Incidentally, all of Senegal’s players played for French clubs!
When in the 31st minute, El Hadji Diouf sent the ball into the box, and Papa Bouba Diop scrambled to put it in, the celebrations were euphoric. Senegal held on for the remainder of the 90 minutes, and recorded one of World Cup football’s greatest upsets.
A goalless draw against Uruguay and a 2-0 loss to Denmark later, the French side were on the flight back home.
The defending champions of the World Cup and the holders of the European Football Championship had a solitary point to show at the end of three matches. And it was the newest entrant into World Cup football that had begun their collapse out of the Cup.
2010: Slovakia Send Italy Packing
In 2006, four years after their first-round exit, France returned with a vengeance, and Zinedine Zidane played like the legend he is. The French reached the final again, just eight years after their first World Cup victory. All that stood between them and the 2006 FIFA World Cup was an Italian side led by the dogged defender Fabio Cannavaro.
A hundred and twenty minutes of football, an infamous headbutt, and a penalty shootout later, Italy called the World Cup their own for a fourth time.
Come 2010 though, ‘the curse of the defending champions’ would not let them get anywhere close to the title! Group F saw them pitted against Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. You would expect Italy to cruise through that group, right?
But a gritty New Zealand and an aggressive Slovakia had other plans. The Kiwis held Italy to a 1-1 draw and Slovakia beat the four-time champions 3-2.
The defending champions were out again. And yet again, it was the group stage that’s so often considered a formality by pundits and commentators.
Eight years later, New Zealand and Slovakia haven’t made it to the list of 32 playing the World Cup. Ironically enough, neither have Italy.
2014: La Roja Lose, and La Roja Win
There was a time when Spain could do no wrong. They won the Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. La Roja (The Red Ones) were unstoppable.
Their opening match in 2014 reversed the trend, and how. Spain were demolished by a flamboyant Netherlands side. At the end of 90 minutes, the scoreline read 5-1. Dutch stars Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben had scored a brace each.
Spain would have to win their two remaining games - against Chile and Australia - to survive.
But the La Roja wouldn’t be able to. The La Roja would stop them from doing so. Confused? There are two international teams whose fans claim ownership over the term ‘La Roja’. Both wear their reds with pride. Spain, being the footballing giant that it is, is more widely associated with the title.
But on that fateful day in June 2014, exactly four years ago, the underdogs of the match would reclaim the title as their own. Chile would score twice to progress to the Round of 16, and send ‘the other La Roja’ back home.
Another defending champion had bitten the dust. Another titleholder had faltered at the group stage. And ‘the curse’ had become quite the phenomenon.