The German national football team, as always, is regarded as one of the favorites to win the upcoming World Cup in Russia. But as the defending champions, history isn’t on their side when it comes to repeating as title winners.
Two sides have been able to defend the World Cup title: Italy and Brazil.
The Italians in 1938 came to France with Europe slowly moving towards World War II. The 1934 title in the second World Cup ever and the first held on European soil came in a “home field World Cup”, with official lending Italy a hand en route to beating Czechoslovakia 2-1 in the final. Italy’s win over a wonderful Austrian team in the semifinal was especially marred by controversy, as Ivan Eklind of Sweden allowed the Italians to play as close to brutal as possible and disassemble a much more talented side.
Four years later in France, Italy didn’t enjoy home-field officiating, but simply a better side, led by Silvio Piola and Gino Colaussi, both bagging a brace in the final, beating Hungary 4-2, a side regarded as the best in the world at the time. And in the semifinal it was a 2-1 win over Brazil, still not football giants in terms of reputation, but not far from it.
Brazil finally won the World Cup in 1958, 8 years after their national tragedy of letting the title slip away from them at home, in front of 200,000 fans, as Uruguay claimed their second title. In the ’58 World Cup held in Sweden the Brazilians unleashed a 17-year old named Pele onto the world. Pele scored 6 goals in the tournament including two in the final, just like another legendary teammate, Vava. Mario Zagallo, later World Cup winning head coach for Brazil, also scored in that final.
Four years later in Chile Brazil became the third side to win two World Cups, with Pele missing most of the tournament and Vava alongside Garrincha taking the helm. Brazil impressed in wins over England and hosts Chile before beating Czechoslovakia 3-1 in the final with goals from Amarildo, Zito and Vava.
The Back-to-Back drought begins
And since the World Cup in Chile, we’ve never had a champion repeat. In fact, only twice has a champion made it back to the final four years later.
The first team was Argentina in 1990. Diego Maradona was once again surrounded by a ragtag group that included Claudio Caniggia, as they paved their way to the final in less than impressive fashion. Maradona didn’t score a single goal in the tournament and perhaps the Argentine side doped the Brazilians with water in the knockout stage. Regardless, Argentina made the final, lost 1-0 to West Germany while becoming the first side to have a player (Actually two) sent off in the final – First Pedro Monzon, followed by Gustavo Dezotti leaving Argentina in nine men. That match was actually a repeat of the 1986 final which Argentina one, the only time it has ever occured.
The other side that attempted a repeat and failed was another South American team, Brazil. After their clinical performance in the 1994 World Cup, a Ronaldo-led Brazil side made it through a rough group stage in the 1998 World Cup to look much more impressive in the knockout stages, beating Chile, Denmark and Netherlands on penalties. In the final, hosts France awaited.
What happened in the hours and minutes before the final? Depends which version you want to believe. I tend to lean towards a simple explanation, as Brazil’s doctor offered: Imagine I ruled out Ronaldo from playing and we lost. I would have had to leave the country and move to the moon.
Ronaldo played for 90 minutes and did nothing. Despite going down to 10 men, France won their first World Cup in decisive manner, with a brace from Zinedine Zidane and a clincher by Emmanuel Petit. Brazil got their fifth World Cup title eventually, four years later.
Many World Cup champions do far worse four years later than the two examples above. 1966 champions England couldn’t get out of the quarterfinals four years later in Mexico, beaten by West Germany, getting their revenge for the Wembley final. Brazil in 1974, four years after what is still regarded as the greatest World Cup team ever assembled, couldn’t finish first in the second round group stage. The same thing happened to West Germany in 1978 four years after their champions run on home soil.
In 1982, World Cup champions Argentina lost in the second round group stage to both Brazil and Italy, with Diego Maradona getting a harsh Italian treatment from one of the best defenses ever assembled. Italy won in ’82, but couldn’t make it out of the round of 16 four years later, losing to France 2-0.
In 2002 France put in a woeful performance in their title defense, mustering just one point in a group that included Senegal, Denmark and Uruguay. In 2006, Brazil lost to France in the quarterfinals, failing to defend their title. In 2010, Italy failed to defend their World Cup title by getting knocked out in the group stage; Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand all finished ahead. In 2014, the same thing happened to Spain, losing to both Chile and Netherlands before a meaningless win against Australia.
No one sees it coming. Germany aren’t just defending World champions. While they didn’t win or reach the final in Euro 2016, they did wonderfully in the qualifiers and boast perhaps the deepest talent pool in Europe, judging by their success in the Confederation Cup and U-21 Euro. Their group of Mexico, Sweden and South Korea theoretically shouldn’t pose a problem, but strange things happen in these tournaments, and even a German side that rarely under achieves is prone to upsets.