The curse of the defending World Cup champion

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In three out of the last four world cups, the defending champion has failed to get out of the group, despite having a star-studded team, good form heading into the tournament and a relatively comfortable passage through to the knock-out rounds.

Within that 20-year span, only one defending champion - Brazil, in 2006 – qualified out of the group. Boasting Kaka and Ronaldinho in their primes, and the likes of Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Adriano and Robinho, the Selecao were heavily favoured to back up their title. But even this fantasy assortment of attacking stars struggled with the weight of history, knocked out in the quarter-finals by eventual runner-up France.

In 2002,  defending champion France finished bottom of its group after shock losses to Denmark and Senegal – the African team’s stunning opening match upset of Les Bleus effectively launching the club football careers of a generation of its stars.

The team that would four years later beat France in the 2006 final - Italy - befell an eerily similar fate in 2010, finishing bottom of a group that included New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia. Four years after hoisting the cup, the Italians couldn’t muster a single win in South Africa.

If ever a team was going to buck this trend, it was the star-studded Spain side of 2014. With only six players over 30 years-old and the nucleus of the team that had won in 2010, Spain seemed primed to get out of a group that included Chile, 2010 runner-up Netherlands and Australia.

90 minutes after the start of its first game, against vanquished 2010 final opponent Netherlands, Spain’s ‘title defence’ was in tatters. The 5-1 loss was the biggest a defending champion has suffered in cup history. Spain lost its next match to Chile, 2-0, and its tournament was done.

Fast-forward four years and the perennially powerfully Germany is on the cusp of an inexplicably similar fate, having suffered a shock loss to Mexico and scraped to the narrowest of wins over Sweden on the back of a Toni Kroos stoppage time stunner.

Level with the Swedes on three points, Joachim Low’s team must beat South Korea in its final match to give itself the best chance of qualifying out of the group behind Mexico.

A number of factors can be attributed to the world cup hangover that makes defending the trophy a seemingly tougher task than winning it in the first place. Consider the year Germany had in 2017, where it won the Confederations Cup and UEFA U-21 European championships. If form is a guide, Die Mannschaft was the outstanding footballing nation heading into Russia.

It’s telling then that not one of the players who won the junior Euros – six of whom featured in the team of the tournament, including rising stars Max Meyer and Maximilian Arnold – made it into the senior side a year later.

Eight of the attacking players who propelled Germany to Confederations Cup success – Leroy Sane the most notable among them – missed out on the World Cup squad. The players who Low has taken to Russia are not only the core group who won in Brazil, but many of those young tyros who put all before them on notice at the 2010 edition in South Africa.

But that was eight years ago – a tactical lifetime in football. Almost a decade on and some of those trail-blazers – Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Thomas Muller to name a few – are starting to look a little leg weary.

Indeed, pressure to win a second straight title, let alone motivation, and managing the transition between an experienced, successful core group and a new generation of talents, are issues that have effected every defending champion since the turn of the millennium. That’s to say nothing of the need to evolve and adapt tactically.

Defending a world cup is not like beginning the defence of a league title, some four or five months after winning it. Rival nations have four years to plot the downfall of a world Cup-winner, and a champion’s ability to not only evolve with the pack, but stay ahead of it, is crucial to emulating the achievement.

On top of patchy form in its opening two games, Germany has been plagued by the exact issues that befell France in 2002, Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014: heavily-scrutinised squad selections, rumours of trouble in the camp and a shock first game loss.

In the history of the tournament only two teams have successfully gone back-to-back: Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962. On both those occasions the World Cup only featured 16 teams. If Germany is to be the first country in the history of the 32-team tournament to win it twice in a row, it must overcome the challenges that have brought undone its contemporaries and still threaten to unravel its campaign.

Far from being evidence it will do that, the win over Sweden kept Germany’s knock-out round chances alive. The players will have to show hitherto unseen resilience and a huge uptick in form if they are to kick on and make history. Again.