Getting to the top is difficult, but staying there is an even harder task. The same rule applies to winning the World Cup trophy.
Only a couple of winners ever managed to repeat their good performances in the subsequent tournament. Apart from Brazil (1958/62) and Italy (1934/38), teams have generally failed to deliver results of a similar caliber four years after their victories. In fact, throughout football history, we have witnessed a considerable amount of downright terrible performances courtesy of the reigning champions.
Let’s take Spain as our first example. La Furia Roja were already out of the most recent World Cup by the time of the group stage. In fact, they had lost any chance at a spot in the knockout phase after having played merely two games.
Italy had a similar fate in 2010 when they exited the tournament after the group stage, without recording a single win.
Of course, there’s also the time that Brazil, considered the favorites of the 2006 World Cup, were eliminated by France in the quarterfinals.
France were no strangers to World Cup calamity themselves. Les Bleus’ 2002 campaign can be named as one of the biggest disappointments in the Cup’s history, as they failed to produce a single goal in the tournament that was held in Japan and South Korea. Shockingly, this came a mere four years after their dominant home campaign that had seen them defeat Brazil, the 1994 champions, by a three goal margin in the final.
In 1994 a familiar story was played out as reigning champions Germany were eliminated in the quarterfinals, at the hands of Bulgaria.
Then in the tournament hosted by Italy 1990, Argentina was on the brink of defending its title, but the Germans simply proved to be the better side, winning 1-0 in the final.
In Mexico ’86, champions Italy were stunned in the round of 16 against neighboring France, who beat them 2-0.
Four years earlier, Argentina was out in the second phase of the competition, which at the time included a second group stage. Argentina finished last in a group that included Italy and Brazil. The same happened to the West Germans in 1978, as they lost a crucial match to Austria 2-3.
Brazil had fared slightly better in the preceding tournament. The Selecao had the chance to earn third place, but Poland proved the better team, leaving the previous champions without a medal.
After winning the World Cup title on home turf following a famously controversial final, England was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 1970 competition held in Mexico.
In the 1966 tournament, the Brazilians, who were the champs at the time, headed back home after merely the group stage, with the absence of Pele proving just too much for the squad.
Conversely, Brazil had been successful in the previous tournament held in Chile, defending the title they had won in Sweden at the 1958 Cup. These would be remembered as the glory days of the Cariocas.
At that World Cup in Sweden, the 1954 winner West Germany was eliminated in the semifinals, and the same fate happened to Uruguay four years prior.
The defending champions of 1938 Italy were stopped in the group stage of the 1950 tournament. Italy had, of course, won two consecutive trophies in 1934 and in 1938, becoming the first nation to successfully defend their World Cup victory.
As the winners of the very first World Cup in 1930, Uruguay didn’t even decide to participate in the 1934 competition held in Italy, therefore forfeiting their title.
The World Cup is clearly a trophy that is very hard to retain once it’s been in your possession. Some of the world’s greatest teams failed to win back-to-back tournaments. Will current champions Germany buck the disturbing trend at the 2018 World Cup? We will find out soon enough.