France will look to buck an unenviable trend at the 2022 World Cup as they aim to become only the second defending champion this century not to be knocked out at the group stage.
Brazil last won the World Cup 20 years ago. They come into the tournament as favourites, closely followed by arch-rivals Argentina despite their shock defeat to Saudi Arabia. Brazil are five-time winners, one clear of Germany and Italy. They are also the last team to defend their title when they went back-to-back at Sweden 1958 and Chile 1962.
Their World Cup record is imperious. However, they hold another record – of sorts – as the last defending champion to make it past the group stages.
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They achieved the feat in 2006 – eventually losing to France in the quarter-finals. France went all the way to the final that year, losing to Italy on penalties. The French were on the cusp of redemption after they had been dumped out in 2002 at the group stage after their 1998 win. It has been a fate that has since befallen Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018.THE INCREDIBLE QUADRUPLE
The last four European winners have all fallen at the first-round stage. To give context to this phenomenon, Germany had last been eliminated in the first round in 1938. Before France in 2002, the last winner to get knocked out in the first round was Brazil in 1966. But what was once the exception is now increasingly looking like the rule.
So what happened? Were there any similarities between these teams?
France, Maxime Dupuis of Eurosport France says, were undone by a mix of over-confidence after their Euro 2000 success, and injuries, namely to Robert Pires and also Zinedine Zidane.
“France lost Pires in March – he was a hell of a player that year – and by far the best in the team,” says Dupuis. “It represented a huge blow. And Zinedine Zidane was hurt the last game before the World Cup against South Korea.”
France finished bottom of a group that was topped by Denmark with Senegal in second and Uruguay third. They scored no goals, and conceded three.
In 2010, Italy also finished bottom of their group. Paraguay topped it, with Slovakia in second and New Zealand third. They – according to Simone Pace of Eurosport Italy – were undone by an inability to refresh their squad, coupled with a paucity of attacking options.
“World Cup 2010 was a disaster for Italy,” says Pace. “Marcello Lippi, who replaced Roberto Donadoni in 2008, made two mistakes: he decided to rely on the same leaders from the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
“Lippi also relied on Juventus players, even after a poor 2009-10 season when they finished seventh in the league. Also, his forwards – Giampaolo Pazzini, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Antonio di Natale, Alberto Gilardino and Fabio Quagliarella – were hardly top quality.”
Spain in 2014 – like Italy – continued to trust its old guard, but after years of domination, teams had figured out how to play against them and Vincente del Bosque’s team were devoid of a plan B.
“Spain went to the World Cup 2014 having won two Euros in a row and as defending champion,” says Jose Arronis of Eurosport Spain.
“Spain didn’t have a Plan B and the other national teams had worked out how to play against them. Plus, there had been a lot of talk about who should be the starter between Iker Casillas and David de Gea. Del Bosque trusted Casillas but Spain lost 5-1 against Netherlands after a poor performance by Casillas.
“Also, they were not physically good enough – this was very evident in the second match of their campaign against Chile – a match they lost.”
For Joachim Low’s Germany in 2018 in Russia, there was a different issue. There had been a big turnover of players and the team lacked leaders and identity.
“The team had quality, but lacked identity,” says Eurosport Germany’s Dennis Melzer, who was in Russia. “A lot of leaders, like Philipp Lahm or Bastian Schweinsteiger, had left.
“Low definitely made a mistake by not taking Leroy Sane. But it would be too easy to blame the early elimination on the absence of one player. There was something wrong within the team, supposedly a split between the veterans who won the World Cup and those who won the Confederations Cup in 2017.”
International football is about balance. And it is undoubtedly the case that these teams had lost that balance as they approached defending their crowns. Some changed too little, while others tried to change too much, too soon. There will undoubtedly have been other factors at play, such as the expanded European domestic calendar taking its toll on the players physically, or the pressure of being defending champions taking its toll mentally.
CAN FRANCE BUCK THE TREND?
France, whether by design, circumstance or injury, have a vastly different squad compared to the team who competed in Russia, with just 10 players remaining from that group. Karim Benzema has now joined Presnel Kimpembe, N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba on the sidelines.
Kante’s absence has been widely remarked upon, but Dupuis thinks the loss of Pogba will be most keenly felt.
“The biggest loss? Pogba for me,” says Dupuis. “Benzema is a problem but, we have Olivier Giroud who is our French Miroslav Klose. And we have Kylian Mbappe.
France have learned to play without Kante as he has struggled with injuries unfortunately. Pogba is a different player when he is in the French team: the leader and the tempo-setter.”
Plus there are other worries.
“Since the Euros – except in the Nations League – [boss] Didier Deschamps has tinkered a lot. Too much,” adds Dupuis.
France captain Hugo Lloris, however, remains confident.
“I think the staff and the coach have prepared the best team possible,” the Spurs keeper says. “Being the defending champion means you are the team to beat. We felt this in recent years. We feel the opponents are even more motivated to bring down the world champions. There is also the danger of the first matches, accidents can happen.”
France will hope they can avoid accidents when they take on Australia at 19:00 UK time.
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