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World Cup 2018: The Struggle Of The Defending Champion Continues

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A dejected Team Germany looks on in disappointment after their 2-0 loss to South Korea.

“Congratulations to Korea for the win, for Sweden and Mexico for the qualification. It’s difficult to explain. The way we played we didn’t deserve to go through.”

-Germany coach Joachim Loew

Many of you may remember during the last World Cup, I posted a blog about the challenges the defending World Cup champion faces. Sometimes it seems like bad luck. After Germany’s game against South Korea, my look at the defending Champion deserves an update.

In the 20th Century, only Italy in 1950 and Brazil in 1966 were among the defending champions that failed to make it past the Group Stage. In the 21st Century, there was France in 2002, Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014.

Then came Germany here in 2018. Germany was the most impressive team at the 2014 World Cup and deserving of their victory. The team appeared to have many a great retire from the national team over time like Miro Klose, Per Mertesacker and Phillipp Lahm just after their World Cup win, Bastian Schweinsteiger right after Euro 2016, and Lukas Podolski in 2017. Nevertheless their reputation of consistency would continue to be as they would continue to do very well in tournaments, if not win. There was the semifinal finish at Euro 2016. There was winning their first ever Confederations Cup in 2017. They even won FIFA team of the year in 2014 and 2017 as well as the Laureus award for Team Of The Year in 2015. It appeared that the years were kind to team Germany as well as with the new talent that was coming along. Including Joshua Kimmich who won German Player Of The Year in 2017. Germany’s Olympic team in Rio which consisted mostly of men under 23 won the silver medal. It also appeared Head Coach Joachim Loew was continuing to make the right decisions and Germany’s football system which went through an overhaul in the early 21st Century was continuing to pay off big time.

Even in friendly play, Germany did very well, but they also had notable defeats like 4-2 against Argentina seven weeks after the World Cup, 2-1 against the US in June 2015, 3-2 against England in March 2016, and 3-1 against Slovakia in May 2016. 2017 looked like a good year for Germany as they topped their World Cup qualifying group easily and they didn’t even lose a dingle friendly. Their draw for the World Cup didn’t appear to threaten their World Cup status as their mix with Sweden, South Korea and Mexico appeared to be a group they could advance with after playing.

Then the 2018 year began. They drew against Spain 1-1 in their first friendly in March. Their next friendly, against Brazil four days later, they lost 1-0. They would lose to Austria in a friendly 2-1 on June 2nd and then win 2-1 in a friendly against the Saudis on June 8th. It was apparent the team chemistry that gave Germany the winning edge in 2014 wasn’t there.

The World Cup squad of 23 for the German national team was announced on June 4th 2018: two days after their loss to Austria. Manuel Neuer, goalkeeper for the 2014 team, was back and was captain of the team, as were eight other members of Germany’s 2014 team. There was also Mario Gomez who was part of Germany’s 3rd-place World Cup team of 2010. Marco Reus, who had to be replaced just before the 2014 World Cup because of an ankle injury, finally got his World Cup moment in 2018. There were some notable differences about the make-up. Four members of the 2014 team had 100 caps or more. None of the 2018 team had that. Three of the members were part of Germany’s silver medal-winning performance at the Rio Olympics in 2016. There were the ‘reliable’ veterans like Ozil, Muler, Neuer, Khedira and Boateng. As for the new players, there were talents like 26 year-old Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 22 year-old Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Julian Brandt, and defenders like 25 year-old Antonio Rudiger from Chelsea and 23 year-old Joshua Kimmich from Bayern Munich as well as 22 year-old striker Timo Werner who scored three goals during the 2017 Confederations Cup.

There were also some notable members of the German national team who were left off the World Cup squad like Shkodran Mustafi who was part of the 2014 team and Mario Gotze who scored the goal that won Germany the World Cup. Gotze had been going through a metabolic disorder since March of last year and it may have caused his dismissal from the national team.

Then the World Cup started. Their first opponent was Mexico right in Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. There were talks of struggles with the team chemistry since the Cup started, including with their team-based training in Moscow, but it appeared to be nothing to worry about. Mexico was a team where their last defeat to them was in 1985. They even beat them in the semis at the Confederations Cup last year. However sport is not about the past; it’s about now. Vet Neuer was chosen to be goaltender, Kimmich and the relatively inexperienced Marvin Plattenhardt were the only two ‘new’ players chosen as defenders, the two midfielders were vets Kroos and Khedira, and Werner was the only ‘new’ defender of the four. Substitutions also caught people’s eyes as ‘new players’ Plattenhardt and Werner were among those substituted and two vets along with ‘new player’ Julian Brandt were the substitutes. Germany had 60% of the ball possession, 25 of 37 attempts, nine attempts on-target and nine off-target, eight of the nine corner kicks, 88% pass accuracy, but the one goal was scored by Hirving Lozano of Mexico in the 35th minute.

Germany’s 1-0 loss soon got people talking. This was Germany’s first loss of a Group Stage opening match in yay so long. There was even talk about how the German team lacked organization, lacked chemistry. Some claimed Loew was ‘separating’ the team between the tried-and-true vets and the newer players. More scattering of players than setting a build of play. Germany still however had two more games. Their next match was Sweden in another Olympic Stadium: Fisht in Sochi. Neuer was back as goaltender, but this time there was more presence of newer players, especially among defenders. Even two of the three substitutes were new players like Brandt and Ilkay Gundogan. However it appeared to be another struggle for Germany, especially after Ola Toivonen scored after the 32nd minute. It did, however, appear that Germany was beginning to find their groove again as Marco Reus evened the game up at the 48th minute. However it was starting to look like Germany was going to choke again. Then came the miracle of stoppage time. It was Toni Kroos delivering a successful free kick in the 5th minute of stoppage time to give Germany their winning goal. Despite their 2-1 victory, there were still naysayers, pointing out how Germany did so little with so much. Germany had ball possession for 71% of the game and 16 goal attempts, but only five attempts on-target. They also had five of the seven offsides. Also Jerome Boateng received two yellow cards– in the 71st and 82nd minutes– en route to a red-card dismissal and Germany to play one man down for the remainder of that game and against the following game against South Korea.

Then came Game 3 against South Korea at Kazan Arena. Germany had to win if they wanted to qualify as Mexico already had two wins. No doubt Germany appeared to be there. They had 70% ball possession, had nine corner kicks, and delivered 17 shots, but only six were on-target. Germany appeared to deliver a lot of good attempts at goals, but young goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo was on that night. It was definitely frustrating for Germany as they knew they had to win to stay alive. Sweden was beating Mexico 3-0 so a win was needed to qualify. It did not happen. This time, it was South Korea that took full advantage of stoppage time with a goal by Kim Younggwon in the 93rd minute giving Korea the lead and a goal by Son Heungmin in an empty net in the 96th minute that meant it was the end for Germany. That was only Germany’s second loss to South Korea after their fourth time playing each other.

It’s tough to decide what lead to Germany’s demise. It may be the coaching staff’s overtrusting of its senior players and not giving the newer players a fair chance. Especially after vets like Neuer, Ozil and Thomas Muller all performed below expectation. Some say there was lack of unity or lack of a game plan. There was enough on the field to notice that. Some say the coaching tactics of Joachim Loew that was successful in the past finally ran out here. Loew himself was shocked at the loss and Germany’s early dismissal, however he did not deny any of his misdoings or the team’s misdoings.

Quotes from Loew after the game:

“I think we prepared well for the tournament. We were ready and we knew that all teams will be desperate to beat us, but we haven’t showed for it.”

“It wasn’t only Ozil, a number of other players didn’t perform as they normally would. I take responsibility for that and stand up for that, but I thought it was a good team.”

Interesting to note that Loew signed a contract to stay on as coach of the national team until 2022. Loew has been coach of the German national team since 2006. However he has made it evident that he will voluntarily step down. He made his disappointment obvious, but he said it will take hours to digest.

One thing about the loss is that it gave Germany some embarrassing statistics like the second World Cup ever and first time since 1938 that Germany failed to move past the 1st round, first time for Germany to fail to qualify after opening Group Stage play, and the third defending champion in a row to be eliminated after the Group Stage.

That last statistic continues to be biting. This is the fourth time in five World Cups this 21st century and the third consecutive time the defending champion is out after the Group Stage. I’ve never considered it bad luck to be defending World Cup champion, but the statistics are strongly pointing the way to it. It was never this way in the 20th century. They may have had some bad statistics at the following World Cup, but it was very rare to be out in the Group Stage. Now it’s more common than ever with Germany being the sixth ever and third-consecutive. It’s tempting to think bad lack, but one has to study teams to know why they perform poorly time after time. This is something new and shouldn’t be, but this is tempting.

The defending World Cup champion. The definition continues.

 

 

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2014 World Cup: Is Being Defending Champion Bad Luck?

Spanish player Sergio Busquets is devastated after Spain's loss to Chile. That loss prevents Spain from advancing past the Group Stage.

Spanish player Sergio Busquets is devastated after Spain’s loss to Chile. That loss prevents Spain from advancing past the Group Stage.

It was something nobody saw coming. Spain entered this World Cup as the reigning champions. Ever since their win of the Cup, they’ve had an impressive record with winning Euro 2012, Runners-up to Brazil at the 2013 Confederations Cup, and an impressive streak of 39 wins, eight draws and six losses in the games they’ve played since World Cup 2010.

However something went wrong in their game against the Netherlands on June 13th. At first, it looked like Spain would command an early lead with a penalty goal scored by Xabi Alonzo in the 27th minute. Then things turned for the worse as the Netherlands, whom Spain played against in the 2010 World Cup final, came back first with a goal from Robin van Persie in the 44th minute, followed by four more goals from the Netherlands including a second from van Persie and two from Arjen Robben. The score 5-1 was Spain’s biggest loss in a World Cup game since 1950.

Coach Vicente Del Bosque reassured fans that Spain will be ready in their next two games. Spain’s next opponent was Chile in the Maracana Stadium. Chile already had beaten Australia 3-1 in their World Cup opener. You’d expect Spain to be hungry for a win after their big loss to the Netherlands. However things went completely unexpected for Spain. Chile’s Eduardo Vargas drew first blood by scoring in the 20th minute. Then just before the first half was about to end, Charles Aranguiz gave Chile another goal to give them a 2-0. There was no more scoring in the second half. As the final whistle blew, Chile not only won the match against Spain but found themselves advancing to the Round of 16 through acquiring their second win. Just hours earlier the Netherlands won their match against Australia 3-2. With that being their second win, the Netherlands were guaranteed a spot in the Round of 16 too. Spain found itself with two losses and with only one game left in the Group Stage, all chances of qualifying for the Round of 16 had fallen out of their hands.

Spain’s situation is actually not that uncommon for a defending World Cup champion. Of the nineteen defending champions in the history of the World Cup, only two have successfully defended their title: Italy in 1938 and Brazil in 1962. An addition two were successful enough to make it to the finals. If you want the full details of how defending World Cup champions have fared, here’s the chart:

Chart

As you may have noticed in the chart, five defending champions in the history of the World Cup have failed to advance past the opening Group Stage, with Spain being the latest. The craziest thing about this is that Spain’s incident is actually the third time in the past four World Cups that the defending champion would face the end of the road in the Group Stage.

Seeing a defending champion of a major sports event falter is very common in sport. I’ve seen it happen many times before in terms of the professional sports scale and even in the Olympic arena. The World Cup is no stranger to that, obviously. I myself witnessed the struggle of the defending World Cup holder first in 1990 when Argentina lost to Cameroon 1-0. Cameroon finished on top in their group while Argentina finished third and was able to qualify to the Round of 16 because the World Cup consisted of 24 countries and third-placers were eligible for wild card berths. Argentina then came alive after that and went on to qualify for the finals. The second time I noticed was back in 1994 when Germany was the defending Cup holder. For the record, Germany is the team I cheer for at the World Cup. They too had an excellent record of consistency. Then it was their quarterfinal against Bulgaria. they scored first but Bulgaria came back to win 2-1. Bulgaria went on the semifinals while Germany packed sooner than expected.

I’ve watched many more World Cup since and I’ve payed close attention to how the defending champion would do. It’s interested that of the eighteen times the defending champion competed at the World Cup, only twice were they successful to repeat. Even now seeing how Spain is the fifth defending Cup holder ever and the third in the past four Cups to be eliminated in the Group Stage makes me wonder if there’ starting to be a curse with the defending Cup holder. I mean it’s no question the defending Cup holder would face the pressure to win. You have the World spotlight and the adoration of a nation behind you. Not to mention your #12 ranking on FIFA’s chart at stake too. It’s easy to see in situations like those in which the reigning champions would falter. Sometimes it could be overconfidence. The team might think they’re #1 and sometimes forget to play well and pay for it in the end. Or it could be that the team was not all there mentally. That could happen. Even though Del Bosque has been coach of Spain since 2008 and hugely responsible for its success, it is possible for even the best teams to falter.

Whatever the situation, Spain will return back home after they play Australia in what will be their last Group Stage game. They may play badly or they may play spectacularly as if they have one last thing to prove. Whatever the situation, Spain will have to regroup and train again as a national team from scratch. It’s highly likely Del Bosque will be dropped as head coach. Who will replace him is a big question right now. Spain’s first chance to prove itself after the World Cup will be September 4th in a friendly match against France whom themselves choked in 2002 as defending Cup holders.

Winning the World Cup may be everything for the football players in Brazil. However for those that win on July 13th, it could be a bad omen for the next World Cup. I don’t want to get superstitious but it is tempting right now.

UPDATE: For my 2018 update, click here.