Imagine favorites Spain and Brazil going out in the group stage of this summer's World Cup. You can't; it's unthinkable. But the same was true of other shocking early exits in past tournaments. Here is our top 10:
It's one thing for the champ to go down; quite another for him to fail to land a single blow. France was World and European champion going into the 2002 World Cup, yet failed to score a single goal and tumbled out at the group stage. It lost, shockingly, to Senegal in the opening game of the tournament, drew 0-0 with Uruguay after an early red card for Thierry Henry -- his perceived lack of big-game bottle manifesting itself in a reckless challenge -- and was picked off by Denmark in the final match, losing 2-0. In hindsight, we might have seen it coming once Robert Pires, in the form of his life, and particularly Zinedine Zidane suffered pre-tournament injuries, stripping the invention from an ageing side: seven of the XI that started against Senegal were in their 30s. A quarter-fit Zidane returned for that final game against Denmark, but it was far too little, far too late.
The only post-war instance of Brazil going out in the first round. This group was sandwiched between perhaps the two greatest World Cup sides of all: the Brazilian winners of 1958/1962 and 1970. In the centre of the venn diagram were a number of players from those team, but almost all of them were either too old or too inexperienced. The exception was
It is astonishing to think that Argentina's platinum generation has not won a Copa America, never mind a World Cup. Seventeen years of underachievement (its last Copa America title was in 1993) reached a nadir in 2002, when a squad full of some extraordinary attacking talent --
Mention of the word Korea brings the Italian football fan out in the coldest sweat: partly because of its controversial defeat to South Korea in the 2002 tournament, but principally because of its infamous loss to North Korea in 1966. Although Italy had lost to Russia in the group stage, it only needed a draw against the Koreans to qualify for the quarterfinals, but it went down to 10 men in the first half -- there were no substitutes in those days -- and bundled out by a single goal from
The egos had landed. Italy went into the tournament in fine form, with goalkeeper
Spain will deservedly go to South Africa as favourites, but to win it will have to get a gigantic historical monkey off its back. Spain are the great World Cup underachievers, who have never even reached a semifinal. Probably its most ignominious campaign came in 1998; tipped as dark horses, as the Spanish were at every tournament in which they placed in the 1990s, they were instead sent to the knackers' yard after the group stage. Spain was leading its opening match against Nigeria 2-1 when its legendary goalkeeper Andoni Zubizaretta scored a farcical own goal. Nigeria went on to win 3-2 and, after a muted goalless draw against Paraguay, Spain was left needing favous from elsewhere. Spain did not get them, and although it beat Bulgaria 6-1 in their final game, victories come no more pyrrhic.
The quarterfinals do not ordinarily count as an early exit, but then the West Germany of the 1980s and 1990s was not an ordinary side. It had reached each of the three previous World Cup finals; it was European champion (in 1980); it had a robotic consistency that meant many opponents were beaten before the game had started. So when the Germans went out to unfancied Bulgaria, who had only ever won a single World Cup game and who trailed here before striking back through
Yes, little Denmark. The second round is generally about par but in 1986 Denmark's exhilarating side was one of the favorites to lift the World Cup, having laughed in the face of the original Group of Death. They beat Scotland, Uruguay (6-1) and West Germany, and the Danes' relentless attacking soccer -- no team has ever had such a collection of jet-heeled dribblers -- and humble nature made them everyone's second team. They were widely expected to beat an average Spanish side, and led 1-0 on the stroke of halftime when