By Rob Smyth
May 18, 2010

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:

1. France 2002

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.

2. Brazil 1966

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 Pele, aged 25 and indisputably the best player in the world. But he was repeatedly brutalized by Dobrimir Zhechev in the opening game, a 2-0 win over Bulgaria. An injured Pele missed the match against an excellent Hungary team, who triumphed 3-1; and although he returned for the final match against Portugal, he was, like Zidane in 2002, far from fully fit and had to hobble off after some more rough treatment in the first half. Even if he had stayed on, Brazil would have struggled to beat a superb Portugal, who dumped the champions out with a 3-1 win.

3. Argentina 2002

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 -- Gabriel Batistuta, Juan Veron, Hernan Crespo, Claudio Lopez, Ariel Ortega, Kily Gonzalez, Pablo Aimar -- fell at the first hurdle. They were the pre-tournament favourites despite being drawn in a fiercely hard group, with Sweden, England and Nigeria. Most expected that it was a case of Argentina and one other; by the time Argentina thought the unthinkable, it was on the brink of elimination. The Argentines breezed through the opening game against Nigeria, but were caught cold by a defiant England side; a 1-0 defeat left Argentina needing to beat Sweden. Despite dominating the game, it could only draw 1-1 and was on its way home. Argentina had not played badly -- it had 45 shots in its three games, and almost two-thirds of the possession against both England and Sweden -- and that made its exit even harder to fathom. To compound its already miserable tournament, Brazil, who were given little chance beforehand, went on to become champions.

4. Italy 1966

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 Pak Doo Ik. Before the game, Italy's assistant manager had likened the Koreans to a Charlie Chaplin-style physical comedy. He later said it was a compliment; that he was warning Italy of Korea's ability to run all day rather than ridiculing them. Either way, there was no doubt who the joke was on after this.

5. Italy 1974

The egos had landed. Italy went into the tournament in fine form, with goalkeeper Dino Zoff having kept a world record 12 consecutive clean sheets, but the sort of infighting you could barely script dogged a dismal campaign in 1974. A few players, including Fabio Capello, kept their own counsel, but most were free with their thoughts. Matters came to a head when, after being substituted in the first game against Haiti, Giorgio Chinaglia very publicly stuck two fingers up at his manager Ferruccio Valcareggi. Although Italy avoided humiliation against Haiti, coming from a goal down to win 3-1, a draw in its second game against Argentina left it needing to beat Poland, who were top of the group and would finish third in the tournament. The Italians were beaten 2-1 and skulked off home blaming each other.

6. Colombia 1994

Pele tipped Colombia to win USA 94, a suggestion which few people sniffed at given the majesty of its qualifying campaign, which culminated in a 5-0 thrashing of Argentina in Buenos Aires that measured extremely high on football's Richter scale. The Colombians certainly looked the part, with a telepathic short-passing game not unlike the current Barcelona side, but their build-up was dogged by talk of betting syndicates, drug cartels and death threats, and they flopped hopelessly. A slightly unfortunate 3-1 defeat to a clinical Romania was followed by a 2-1 defeat to the U.S., in which Andres Escobar scored a fateful, fatal own goal, and they were out with a game to spare. A hollow 2-0 win over Switzerland ended Colombia's tournament, but its World Cup campaign would be remembered for what happened a week later: Escobar, having affronted a gambling syndicate with that own goal, was shot dead outside a bar in Medellin.

7. Spain 1998

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.

8. Germany 1994

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 Hristo Stoichkov and, famously, the bald head of the flying Yordan Letchkov, it was one of the great World Cup shocks.

9. Denmark 1986

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 Jesper Olsen played one of the most infamous backpasses in the game's history, gifting an equalizer to Emilio Butragueno. Denmark continued to pour forward after the break, but Spain picked them off ruthlessly on the break. Butragueno scored four, with Spain winning 5-1. The scoreline looked right; it was just the wrong way round. It was soccer's saddest, maddest thrashing.

10. Scotland 1978

Ally MacLeod's Scotland were lively outsiders in Argentina, having impressively disposed of the European champions Czechoslovakia in qualification. The Scots had a farewell parade at Hampden Park in front of tens of thousands, and MacLeod even announced that they would win the competition. But this being Scotland, and this being World Cup, it inevitably turned into a farce: they lost 3-1 to Peru and then, after winger Willie Johnston was sent home for failing a drug test, drew with Iran in a shambolic game. It meant that Scotland had to beat Holland by three clear goals to qualify. Tantalizingly, it led 3-1 at one stage before Johnny Rep made the final score 3-2. Scotland were out, and MacLeod's rep was in tatters.

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