Hard to win the World Cup, Harder to Defend It

Clive Rose

Life has always been hard for the reigning kings when they return to the biggest stage in sport.

As I write this, Spain, the defending champions, the no.1 ranked team on the planet, with the aristocratic playing style to match their status as the ruling elite of world football for the last 6 years, a team many picked to win the cup and almost all picked to make the semi finals, are heading out of the tournament at the first hurdle after defeat at the hands of a swaggering Chile side. In less than a week Spain have doubled their number of competitive losses over the last 7 years. They've conceded seven in 2 games which is five more then they conceded 4 years ago in 7 games. Spain will be one of the first 2 teams eliminated alongside Australia, the lowest ranked side at the World Cup. The same Australian side that has outplayed Spain significantly in their first 2 games and it's not really been all that close.

It's almost impossible not to be surprised at the sudden precipitous decline for the foremost power in football. It is worth noting though, that the task of defending the World Cup has historically been one of the greatest challenges in sport. Only twice has it ever been done (Italy in 38, and Brazil in 62) and not for 52 years now have the reigning champions successfully held on to their claim to be the kings of world football. In fact the defending champions have historically been eliminated in the group stages more times than they've won the trophy. Spain will be the 4th team to drop out in the group phase, (Brazil 66, France 02, Italy 10) and the 3rd in the last 4 World Cups.

There are doubtlessly many, many reasons why its so difficult  to retain the World Cup. Firstly 4 years is a long time in football. Players age, and those who were in their primes when they were toasting success last time around are now likely on the downswing of their careers. Certainly that appears true of this Spanish side, having grown up together, are now growing older together. Younger players like Pedro have found limited international opportunities, due to having to push their way up ahead of championship quality starters.

Additionally other teams would have had years to study and prepare for the champions style of play and identify any potential flaw. Coming in as the reigning kings also means coming in with a target on your back. The Spanish lack of pace, especially when defending the counter, has been exploited, and their dominance of their possession dimmed. International teams have also benefited from observing how clubs have contained the once rampant Barcelona.

Perhaps the number of games played is also telling. Almost all international players play long club seasons. Being so involved in all international competitions also means long summers as well. The Euros for Spain, the Confederations Cup, and having to qualify for this World Cup, it's all added up. Perhaps its no coincidence that 2002 was the year the reigning champions were first made to qualify for the World Cup, and since then only once has the defending champions even made the knockout stages. All the long games, often in distant continents with difficult weather conditions, makes it a challenge even for the best teams in the history of the world.

4 years ago it seemed like Spain were built to rule for a generation. Perhaps they have, and a generation in football today is simply only 6 years long. I wonder if I will ever see a team defend the World Cup in my lifetime. If I had to guess, right now, I would say no.

Which, considering how exciting the World Cup has been this year with the incredible level of parity, sounds great to me.

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