QATAR 2022

A history of World Cup flops: Past upsets haunt defending champions France

Issued on: 18/11/2022 – 11:17

Danish players celebrate after knocking out title holders France at the 2002 World Cup. © Patrick Hertzog, AFP

Text by:

6 min

Defending champions France enter the World Cup in Qatar hoping to break the curse that has plagued recent title holders – a jinx the French inaugurated in 2002 when their formidable armada of strikers famously failed to score a single goal. 


The kicks off in Qatar on Sunday, November 20, with France bidding to become the first team to win back-to-back trophies since Brazil in 1958 and 1962. Plagued by a string of high-profile injuries, “Les Bleus” will also have to contend with the weight of World Cup history.  

France’s defeat of title holders Brazil at the 1998 World Cup marked the last time the tournament’s defending champions come anywhere near retaining the title. Of the next five World Cup holders, four even failed to reach the knockout stage and three finished last in their group. 

Such was the fate of the mighty French squad that arrived at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea as both world and European champions, boasting a front line that featured the top scorers from three major European leagues.  

Far from justifying their status as the tournament’s hot favourites, the flopped spectacularly in the group stage, crashing out without a single win in one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. 

History would repeat itself in subsequent tournaments, resulting in humiliating early exits for defending champions Italy (2010), Spain (2014) and Germany (2018), and a lacklustre quarter-final defeat for Brazil in 2006.  

Here’s a look at what went wrong for the title holders. 

  • 2002: Les Bleus blunted

While France won its first World Cup in 1998 without a striker, the team that vowed to repeat the feat four years later had an abundance of goal-scoring options. With Arsenal striker Thierry Henry, Juventus marksman David Trezeguet and the French league’s top scorer Djibril Cisse, the French attack looked virtually unstoppable.

With anchoring the midfield, and the core of the 1998 team still present, it seemed fair to assume the French would ease through a group that featured newcomers Senegal, Uruguay and a Danish side stripped of the Laudrup brothers.  

But nothing went according to plan. 

Five days before the start of the World Cup, Zidane suffered a thigh injury during a warm-up match that ruled him out of the first two group games. A week later, France were stunned by underdogs Senegal, with Papa Bouba Diop scoring the only goal in a famous win for the Lions of Teranga. 

Senegalese fans celebrate on the Champs Elysées in Paris after their team’s historic qualification for the quarter-finals at the 2002 World Cup. AFP – JEAN AYISSI

French hopes of bouncing back in the second match were dashed when Henry was sent off after 25 minutes for a reckless challenge in a 0-0 draw against Uruguay. A strapped-up Zidane was rushed back for the last match against Denmark, which France needed to win by two goals. Instead, Les Bleus lost 2-0 and went home in embarrassment. 

Twenty years on, the warning signs are ominous. Once again, injuries have knocked out key midfield players in a still-fearsome French squad that boasts arguably the best attack in the world… just like in 2002. 

  • 2006: Brazil vs Zidane 

Zidane would bounce back in style four years later at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where it was France’s turn to overthrow the defending champions, Brazil. 

The Seleçao were hot favourites to repeat their historic one-two of 1958 and 1962, led by the flamboyant brilliance of Ronaldinho, Kaka and World Cup veteran Ronaldo. In contrast, the French had struggled again in the group stage, Zidane looking out of form and unhappy with coach Raymond Domenech. 

But the hero of 1998 rose to the occasion in the quarter-final against Brazil, producing perhaps the most dazzling midfield performance in World Cup history. Zidane’s balletic poise and pirouetting moves befuddled Brazil, silencing the champions’ “samba football”, and his free kick set up Henry for the match-winning volley. 

Sadly for France, Zidane’s renaissance would end abruptly in the final match against Italy, best remembered for the infamous headbutt that ended one of the beautiful game’s greatest careers.  

  • 2010: Italy sent packing 

Italy’s title defence in 2010 was so feeble it put France’s 2002 fiasco into perspective. Like the French, the Azzurri finished at the bottom of their group, trailing a trio of teams – Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia – they were expected to roll over with ease.   

In their opening game, Italy rescued a scrappy 1-1 draw against Paraguay, with midfielder Daniele De Rossi providing the equalizer. The four-time champions again trailed their opponents in the second match against New Zealand before securing another draw, courtesy of a penalty. 

Italy were then outplayed by Slovakia in the final group game, crashing out of the tournament after a 3-2 defeat. 

First-choice striker Alberto Gilardino failed to deliver, blunting Italy’s attack. But the real let-down proved to be Italy’s normally water-tight defence, with 2006 World Cup hero Fabio Cannavaro this time the weakest link.  

  • 2014: The twilight of Spain’s golden age 

Coach Vicente del Bosque’s mighty Spain arrived in Brazil as the defending world champions and double European champions, having won all three major competitions they took part in between 2008 and 2012, powered by a slick midfield that included Barcelona legends Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. 

Given their impeccable credentials, it was quite the rude awakening for the Roja when they were 5-1 in the World Cup’s opening game – in a counter-attacking masterclass that heralded the demise of “tiki-taka”, Spain’s possession-based style of play.  

Spain were sliced apart by the Dutch duo of Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. © Javier Soriano, AFP

Despite the defensive pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, gaps at the back were again exposed in the second group game, which Chile won 2-0, effectively ending Spain’s title defence. A subsequent 3-0 win over Australia offered scant consolation. 

The star-studded team’s premature exit symbolised how two golden eras – Barcelona’s, at club level, and Spain’s – were coming to an end.  

  • 2018: And in the end Germany… waste their chances

Spain’s successors Germany topped FIFA’s ranking at the start of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, their team largely unchanged from the ruthless attacking machine that in the semi-finals four years earlier.     

However, the defending champions slumped to a messy 1-0 defeat against Mexico in their opening game, before coming back from a goal down in the following match to narrowly defeat Sweden in the 95th minute.  

Having survived the Sweden scare with only 10 men, Germany’s title defence looked to be back on track. They needed to beat South Korea in their final group game to seal a place in the knockout stage. 

Ahead of the game, South Korea’s coach gave his team a “1 percent chance” of securing a 2-0 win over the title holders – the only way the Koreans could hope to qualify for the last-16. Astonishingly, his players duly delivered, scoring two goals in stoppage time to  a shocked German squad that had previously squandered a flurry of chances.   

South Korea’s defender Kim Young-gwon celebrates after scoring against title holders Germany at the 2018 World Cup. © Jewel Samad, AFP

Unfortunately for South Korea, Sweden’s defeat of Mexico meant the Scandinavians would qualify ahead of them. But their victory over the formidable “Mannschaft” would go down in history as one of the great World Cup upsets. 

(With AP)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app