Before every World Cup, nations dare to dream. Plucky minnows relish the prospect of taking a big scalp. More established countries seek to bring honor to their flags. And some nations dream of taking home the trophy itself. That optimism though, carries with it the weight of expectation, a weight that can be a burden. Some teams thrive under pressure, but others buckle. Here are four teams who disastrously underperformed at the World Cup
England – 1958
Although it had lost a number of key players just months earlier in the Munich Air Disaster, the England team was among the favorites in Sweden. It had qualified with ease, without losing a single match, and boasted a talented young core of players in Johnny Haynes, Bobby Robson, and Ronnie Clayton, with veteran leadership in the form of England legends Tom Finney and Billy Wright, famous as the first player to ever amass 100 international caps. Despite this array of firepower, however, England failed to win a single match. Two late goals were required to salvage a draw with the Soviet Union before England and Brazil played to the first scoreless draw in tournament history. England then had to come from behind twice to draw with Austria. Despite this lackluster performance, the Three Lions were handed a lifeline in the form of a playoff with the Soviets, owing to identical points and goal average (go ask your grandfather what goal average is). They were soon however, eliminated by an Anatoli Ilyin goal. It would take another two World Cups, and the comfort of home soil, before the English would taste the ultimate glory.
Scotland – 1978
As England, Wales, and Northern Ireland had all failed to qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, Scotland were left as the sole representatives from the UK. They were managed by the colorful Ally MacLeod, who upon his appointment, had proclaimed, “My name is Ally MacLeod and I am a winner.” No stranger to ambition, he had promised “at least a medal” in Argentina, and when asked what he intended to do after the World Cup, MacLeod famously quipped “Retain it.” A terrace chant about the manager, adapted into song, reached #6 on the UK charts. MacLeod and Scotland had every reason to be optimistic. Led by Kenny Dalglish at his very peak, they boasted a wealth of talent including Joe Jordan, Archie Gemmill, and Graeme Souness. After being given a send-off worthy of a conquering army, Scotland took an early lead in its first match, against Peru. The good feelings, however, would not last long. Don Masson failed to score a penalty, and blew Scotland’s chance to put the match to bed early. Peru responded by knocking three past keeper Alan Rough, to the stunned surprise of the Scots. The team began to unravel. Winger Willie Johnstone was sent home for taking a cold pill containing a banned substance. Only an own goal from Andranik Eskandarian prevented a second successive loss for the Tartan Army. To qualify out of the group stage, Scotland would need to beat the Netherlands of Robbie Rensenbrink, Johnny Rep, and Johan Neeskens by three goals. A vastly improved performance saw the Scots go up 3-1, but a Rep goal put an end to Scotland’s World Cup hopes, and destroyed the illusions of a nation.
Spain – 1998
Prior to their Euro 2008 triumph, Spain had long had a reputation as “chokers” on the international stage, but no Spanish performance was as underwhelming as the display put on in the 1998 World Cup. Although without talisman Josep Guardiola, Spain had a tight defense, with Fernando Hierro in front of legendary keeper Andoni Zubizarreta. Real Madrid wunderkind Raul, already a regular for club and country, led an attack which included Kiko, Luis Enrique, and Raul’s Real Madrid teammate Fernando Morientes. In the first match, an athletic Nigeria, led by Jay-Jay Okocha, stunned the Spanish, stealing a 3-2 win. The loss was followed up with a limp scoreless draw against Paraguay. The Spanish finally turned on the style in their last match, battering Bulgaria 6-1, but it was to no avail. The damage had been done, and Spain were out.
France – 2002
France came into Korea/Japan 2002 as holders of the World Cup, Confederations Cup and European Championships, with one of the most talented international squads ever assembled. Amongst the stars in their prime were Zinedine Zindane, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Claude Makelele, and Lilian Thuram. The result of this intimidating array of firepower? Quite possibly the most shockingly awful performance ever turned in by a major international power. They opened the tournament with a shocking loss to former colony Senegal, quite possibly the greatest victory in the history of the African nation. A scoreless draw with Uruguay followed in the next match, before the Danes eased into a comfortable 2-0 win. France’s golden generation gave up their title with a whimper, picking up a solitary point, and failing to score a single goal.
Keith Hickey is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at USArsnl@gmail.com.