By Brian Blickenstaff
The World Cup is always playing with us. It lets us -- encourages us -- to pick favorites. How many of us sat in the pre-tournament June heat and argued with friends about why Spain would win this World Cup while the Netherlands would not get out of the group?
We drew up our tournament brackets based on our knowledge of the game and then sat back and admired them, felt good about our chances.
But the World Cup doesn't care. The World Cup demands that we tear up those brackets. It calls us idiots. It sends Spain home at the earliest possible opportunity. It makes England suffer in the heat of Manaus and then again at the feet of Luis Suarez.
This is nothing new, of course. The World Cup has been politely requesting us humans tear up our brackets since the very beginning. Consider the following:
The English, like their Italian counterparts, failed to qualify from their group in the 1950 World Cup. The well-regarded English team, calling themselves the Kings of Football, managed a win against Chile before falling to the United States, 1-0.
Shocked, the English played Spain next, losing 1-0 again. England's defeat to the United States remains one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history.
Four years later, the Italians drew a favorable group against England, Belgium and tournament hosts Switzerland. In the group stage, Italy managed to lose to a much weaker Swiss team not once, but twice. Switzerland won the opening match 2-1. Tied on points, the two teams played a playoff match to determine which would emerge from the group. The Swiss won the second match emphatically, sending the Italians home with a 4-1 defeat to think about.
The 1958 tournament featured a proper group of death: Argentina, Czechoslovakia, West Germany and tournament minnows Northern Ireland. The well-regarded Czechs lost, surprisingly, to Northern Ireland in the first fixture before going on to beat Argentina 6-1. When both teams tied West Germany, Northern Ireland and Czechoslovakia finished the group tied on points. Northern Ireland advanced out of the group, ahead of both Czechoslovakia and Argentina, when it beat Czechoslovakia in a playoff, 2-1.
Imagine this for a moment: The World Cup is finally in England, the sport's birthplace. Brazil arrive as defending champions and the Brazilian team is stacked deep with legends, led by Brazil's two greatest players, Pele and Garrincha. The idea that Brazil wouldn't take home the trophy was ridiculous; the English may have created soccer, but the Brazilians had perfected it, and here was living proof. The Brazilians started well, beating Bulgaria with goals from Pele and Garrincha, but then things fell apart, as Pele was injured and missed the remainder of the tournament. The Hungarians taught the Brazilians a lesson, winning 4-1. In the next match, the Portuguese did the same.
This was the golden generation of Colombian soccer, led by El Pibe, Carlos Valderrama. Known as much for his big hair as his field vision, Pibe led Colombia on a scorched earth qualifying campaign, including home and away victories over Argentina. Today, Colombia's 5-0 defeat of Argentina in Buenos Aires is still talked about in Colombia. Things went quickly sideways when the team arrived in the United States for the tournament. Drawn against Romania, Switzerland and the U.S., Colombia was expected to qualify easily. Colombia lost its opener against Romania before losing to the U.S., 2-1. Colombia would have tied the Americans had it not been for an Andrés Escobar own goal. On his return to Colombia, Escobar was murdered on the streets of Medellin.
France's failure to qualify from its group in the 2002 World Cup was an implosion of shocking proportions. A very similar French team won the previous World Cup in style, and a team again centered around Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry would make it to the finals of the 2006 World Cup. What happened in 2002 is therefore inexplicable. In Senegal's first-ever World Cup, the Africans beat their former colonial overlords 1-0. France could only manage a scoreless tie against Uruguay, a game which saw Henry sent off. An Henry-less France then lost to Denmark, 2-1.
The World Cup is as much about human management as it is tactics and preparedness. A month, plus a pre-tournament training camp, is a long time for so many egos to exist in such close proximity, so it's not uncommon for there to be internal squabbles. It is, however, rare for those internal problems to divulge into full-fledged mutiny. After a 0-0 tie against Uruguay and a 0-2 defeat to Mexico, France striker Nicolas Anelka apparently cursed out coach Raymond Domenech. The French Football Federation responded by suspending Anelka. The players, upset at this perceived injustice, refused to train. Unsurprisingly, the team lost to South Africa days later. The flight home, I'm sure, was tense.
The fourth defending champion to lose in the group stage (Italy lost as defending champs in the 1950 tournament too, but the team was depleted after a plane crash killed nearly the entire Torino FC squad, which included several Italian internationals), the Italians must still be wondering exactly what happened. Given a cupcake draw against New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia, the Italians looked favorites to go through. It didn't work out that way. After 1-1 ties with New Zealand and Paraguay, the Italians lost 3-2 to Slovakia and packed their bags. They finished at the bottom of the group, with just 2 points.
* * *