November 29, 2022

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


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 2022 World Cup 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 1998 champions 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 Zinedine Zidane 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. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *