This year’s World Cup has been full of goals, controversy and surprises. Among the biggest surprises is the exodus of several European giants, including 2010 champions Spain, 2006 champions Italy, England and Portugal.
Throughout history, there have been some shocking early eliminations to some of the World Cup’s favourites. It’s part of the allure of the tournament, that no team is guaranteed anything. A bad stretch and all of a sudden, you’re sent home.
Here are the most shocking early exits in the history of the World Cup.
6. England, 1950
So shocking that it was turned into a movie, at least from an American perspective.
Back when all of the UK was one team, England were heading into the 1950 World Cup as huge favourites. This was the first World Cup in 12 years, the tournament having not been played through World War 2.
England was expected to advance in a group including Spain, Chile and the United States. England got off to a good start with a 2-0 win over Chile. Following that, was the Miracle on Grass.
The underdog United States shocked the European giants 1-0 in the second group game. Many English newspapers thought the scoreline was a misprint, but indeed it was the USA’s Joe Gaetjens who scored the lone goal and England was rattled going into their third group game.
A 1-0 loss to Spain ended England’s campaign and sent them home. England had beaten the rest of Europe 6-1 in an exhibition game before the tournament, but it was all in vain.
5. Italy, 1966
This shocking exit also includes perhaps the most shocking upset in the tournament’s history.
Italy had gone through a rough patch after a plane crash in 1949 saw 31 people lose their lives, including 18 Italian players.
By the mid 1960s the program had rebuilt and the team was amongst the favourites in the 1966 World Cup.
They seemed to be in a manageable group with the Soviet Union, Chile and North Korea. Pundits expected the Italians to progress along with the USSR.
Italy seemed to be on their way with a 2-0 victory over Chile. A 1-0 loss to the Soviets provided some cause for concern but the Azzurri were still in good shape, needing just a draw with the huge underdog North Korea to advance.
North Korea got the go-ahead goal in the 42nd minute, baffling spectators and sending Italy into hysterics.
Italy could not find an equalizer, and they were bounced out of the World Cup.
4. Brazil, 1966
The two most successful teams in the history of the World Cup both had arguably their worst tournaments in 1966.
Brazil, two-time defending champions, found themselves bounced out at the group stage. Brazil was in a golden era, with Pelé, Hilderaldo Bellini, Garrincha and Rildo.
They were in a group with Portugal, Hungary and Bulgaria.
Brazil started positively against Bulgaria, getting goals from their stars, Pelé and Garrincha, who became the first players to score in three successive World Cups. However, in the process, Pelé was injured due to some rough play from Bulgaria.
The South American giants lost their first World Cup loss since 1954, with a 3-1 upset from Hungary.
They were without Pelé against the Hungarians, but he would return for their crucial third group game against Portugal.
Portugal capped their dominance over the group, putting the Selecao away with two goals by Eusébio in a 3-1 Portugal win.
Both Italy and Brazil would recover, both making the final in 1970 with Brazil winning their third World Cup in four tournaments. Still, 1966 was full of shock and one some of the world’s soccer powerhouses would like to forget.
3. France, 2002
France had experienced World Cup glory for the first time, four years prior. As the hosts in 1998, they were the tournament’s best team from start to finish, capping it off with a dominant 3-0 win over tournament favourite Brazil in the final.
France had also won the 2000 Euro Cup in dramatic fashion with a 2-1 extra time win over Italy in the final, getting a last-minute equalizer from Sylvain Wiltord and the golden goal from David Trezeguet.
They seemed to be poised to make a run at a repeat in 2002.
They had many players coming of age, including Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Patrick Viera. They also had some steady veterans in Sylvain Wiltord, Emmanuel Petit and goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. Who could forget one of the world’s best players in Zinedine Zidane.
They drew what seemed to be a winnable group with Uruguay, Denmark and World Cup newcomers Senegal.
Les Bleus were expected to dispose of Senegal easily in their opening match and begin their path to a second straight World Cup win.
A scramble in front of goalkeeper Barthez saw Senegal get their first World Cup goal, a rebound knocked in by Papa Bouba Diop. The 30th minute strike put France behind and they didn’t threaten all that much in the remaining 60 minutes, dropping the opener 1-0.
Thierry Henry was sent off in France’s next match, which wasn’t much better, a 0-0 draw with Uruguay.
Needing a win and a Uruguayan win over Senegal, France again came out flat against Denmark, falling 2-0 on goals from Dennis Rommedahl and Jon Dahl Tomasson.
France was out. The defending World Cup champions went out with a whimper, going three group games without scoring a goal.
2. Italy, 2010
Italy had capped off an era of great talent when they won the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Fabio Cannavaro had perhaps the best tournament of any defender in the tournament’s history. Gianluigi Buffon was superb and Italy managed to find new heroes in every game.
However going into 2010, it appeared a new era of players would be ushered in. Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti had retired from international play. However, in a tournament where Italy should’ve been giving their younger players some opportunities, they retreated to their reliable players from 2006, with Gennaro Gattuso, Mauro Camoranesi and Fabio Cannavaro. There were some questionable roster picks with Vincenzo Iaquinta returning, as well as Simone Pepe. Andrea Pirlo was back but not expected to play in the group stage, battling injury. The problem was, many of the 2006 heroes were older and not in their 2006 form.
Still, Italy was placed in perhaps the least threatening group, with Paraguay, Slovakia and first-time New Zealand. Italy, despite their flaws, were still expected to top the group.
A 1-1 draw with Paraguay drew some concern, but not panic. What drew even more concern was that Buffon was ruled out for the rest of the tournament with a back injury. Italy still had two games to play against the group’s perceived bottom feeders.
Italy quickly got behind the 8-ball against New Zealand, as the Kiwis got an early go-ahead goal from Shane Smeltz. Italy drew a penalty kick 20 minutes later and Iaquinta equalized to salvage a draw.
Italy headed into their third group match needing at least a draw against Slovakia to advance. Italy found themselves down 2-0 in the game’s final 17 minutes.
Pirlo was brought in as a substitute in the second half, still not fit for a full 90 minutes. Italy finally played with the urgency they had failed to show the whole tournament. Antonio Di Natale cut the score to 2-1 in the 80th minute. Fabio Quagliarella appeared to have the equalizer minutes later, but was called offside.
Slovakia got a third goal to crush Italy’s hopes of crawling back from the dead. Quagliarella got one late, but Italy was out. Dead last in the weakest group and shaming an entire nation.
1. Spain, 2014
Spain recently had one of the greatest runs in the history of soccer. European champions in 2008 and 2012 and a World Cup win in between back in 2010.
Spain was fielding much of the same squad they had sent to South Africa in 2010. They were the world’s top ranked team coming into Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. They had drawn a tough group, with the Netherlands, 2010’s runners up, Chile and Australia.
A much anticipated opener against Holland started well for Spain, converting a penalty kick from Xabi Alonso. The Netherlands then became super human, getting a beautiful finish from Robin Van Persie on a header to equalize before halftime.
The second half looked like men against boys. Arjen Robben scored twice, Stefan De Vrij got one and Van Persie added a second goal of his own. Final score, Netherlands 5, Spain 1.
What had been the gold standard for six years, collapsed for the whole world to see. Facing elimination against Chile in their second group game, Spain again looked flat on the back line.
Chile got a pair of first half goals, from Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aránguiz. Spain needed to catch fire to keep their hopes alive, but their magic had faded. Chile won and Spain was eliminated. A dynasty came to a crashing halt in Brazil this year.
A 3-0 victory over Australia did little to salvage Spain’s showing.
We knew their dominant run would have to end at some point, but not quite in the manner it did this year.
Spain will rebound, as many great soccer nations do, but this will forever be one of the tournament’s most shocking early exits. Everything came crashing down so suddenly for Spain and sent the world into shock.
This is part of what makes the World Cup, for all its faults, the world’s most dramatic tournament.