Sometimes you wonder why reigning world champions crash out of the group stages.
Hey, Germany isn’t the first reigning champion to be booted out. It isn’t even the second. It’s the third in a row, and the fourth in the 21st century – the fourth of the last five. The trend is no longer purely coincidental. It’s not an accident. But why, then, you ask, is it so difficult to defend a World Cup crown?
I posed the question to Singapore’s award-winning coach Jita Singh, now in Qatar for the World Cup, and in his view, it is “almost impossible”. He said: “Perhaps the answer, in short, is that four years is a long time. The reigning World Cup champs often get treated like their equivalents in other professional sports competitions. They get held to the same standard as the English Premier League champions, or the NBA champions, or the Super Bowl champs.”
“And they probably shouldn’t be, for the simple reason that four-year intervals are longer than one-year intervals. At the club level, we don’t care who won the 2014-15 Premier League title when considering the 2018-19 season.”
Jita feels that “international soccer is a different kettle of fish”. He explained: “Turnover is inevitable. And it turns kings of four years ago into markedly different teams when they attempt to defend their thrones. So much goes into winning a World Cup.”
In my view, as a qualified international coach and referee instructor, every title is a product of countless successes that build on and complement one another. I believe glory requires an astute manager, who brings a functional tactical system, which players must fit into. And luck is invariably necessary along the way.
Hopefully, France, the reigning world champions, may make a rare difference. They have won just once in their last six fixtures, but still, head to Qatar as one of the favourites. France Manager Didier Deschamps will be forced to make a couple of changes to his team with regular starters N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba missing out due to injury.
I believe France, boasting an embarrassment of riches in midfield, and Deschamps will have plenty of players to call upon, including the 22-year-old Aurelien Tchouameni, who has impressed at Real Madrid.
France will expect to progress from Group D, where they have been drawn with Tunisia, Denmark, and Australia. It is almost a copy of their group in the World Cup 2018, where they were drawn with Denmark, Australia and Peru and topped the group with seven points.
Yes, the tried-and-trusted system becomes unworkable. It sometimes requires tweaks. And, as you see, the so-called defending champ is a completely different team – new players, new tactics, and either a manager drilling a Plan B or a new boss altogether.
That’s not to say teams can’t evolve, and either sustain excellence or even improve. But when we consider them as versions of the team that triumphed four years earlier, rather than a separate entity, they are fighting nearly unwinnable battles.
Plus, it must be remembered that World Cup champions aren’t necessarily the planet’s best teams, and often aren’t head and shoulders above the rest. Luck fluctuates. It’s a reason a good portion of the 21st-century trend is randomness, despite what has just been explained.
Jita said: “The amount of drive and hunger and willingness to suffer to win the World Cup is unthinkable. For any team that won the World Cup, they go through so much stress, through so much work and tension and exhaustion and all those things, that to repeat that is almost impossible.”
As one of the tournament’s favourites, France will expect to make at least the semi-finals, if not the final. Let’s keep our fingers unusually crossed for France!
Suresh Nair is an award-winning sports journalist who is also a qualified international coach and international referee instructor
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