This article has been edited and originally appeared on ESPN FC on May 30, 2014.
As the countdown to Russia continues, ESPN FC brings you another World Cup-themed Top Tenner.
The tournament has seen some of the finest teams playing the best football ever known, but it has also showcased some of the biggest flops and embarrassments, too.
Here are 10 of them …
10. South Korea 1954
Of course, the word “flop” does imply some sort of expectation — a team tipped to do well but who fell prematurely, leading to the gnashing of teeth and the periods of introspection that inevitably come with disappointment. However, surely no list of World Cup flops would be complete without perhaps the worst team to ever appear at the finals: South Korea in 1954. Teams only played two games in the group stages in 1954, which was probably a blessing for the Koreans, because otherwise the humiliation may have been even more comprehensive. Those two matches were bad enough, and although the 9-0 hammering to the great Hungary side featuring Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti and the rest might not have been a total disgrace, the 7-0 hiding to Turkey was. Turkey played two other games — both against eventual winners West Germany (one a standard group game, one a playoff) — and lost them 4-1 and 7-2. It was perhaps remarkable that South Korea were even at the World Cup, as it came only a year after the Korean War, but they had to play only two matches (both against Japan, a 5-1 win and a 2-2 draw) to qualify. Travel issues meant that half the squad arrived in Switzerland only the night before the Hungary match, so with all that in mind, it could have been much worse than 9-0.
9. France 2010
If you believe in karma, are Irish, or perhaps both, you might think that France’s shambolic exit from the 2010 World Cup was rather appropriate, given how they got there. Thierry Henry’s handball in the playoff second leg that set up William Gallas’ winner against Ireland was an instinctive piece of cheating, but cheating nonetheless, and the ill feeling still runs deep in some parts of Ireland. Still, had Henry not shovelled the ball into the middle with his arm then we would have been denied the frankly hilarious sight of the French team imploding in South Africa, where their winless first-round exit (their only point a 0-0 draw with Uruguay) was only half the story. At half time of their defeat to Mexico, Nicolas Anelka and coach Raymond Domenech had a set-to that ended with the striker being sent home, which the rest of the squad protested against in the strongest possible terms, refusing to train in solidarity without their erstwhile teammate. We were then treated to the surreal sight of Domenech reading out a statement from the players that didn’t exactly paint him in a favourable light, while Patrice Evra and fitness coach Robert Duverne had to be separated in a training-ground scrap, something that caused French Football Federation managing director Jean-Louis Valentin to step down. Domenech’s contract was not renewed after the tournament, all 23 members of the squad were suspended from his successor Laurent Blanc’s first game, while Anelka, Evra and Franck Ribery received 18, five and three-match bans respectively. So in summary, it didn’t go well.
9. Scotland 1978
Even in 1978, when Scotland boasted a few genuine world class talents, their exit in the first round was a surprise, but perhaps not a shock and a scandal to rank with some of their other flops on this list. However, this was the hubris World Cup, where Scotland were led by Ally MacLeod, a man who introduced himself to the media after his appointment in 1977 by saying: “My name is Ally MacLeod and I’m a winner.” While talking the talk could be an admirable trait in a manager trying to boost the confidence of his side, his pre-tournament declaration that Scotland would at the very least “bring back a medal” from the World Cup in Argentina seemed a tad optimistic at the time. And with the benefit of hindsight, it does, of course, look positively silly. Scotland lost their opening match to Peru, something perhaps not exactly helped by MacLeod’s curious decision to omit Graeme Souness, fresh from winning the European Cup with Liverpool. They then embarrassingly drew 1-1 with Iran, before Archie Gemmill’s remarkable goal against the Netherlands helped them to a 3-2 win in the final game. Alas, that wasn’t enough, and they went out on goal difference, MacLeod’s pride turning a disappointing but hardly calamitous tournament into a bona fide flop.
7. Italy 1966
“I learned that football is not only about the winning,” said Pak Doo-Ik, the man who scored the goal to humiliate Italy at Ayresome Park during the 1966 World Cup. “Wherever we go, playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace.” It all started relatively well for the Italians, who won their first game against Chile, but their second match saw a 1-0 defeat to the USSR. No matter, though, because a mere draw against the North Koreans, a collection of unknowns likened to slapstick comedians by the Italian assistant manager, would be enough to send them through. However, midfielder Giacomo Bulgarelli was injured and forced to go off early on, and with no substitutes allowed, Italy had to soldier on with 10 men. In the 42nd minute, Pak scored to seal a 1-0 win, and this brilliant Italian side with Gianni Rivera, Sandro Mazzola and Giacinto Facchetti went home in disgrace, greeted at Genoa airport by angry fans wielding rotten tomatoes.
6. Netherlands 1990
Usually known as the best team never to win the World Cup, Netherlands hadn’t won a thing until 1988, when their second truly great team — featuring Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard et al — took the European Championship in West Germany. Italy 1990 appeared to be their year to finally make an assault on the big one, but after a slog of a qualifying campaign that was characterised by in-fighting and disagreements, coach Thijs Libregts, who had replaced Rinus Michels after 1988, was dismissed a couple of months before the tournament. The players’ choice as a replacement was Johan Cruyff, but he was considered more trouble than he was worth and the Dutch FA chose Leo Beenhakker instead. Add this upheaval to injury problems for Gullit (he played only three games in the previous season for AC Milan, one of which was the European Cup final) and personal issues for Rijkaard, and Netherlands didn’t exactly go into the World Cup in the best frame of mind, which was clear in their performances. They limped through the group, drawing their three games against England, Ireland and Egypt, before coming up against West Germany in the second round. The 2-1 victory for the Germans frankly flattered the Dutch, and the game is of course most remembered for the altercation between Rijkaard and Rudi Voller, when both men were sent off and the Dutchman twice spat in his rival’s hair. Gullit would later say that the World Cup came at the worst possible time for the Dutch, for a variety of reasons, but in retrospect it looks like a huge missed opportunity for an enormously talented group of players.
5. Brazil 2014
It was supposed to be tournament to salve a wound that had been open for 60 years. After the “Maracanazo” of 1950, when Uruguay beat Brazil to smash the dreams of a nation into a million pieces, this was their chance at redemption, hosting a World Cup again for the first time in a couple of generations. But half-an-hour into their semifinal against Germany, Brazil were 5-0 down, perhaps lucky to only be that far behind and most of the team looked like they were going to burst into tears, never mind the fans in the stadium. Germany took their foot off the pedal in the second half, whether through pity or self-preservation, and it “only” ended 7-1. Still, maybe Brazil will get a second chance at redemption in another 60 years.
4. Colombia 1994
Some flops are funny, with schadenfreude a fairly instinctive reaction for most football fans. Colombia’s in 1994 was not, as a team tipped for success by some of the most astute observers in football, and Pele, crashed out in the first round in the middle of astonishing external turmoil. Colombia’s status as contenders wasn’t just idle whimsy — they were an electrifying team who had stormed through qualifying, sealing their place in the finals by beating Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires, and their favourable draw against hosts U.S., Romania and Switzerland meant a relatively simple path to the knockout stages looked assured. Not so, as they lost their first game 3-1 to Romania, and then things really started to go wrong, as assorted criminal gangs who had lost money on that game started to exert pressure on coach Francisco Maturana. In fear for his and his players’ lives, Maturana acquiesced to their demands and dropped midfielder Gabriel “Barrabas” Gomez for the second game against the U.S., but Colombia lost anyway, partly thanks to the own goal that would cost Andres Escobar his life, when the defender was shot dead in a nightclub car park after returning home.
3. Italy 2010
The second World Cup holders to be eliminated in the first round in recent years (the other will come shortly), Italy’s campaign in South Africa after surprisingly lifting the trophy four years earlier looked like an attempt to recapture the spirit of 2006. Marcello Lippi had been tempted back after “retiring” following success in Germany, while Fabio Cannavaro was still there, despite being a few weeks from his 37th birthday. It didn’t start at all well, with Italy collecting just two points from draws against Paraguay and New Zealand, which still left them with a sniff of qualifying going into the final game against Slovakia. But the Azzurri lost 3-2, sending the defending champions home at the first opportunity. “It was the darkest and most terrible day in the history of Italian football,” read a Gazzetta dello Sport editorial, which, given Italy’s other appearance in this list, is quite a statement.
2. Brazil 1982
The Brazilian team that travelled to Spain in 1982 are frequently called the best side not to win the World Cup, with many believing that this collection of astonishing players, from Socrates to Zico to Falcao, was better or at least more true to the Brazilian ideal of football than the winners in 1970. Therefore, it is impossible not to include them in a list of World Cup flops, even if they are lionised now, 36 years later. Brazil sashayed through the first group stage, beating the USSR 2-1, Scotland 4-1 and New Zealand 4-0, before a win against defending champions Argentina left them needing only a draw against Italy, a team who arrived at the tournament in some turmoil, to qualify for the semifinals. That draw didn’t come, though, as a Paolo Rossi hat trick secured a 3-2 win for the Italians, setting them on the way to beat Poland in the last four and West Germany in the final. “It may have been the last side to represent Brazil in a World Cup that epitomised the country,” Socrates told FourFourTwo some years later. “It was irreverent, joyful, creative, free-flowing. From that point onwards, the Selecao became like any other first-world country national side.”
1. France 2002
While Italy’s exit in 2010 is a strong contender for the worst ever defence of the World Cup, and Brazil were also kicked out in the first stage in 1966, neither hold a candle to the French effort in Japan and South Korea. Having won the tournament on home soil in 1998 amid a surge of national pride, and then adding the 2000 European Championship trophy in the Netherlands, Roger Lemerre took a side to Asia that was expected to challenge for glory again. However, injury problems for Zinedine Zidane and an ageing core of the team saw a shambolic France not only go out in the first stage, not only fail to win a match, but fail to score a single goal. Not one. The first game set the tone, as Senegal scrambled a goal home to seal a famous 1-0 win. Thierry Henry was then sent off in a goalless draw against Uruguay before a severely patched-up Zidane returned for the final game against Denmark, but couldn’t prevent a 2-0 defeat and the most ignominious of exists. Lemerre was, unsurprisingly, sacked shortly after the end of the tournament. “The opening game against Senegal was a disaster,” Patrick Vieira said a few years later. “That just goes to show you that quality alone is not enough. You have to work and keep your feet on the ground.”
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.