With the World Cup 2026 coming up, we are covering several interesting topics surrounding the competition. There was one statistic that stood out above all others when talking about the World Cup, which is that since the 1990 World Cup in Brazil, the holders have won just two games in the knockout stages in five tournaments.
That is an incredible stat.
Here we will look at the worst-performing World Cup defending champions:
Les Bleus were a formidable team in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as not only did they win the 1998 World Cup against Brazil, but they also headed into World Cup 2002 as European champions.
A star-studded squad of players, including Zinedine Zidane, headed to the tournament jointly held in Japan and South Korea in confident mood. However, after a shock opening game defeat against Senegal, France also suffered a loss against Denmark in their second game.
A draw against Uruguay in their final group stage match rounded off a rotten title defence for Les Bleus, who bounce back in 2006 by making it to the final.
The Azzurri were somewhat surprising winners of the World Cup in Germany in 2006, as the country was in the midst of the Calciopoli scandal in the domestic game. A squad containing top players such as Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta and Andrea Pirlo travelled to South Africa for World Cup 2010, hoping to retain their crown.
Despite being in what looked like a comfortable group, Italy endured one of the worst campaigns of any defending champion.
The tournament was a complete disaster for the reigning champions. They picked up just two points from their three group games after drawing against Paraguay and New Zealand before an unthinkable defeat against Slovakia in their group match saw them make a surprise early exit.
La Roja had an incredible team in the late 2000s, as they won three consecutive international tournaments. They won the 2008 European Championships before winning the World Cup in 2010 and then retaining their European Championship crown in 2012. Everybody associated with Spain travelled to Brazil, eying more glory.
However, it all fell apart in South America, as Vicente del Bosque’s team lost their first two group games against the Netherlands and Chile. A 5-1 hammering at the hands of the Oranje in their second game was a particularly disappointing result.
They did manage to recover and beat Australia in their final group game. However, by that time, it was too little too late, and they headed home early.
Like Spain and France, the Selecao had enjoyed glory in previous tournaments, as they won the World Cup in both 1958 and 1962. Some claimed that their World Cup-winning teams played the best football ever seen at the time.
There was great excitement when they headed to England for the 1966 World Cup. They made a decent start beating Bulgaria in their opening group game. However, an injury to star forward Pele derailed their title defence.
The world champions went on to lose their remaining two games against Hungary and Portugal, who used less than savoury tactics to disrupt their opposition.
They failed to make it out of the group. However, the Selecao returned in World Cup 1970 to lift the trophy, this time with a fully-fit Pele.
The Albiceleste won the World Cup for the first time in 1978 on home soil, with striker Mario Kempes scoring six times, including two goals in the final against the Netherlands.
Arguably Argentina had an even better squad in 1982, including a certain future star in 21-year-old Diego Armando Maradona. However, reported internal squabbling led to a disaster of a campaign. Despite losing to Belgium in the first group stage, they managed to book their place in the second group stage but finished bottom of the group, suffering defeats against Brazil and Italy.
The Brazil defeat was worsened by the fact that Maradona lost his temper and was shown a late red card for a kick out at Batista.
Italy won the World Cup in 1982 for the first time in 44 years, with the goals of Paolo Rossi guiding the Azzurri to victory. They did at least make it out of the group in 1986 but suffered a 2-0 defeat in the last 16 of the competition against France.
It was another example of defending World Cup champions not living up to their billing.
Our Theory On Why Defending Champion’s Struggle
It is difficult to give a definition answer as to why World Cup holders struggle in the next edition of the tournament. However, our theory is that when teams win the World Cup, the players are at the peaks of their powers and add four years of wear and tear on their bodies, and they are not quite at the same level. As some have said, four years is a relatively long time for footballers who can have such short careers.
For example, in World Cup 2010, only three players that started for Italy in the 2006 final played in the Azzurri’s opening match against Paraguay, a game that finished in a draw. Teams change, and players retire or lose form in time.
Conversely France, the 2018 champions, made it to the final in 2022 and only lost to Argentina on penalties following a pulsating 3-3 draw. The difference here was the France team that won in 2018 was largely still together and Kylian Mbappe if anything had become far better at the age of 23 in 2022. He won the golden boot for the tournament but it just wasn’t quite enough the second time around.
With those examples in mind, can current World Cup holders Argentina avoid a similar fate bestowing them in 2026? Especially given Messi has retired, who almost single handedly won it for them in 2022.