It’s the hex that has haunted more greats than they’d ever admit, but after 62 years the World Cup winners’ curse may finally be slayed by France in Sunday’s final.
If Les Bleus can defeat Argentina, they’ll become the first holders since Brazil’s 1962 vintage of Pele and Garrincha to retain the World Cup, and the first nation to ever lift the current trophy on two consecutive occasions.
But while France beating La Albiceleste to clinch the title is no foregone conclusion, Didier Deschamps’ men have already shown the curse what for by reaching this weekend’s showdown, getting much closer than many recent holders to defending their crown.
Before kick off in Qatar, four of the previous five World Cup winners had failed to get past the first round so history suggested that drawing a group with Australia, Denmark and Tunisia might not be as easy as it initially looked. Add to that the slew of injuries France suffered in the weeks running up to the tournament and it appeared possible the curse was going to strike again.
Yet perversely, that perceived ill fortune of losing several big names from the strongest XI may be a key factor in how Les Bleus have evaded the hoodoo. The injuries forced Deschamps to shuffle his pack, replacing experienced superstars and former winners with a handful of younger, hungrier stars.
Out went 2018 champions Paul Pogba and N’golo Kante – the backbone of that winning side – and Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema on the eve of the tournament. It initially appeared to be a race against time for Raphael Varane to be fit, while Lucas Hernandez’s injury 13 minutes into the group opener against Australia put pay to another former winner.
Most notable, perhaps, was Deschamps’ decision to sideline a further member of his 2018 side following that match with the Socceroos. After a poor performance that included being at fault for Australia’s goal, right back Benjamin Pavard was dropped when it would have been easier to keep him due all the other experienced drop outs around him.
While from the outside so many changes to an established team may have looked unsettling, it breathed new life into the group and changed the dynamic of what has so regularly been the downfall of past World Cup winners.
Many World Cup-winning managers have understandably kept faith in the players who served them so well four years earlier, failing to adapt and wanting to repeat the trick with their previous heroes.
That misplaced loyalty was credited as being the undoing of Italy’s 1982 winners at Mexico 86, with boss Enzo Bearzot selecting eight of the 12 outfield players who had played in the previous final. History repeated itself in 2010 as Marcello Lippi called up a host of 30-somethings who had served the Azzurri so well to win in 2006, yet a squad consisting of big names such as Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta and Gennaro Gattuso crashed out, failing to win a single match in a favourable group of Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia.
Spain’s 2010 winners and Germany’s in 2014 were also victims of their own success to different extents as they too remained as the backbone of their respective teams and failed to get going. But it’s too simplistic to say age is the only factor.
“Once you win the World Cup and you go for the next one, believe me, it’s different,” said Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winner in book How to Win the World Cup. “You keep good players, you keep the name of the country, you have the history behind you, but in the moment you lack something.”
Parreira had taken charge of Brazil’s 2002 winners for the tournament in 2006 and sensed a change as the Selecao fell meekly in the quarter-finals despite an embarrassment of attacking riches in Ronaldo, Adriano, Ronaldinho and Kaka.
Some believed that after reaching three successive finals – becoming the last holders to reach the final in 1998 – Brazil had become too complacent and lost their spark. It’s a fate that has befallen other dominant sides in the past too, not least the France side that went to the 2002 World Cup.
Injuries to Zinedine Zidane and Robert Pires had curtailed their creativity, but the reigning World Cup and European champions should still have had more than enough to get beyond Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark in the group. Talk of Senegal being ‘France B’ ahead of the tournament curtain raiser indicated hubris had infiltrated the camp and so it proved as Papa Bouba Diop’s winner was the first of a series of lows that saw Les Bleus come bottom of their group without scoring a goal.
Deschamps’ dropping of Pavard, despite not having a natural successor at right back, indicates the ruthless nature of the current regime as they tried to avoid suffering the same destiny. Pair it with the manager’s insistence on focusing only on the next game rather than the latter stages of tournaments – something coaches of previous holders have inadvertently let slip in the past – and it seems lessons have been learned.
Whether Deschamps has found a way to repeat the trick to win back-to-back World Cups is yet to be seen, but by leading France to the final at all, he’s successfully avoided becoming another victim of the curse.