A rare World Cup rest day is here and as anticipation mounts for Brazil’s last 16 clash with Chile on Saturday, it seems worth recalling that a nation being World Cup hosts in the past has not always been the recipe for guaranteed glory. While in England we can look back particularly fondly at 1966 as being both hosts and winners, for different reasons things have not gone totally to plan for others looking to triumph while staging the competition.
So here’s six past World Cup hosts who perhaps look back today and think they could have achieved something more on the field on home soil…
Probably the least controversial entry on the list. A case of a proud football nation being handed the tournament at the wrong time as they lacked in quality players and the results showed this (although given how the 2014 World Cup has gone they probably would consider their 1982 showing to be ok!). Three of the four most recent World Cup hosts had triumphed, but Spain were to not come close to doing so. The Spaniards won just one match out of five, averaging less than a goal per game and being the only host nation (apart from those playing in third place play-offs) to play a World Cup match knowing they were already out of the competition. They needed a couple of penalty decisions to go in their favour in the first group phase as they staggered through behind Northern Ireland and only ahead of Yugoslavia on goals scored, having failed to beat Honduras in their opening game.
The second group stage saw them lose to West Germany, meaning their final group game against England was academic for them. Surprisingly, Spain recovered to perform better on foreign soil and reach the final of Euro ’84 and the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup. If only the likes of Emilio Butragueno had emerged sooner…
Being runners-up should hardly be considered a failure compared to how many hosts have done, but for Brazil the horror of letting the World Cup slip in 1950 still haunts the country despite all their subsequent success. The first post-war World Cup seemed destined to be won by the football-mad host nation. Uniquely, the last four sides left in the competition would play in a group round-robin format to decide the winner with no final. Brazil thrashed Sweden and Spain and needed just a draw against Uruguay in the unofficial final. In front of more than 200,000 at the Maracana, Brazil led in the second half before infamously conceding twice as Uruguay celebrated an unexpected second World Cup triumph. For all the doubts over how good Brazil are in 2014, they will lift go some way to lifting the burden of 1950 if they can succeed.
In some respects a dubious entry, as on paper Italy had plenty to be proud of in Italia ‘90. They were unbeaten in open play in seven matches and conceded just two goals, boasting the tournament’s top scorer in Toto Schillaci and scoring arguably the goal of the competition through Roberto Baggio against Czechoslovakia. But no country has hosted the World Cup so recently after winning it as Italy did just eight years on from their 1982 triumph, and with a rebuilt side there was expectation on them to at least make the final. They uncharacteristically made a strong start by winning all their group games, but made heavy weather of them. They then had a relatively straightforward route to the semi-finals in beating Uruguay and the Republic of Ireland, earning them a tie with Argentina at Diego Maradona’s spiritual home of Naples.
Italy let the lead slip against an underwhelming Argentine side and failed to keep their nerve in the penalty shoot-out. Finishing third by beating England was little consolation. Some argument could be put forward for Germany making this list by virtue of a third place finish in 2006 (given their previous triumphs), but there was a sense of renaissance about them as they played a more entertaining brand of football than traditionally had been the case and knocked out favourites Argentina in the quarter-finals.
Although in many ways Japan did very well in 2002, reaching the last 16 in only their second World Cup finals and topping a group including Belgium and Russia, they were to pay the price for being co-hosts as comparisons would always be drawn with the on-field success of the other host nation of South Korea. In the second round Japan suffered a slightly anti-climatic defeat to Turkey, but then hours later South Korea would momentously beat Italy and go on to knock out Spain in the quarter-finals. Japan could only watch on and wonder how far they too could have gone with a bit more good fortune.
South Africa 2010
Realistically a limited South Africa side were never likely to achieve much as the host nation in 2010, but they did stand a chance of getting out a group containing a troubled France, Mexico and Uruguay (the same three group stage opponents as England faced in 1966). However, they drew the tournament opener with Mexico and then crashed 3-0 to Uruguay. Pride was restored with a 2-1 win over France in their final game, in which for a time they looked like they might be able to overhaul Mexico for second spot on goal difference. But ultimately they became the first host nation to fail to get out of the group stage. The vuvuzelas were silenced and Africa was left to unite behind Ghana for the knockout stages.
Not so much a failure as a missed opportunity. There was a fairly familiar pattern to the two World Cups hosted by Mexico, as in both 1970 and 1986 they reached the quarter-finals before bowing out. In 1970 it was seen as an achievement to get to the last eight after limited past success, but come 1986 there was an expectancy of a good run with players of the quality of Hugo Sanchez and the side having the luxury of spending a long time together to prepare for the finals. They were handed a weak group including Belgium, Paraguay and Iraq, before having possibly the simplest second round tie possible against Bulgaria. Manuel Negrete’s stunning goal in that match at least ensured there would be a lasting memory of the hosts at their own party.
In the quarter-finals they faced an uninspiring West German side, who had struggled past Morocco in the previous round. A tedious contest ended goalless, with the Germans typically efficient from the spot to triumph. Mexico have never gone so far in the World Cup since then, becoming perennial last 16 losers. An impressive Dutch side stand in their way this time around…
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.