The World Cup winners’ curse has been haunting teams for six decades. If France beat Argentina on Sunday, they will become the first team to retain the World Cup since the Brazil side of Pelé and Garrincha in 1962. Didier Deschamps’ side have already overcome one curse by reaching the final, which is a huge achievement considering how poorly recent winners have performed while defending their titles.
Four of the previous five World Cup winners failed to get past the first round of the next tournament, so what looked like an easy group for France – Australia, Denmark and Tunisia – was not as simple as it initially appeared. Add to that the slew of injuries France suffered before the tournament and it seemed likely the curse would strike again.
Perversely, the perceived ill fortune of losing several big names may have helped France evade the hoodoo. The injuries forced Deschamps to shuffle his pack, replacing experienced superstars and former winners with younger, hungry players. Out went 2018 champions Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté – the midfield fulcrum of that winning side – and they were followed by Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema on the eve of the tournament. France lost another member of the 2018 squad in the first game, when Lucas Hernandez picked up an injury against Australia. Deschamps also decided to sideline a further champion after the Australia game, dropping right-back Benjamin Pavard, who had excelled in Russia.
From the outside, making so many changes to an established team looked unsettling, but it breathed new life into the group and helped France avoid the mistakes made by many past winners. Previous World Cup-winning managers have, understandably, kept faith in the players who had served them so well four years earlier and have subsequently failed to adapt.
When Italy went to Mexico 86 as reigning champions, manager Enzo Bearzot selected eight of the 12 outfield players who had appeared in the previous final. History repeated itself in 2010, when Marcello Lippi called up a host of 30-somethings who had served Italy so well when they had won the World Cup in 2006, yet a squad with big names such as Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta and Gennaro Gattuso crashed out, failing to win a single match in a favourable group containing Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. Spain’s 2010 winners and Germany’s in 2014 were also victims of their own success. The backbone of their teams stayed the same and they failed to get going.
But it’s too simplistic to say age is the only factor. Motivation matters too. “Once you win the World Cup and you go for the next one, believe me, it’s different,” says Carlos Alberto Parreira. “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 won the World Cup as Brazil manager in 1994, but he could not repeat the trick when he was given the job of leading the team to the 2006 World Cup as reigning champions. The Seleção fell meekly in the quarter-finals despite having an embarrassment of attacking riches in Ronaldo, Adriano, Ronaldinho and Kaká. After reaching three successive finals in 1994, 1998 and 2002, perhaps Brazil had become too complacent and lost their spark. It’s a fate that has befallen other champions in the past too, not least France at the 2002 World Cup.
Injuries to Zinedine Zidane and Robert Pires had curtailed their creativity, but the reigning world and European champions should have breezed through a group containing Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark. Talk of Senegal being “France B” before the tournament curtain-raiser indicated that hubris had infiltrated the camp and so it proved. 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’ decision to drop Pavard, despite not having a natural successor at right-back, shows he has the ruthless nature required to avoid suffering the same destiny. Pair that relentlessness with his insistence on focusing only on the next game rather than the latter stages of tournaments – something coaches of previous holders have inadvertently let slip – and it seems lessons have been learned. Whether Deschamps will win back-to-back World Cups is yet to be seen but, by leading France to the final, he has successfully avoided becoming another victim of the curse.