One thing that stands out across the three cases is the coaches’ reluctance to change a winning formula and choosing to retain an ageing squad.

When Spain lost its opening two games in Brazil — the first defending champion to do so — it was the third time in four World Cups that the champions’ curse had struck. After France in 2002 and Italy in 2010, Spain became the third holder to be eliminated in the group stages.

It was a six-year period which saw it win every major international trophy of repute, except the Confederations Cup, before it all unravelled at the Maracana.

When France first experienced such ignominy, it was treated as a flash in the pan. Not since Brazil in 1966 had any reigning champion crashed out that early.

But with Italy and Spain repeating the deed in succession, it was interesting to see if any parallels could be drawn.

Coaches’ reluctance

One thing that stands out across the three cases is the coaches’ reluctance to change a winning formula and choosing to retain an ageing squad.

In the October 2013 issue of ‘Harvard Business Review’, one of the football’s greatest team-builders, former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson had this to say as part of a blueprint for success:

“Dare to rebuild your team. We [at Manchester United] identified three levels of players: 30 and older, 23 to 30, and the younger ones. The idea was that the younger players were developing and would meet the standards the older ones had set. I believe that the cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years and then some change is needed. So we tried to visualise the team three or four years ahead and make decisions accordingly.”

But none of the three managers in question here, Roger Lemerre (France’s assistant coach in 1998 and manager in 2002), Marcello Lippi (Italy manager in 2006 and 2010) and Vicente del Bosque (Spain manager in 2010 and 2014), seem to have done this.

Age factor

The French side that won the 1998 World Cup was no doubt splendid. But 14 of those who featured in 1998 went to Japan-South Korea too, with nine of them being above 30 including the entire backline of Bixente Lizarazu, Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram and Frank Leboeuf.

Italy made a similar mistake after the Azzurri won the World Cup in 2006. There were nine players over 30 and most of them sure starters including Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro del Piero and Mauro Camoranesi.

Spain had 16 players in common, with the core of the team comprising Iker Casillas, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Xabi Alonso all aged over 30.

Consistency in team selection contributes hugely to a successful team. It reduces the uncertainty and provides the assurance that players will be given time. It helped the French and Spanish teams win the European title in 2000 and 2012 respectively. But the balance between loyalty and ruthlessness is a tough one to strike. As Ferguson said, “the hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy — but all the evidence is on the field.”

For example, the Spanish style was coming under increasing pressure by high-pressing, direct, counter-attacking tactics employed by teams like Chile.

But del Bosque chose not to go with a plan ‘B’ and duly paid the price. Also, from 2008 until now, the Spanish team has played every summer, except 2011, with the same group of players playing for both club and country, week-in and week-out.

Missing the talisman

Another reason for the teams’ debacle was the absence/decline of the side’s talisman. France, in 2002, missed Zinedine Zidane due to injury for the first two matches against Senegal and Uruguay.

Likewise, Italy too missed Andrea Pirlo against Paraguay and New Zealand. The opposition might have been light-weight, but the men who could have made the difference weren’t there.

That the two came back to script their respective team’s revivals in the 2006 World Cup and 2012 Euros will in itself prove their vitality. As for Spain, the decline of Xavi at Barcelona has indeed had an effect at the national level, with the ‘tiki-taka’ style that he best epitomises being synonymous at both Barcelona and Spain.

Indeed, no team becomes bad overnight. But the ones here were out-paced and out-thought over a period of time. It was best summed up by Alonso when he said, “We have not been able to stay hungry. The joy and success quota was covered, exhausted. Football-wise we have made many mistakes.”

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