Like any great sporting event, the FIFA World Cup has its own history. Great teams, glorious goals, virtuoso talents, dynasties: it has it all. Amidst the glory of Italy, the brilliant goals of Brazil and Germany's efficient dominance, there is also the dark side of the World Cup. There is, also, the World Cup Curse. A comparison to baseball might help: Brazil, Germany and Italy are each sort of like the Yankees, while a few unlucky nations, particularly England, the Netherlands and Spain are the soccer versions of the Red Sox or Cubs. Good, but never good enough. Each country has its own tragic history, filled with spectacular failures, scandalous defeats and broken hearts. Between the three unlucky nations, it's hard to say which has had the worst run at the World Cup. Without further ado, here is a quick primer.
England: Unlike the Netherlands and Spain, England actually won the World Cup. Way back in 1966, the Three Lions hoisted the trophy on home soil in front of the Queen. 1966 is a long time ago and that ancient success has been mitigated by decade upon decade of misfortune. Ever since their big win in '66, the Brits have only managed a few quarterfinal appearances and a 4th place finish in 1990. Whether English fans are eternal optimists or just gluttons for punishment is unclear, but every four years, once the tournament rolls around, the nation starts to believe in their boys. That solitary championship lingers in the collective memory and everyone starts believing that it will be 1966 all over again. Of course, the unrealistically raised expectations only serve to increase the depression and heartbreak once England loses, as they inevitably always do. To make it even more unbearable, the Brits have a tendency to lose in the most unsatisfying way possible, on penalty kick shoot-outs. In 1990 1998 and 2006, England went home after losing from the spot.
Failure Personified: Michael Owen. England's once-great striker scored two of the biggest goals in England's World Cup history, but they came in devastating defeats. Heartbreak against rivals Argentina in 1998 was followed by failure against Brazil in 2002. Owen's final World Cup performance was in 2006, when he was carried off with a major knee injury. Tale of the Videotape:
Is this THE YEAR? Nerves are high after England's tense draw against the U.S. Injuries are a major problem for England and there are some questions about team chemistry. The quarterfinals are a reasonable target, and it's up to Wayne Rooney to get them there.
Netherlands: While England can claim to have invented the game of soccer, the Dutch invented the beautiful game. In the 1970s, the Dutch brought the world Total Football, a revolutionary approach to soccer that forever changed the game. The Clockwork Oranje, as they were affectionately called, featured crisp passing, fluid team movement and technical brilliance. It all came together in the 1970s, when the Dutch made it to back-to-back Championship Games at the World Cup. Famously, they lost both. In 1974, they lost 2-1 to arch-rival West Germany even after going up early. In 1978 they very nearly won, only to lose in extra time to an upstart Argentina team. In that game, Dutch forward Rob Rensenbrink hit the post in the 89th minute. Had his shot gone in, Holland would have surely won. The Dutch star has dimmed since those halcyon days. Since 1978, the Dutch failed to qualify for the Cup three times, most recently in 2002. Their best showing since '78 is a fourth place finish in 1998. In that tournament they lost in the semifinals to Brazil in very close game decided by penalty kicks.
Failure Personified: Johann Cruyff. On the short list of all-time great players, Cruyff was an inspirational figure for the 1974 Dutch squad. He mysteriously sat out the 1978 tournament, leading many to dream about what might have been with the Flying Dutchman on the field.
Tale of the Videotape:
Is this THE YEAR? The Dutch looked nervy in their opening win against Denmark. It is unclear if the pieces fit together for Holland, with an excess of talent up front and a deficit of world-class players in crucial defensive positions. Still, it's semifinals or bust.
Spain: Compared to England and the Netherlands, Spain has been spared heartbreaking loses at the World Cup, but that is only because the country has consistently underwhelmed under the bright lights. Beyond a fourth place finish in 1950, Spain's best showing has been a few quarterfinal appearances here and there. This is a failure of massive proportions for a country that basically runs an assembly line that produces world-class soccer players. While there is no clear cut reason for Spain's poor record at the World Cup, a few people have gone as far as to blame Spain's fractured political history. More unified than ever, Spain enters the World Cup as champions of Europe and armed with new found optimism. Beware raised expectations!
Failure Personified: Raul Gonzalez. Raul has played his entire career for Real Madrid, and like many Spanish greats, his performances for the national team never lived up to his club production. The Madrileno appeared in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups for Spain but he was unceremoniously dropped by the national team prior to the 2008 European Championship, which Spain went on to win.
Tale of the Videotape:
Is this THE YEAR? All bets are off following Spain's shocking defeat to Switzerland. Their next match, against Honduras, is suddenly a must-win and their June 25
tilt against Chile is the pivotal match of Group H. They looked like finalists, but now who knows what happens to Spain. Fernando Torres, Xavi and David Villa need to step up.