All teams go to World Cup’s with hope in their hearts, many return disappointed but some campaigns start with such belief and unravel so shockingly they become truly painful- here are the 5 worst ever World Cup campaigns as conducted by 5 nations that set out expecting glory and quickly returned home with tails firmly between their legs…
3. Argentina (2002)
Argentina entered the 2002 World Cup as joint favourites largely because they said they were. They had qualified impressively and the side had a solid defence marshalled by Javier Zanetti & Walter Samuel and was screened by the wily Diego Simeone but this side had fallen short against Dennis Bergkamp’s Holland 4 years earlier and a closer look at the squad hinted at trouble.
Manager Marcelo Bielsa had unwavering faith in star striker Gabriel Batistuta, but ‘BatiGol’ was now 33 and coming off a poor season at Roma. It’s alleged his agent was by now trying to engineer a move to Chelsea but owner Ken Bates turned him down flat on the grounds “We’re no longer signing pensioners!” In the era after Maradona and before Messi Argentina’s main creative hope had been Ariel Ortega but he’d struggled to live up to the hype and Argentina’s new great hope was Juan Sebastian Veron.
Veron had spent the previous season failing to get a regular start for Manchester United following a move from Lazio. Veron was apparently supposed to give United a creative edge but struggled with the pace of English football and failed to produce much of anything in Manchester, although according to Alex Ferguson anyone who questioned the wisdom of this £28million signing was a “F@cking Idiot!”
Even a tough draw didn’t phase Bielsa and co- they were here to win the World Cup and nobody could stop them! And it started positively with a hard-fought 1-0 win over familiar foes Nigeria: Batigol with the only goal and 3 points were in the bag ahead of the clash of the round- England.
The match 4 years earlier had been the best of France ’98 with Argentina eventually progressing on penalties. But bad blood was rife- several Argentine players claimed the game wasn’t overshadowed by the Falklands War and they actually thought English people were nice. They were missing the point- the England team wasn’t motivated by politics, war or how they were perceived in Argentina, they were seething however over Simeone getting David Beckham sent off in that 1998 clash and then the Argentine players celebrating in front of the England team coach in the St Etienne car park- revenge was England’s watchword.
Unlike the game in St Etienne this time the game started in front of an England dominated crowd in Sapporo and England made the better start with Michael Owen hitting the post early. Strangely considering he burned their defence 4 years earlier Argentina didn’t appear to have a specific plan to stop Owen and before long his pace invited Mauricio Pochettino (Yes that Mauricio Pochettino!) into a clumsy attempt at a challenge and England had a penalty. Beckham had his revenge from the spot and England were 1-0 up at the break.
Many expected a stirring fightback after the break but Argentina looked surprisingly stunted (although they at least subbed off the ineffective Veron) and England had control for long periods a late corner almost saw Pochettino make amends but England held their nerve for a 1-0 win.
If you’ve just lost a group match at the World Cup most teams go for the war cry, insist they will get better and focus on winning the next game- not this team! Argentina’s post match press conference seemed to focus mainly on the fact they could get their revenge on England in the semi-final and the debatable penalty. They barley mentioned the next game was against Sweden and nothing less than a win would do.
Biesla dropped Veron but stuck with Batistuta over in-form Hernan Crespo Argentina started by dominating the ball against the Swedes for whom a point was enough to qualify, but with their tight defence and the razor sharp Henrik Larsson as an outlet Argentina struggled to find a way through. Early in the second half Magnus Svensson blasted home a spectacular 30 yard free-kick and suddenly Argentina required 2 goals to stay in the World Cup. With panic setting in Bielsa turned to Crespo who gave Argentina a late lifeline when he reacted fastest to a saved penalty on 88 minutes but it wasn’t enough and Argentina were out.
The team arrived home to national derision but Biesla surprisingly stayed in post for another 2 years. This was a campaign ultimately doomed from picking players on reputation rather than form and constantly under-rating their opponents, when it came to talking as good World Cup Argentina were as good as anyone, when it came to playing one…
Next Time: France fall apart in South Korea