World Cup competitions tend to produce fairytale scenarios, but there are almost always shocking outcomes as well; for every hopeful Croatian fan there were dozens of vexed Germans and Spaniards remembering past finals.
It was even worse for the Dutch and Italians, watching from their sofas after failing to qualify.
For some campaigns, it was an issue of falling towards the final hurdle, for others defeat came early on.
All in all, it made for compelling viewing and plenty of World Cup heartbreak.
Here are the teams that caused the biggest disappointments:
The champions of Europe went to Russia with high, and realistic, expectations. Having secured the Euro 2016 title and a respectable third place finish at last year’s Confederations Cup, they also had a degree of confidence about their ability to perform on the international stage. Like many other favourites, however, they soon found themselves on the plane home.
With captain Cristiano Ronaldo in blistering form for Real Madrid, the Portuguese had their linchpin. His worth was shown early on, as his hat-trick secured a 3-3 draw with arch-rivals Spain. In the end, both sides escaped what was deemed to be an easy group by a single point. Another draw, this time against Iran, set up a clash with Uruguay in the Round of 16.
It was here that it all unravelled for Portugal, as Edinson Cavani netted a brace to send them out. Despite dominating the South Americans in the second half, the Portuguese could only produce a single goal, which was soon cancelled out. Hopes of emulating Spain’s Euro-World Cup combination went unfulfilled. It was a disappointingly early exit for Fernando Santos’ men and with many of their stars on ‘the wrong side of thirty’, it asks questions as to the direction of the national team going forwards.
If Portugal are to be classed as disappointing, then Spain surely deserves the label. From their opening clash to the depths of extra time against Russia, it became even clearer that the golden era of Spanish football had waned. Far from the sophisticated, effective football of Euro 2008, La Furia Roja appeared dull and sluggish. This was punished with an early exit.
Despite going off the boil in recent years, the Spanish national side still boasts a collection of stars. On paper, names like David de Gea and Sergio Ramos make them constant favourites in international tournaments. There is always a sense that, if they can adopt a more modern approach to the game, Spain might find themselves reinvigorated. With the absence of heavyweight sides in the knockout rounds, this appeared to be the time for that to happen.
But for all the bluster and false promise, Spain could not produce the results needed. A Round of 16 contest against host nation Russia was enough to derail their campaign. An own goal was needed to secure a 1-1 draw, and the Russians proved to be too precise in the shootout. In other competitions, it might have been a major shock, but it fit the theme for the 2018 World Cup.
After having lost several legends to retirement, Spain seems set to part company with more. Andres Iniesta has ended his international career, as has David Silva. Compounding this onto the departures of Iker Casillas, Xavi, and Carles Puyol, there must be real concern that the glory days are gone for good.
It was a turbulent World Cup for Argentina. After finishing as runners-up to Germany in 2014, they were widely perceived to be the favourites this time around. Like Spain, they had an enviable squad, and plenty of motivation ahead of their opening match in what turned out to be a difficult group.
After two games — a 1-1 draw with Iceland and 3-0 loss to Croatia — La Albiceleste were in damage control. The final group stage clash against Nigeria became must-win. Luckily for their supporters, they managed it: a late goal to Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo securing victory for the South Americans. The joy ended quickly, however, as they squared up against eventual winners France in the next round.
In the end, it was a classic World Cup outing, ending 4-3 to the French after heroic performances from Kylian Mbappé and Benjamin Pavard. Of all the teams to play in the knockout rounds, France were undoubtedly the hardest, and so Argentina supporters can take some comfort in that. But it does not alter the truth: Argentina came up short in this competition. A lacklustre defence, and an aging Lionel Messi, overshadowed their campaign, and ultimately cost them.
There are few World Cup disaster stories quite like the German one. After winning the competition in 2014 and breezing through qualification with a perfect record, they arrived in Russia and imploded. A 1-0 loss to Mexico and tense 2-1 victory against Sweden set up a do-or-die game against South Korea. Slumping to a 2-0 loss, they did the latter, matching their dire record of a first-round exit set in 1938.
Germany’s woes were an early indication that the 2018 World Cup was going to be hell for the traditional powerhouses of football. The defeat against Mexico was Die Mannschaft’s first opening game loss since 1982, when the country was still partitioned. Prior to being beaten by South Korea, they had never lost to an Asian side.
German fans should not be surprised that they crashed out so early. France (2002), Italy (2010), and Spain (2014) all failed to escape their groups after winning the preceding competition. But this tradition will do little to calm German anger. Questions still surround Joachim Löw’s decision to leave Manchester City winger Leroy Sané out of the final squad, especially when his inclusion is very likely to have made the difference in crucial moments.