Only twice, and not since 1962, has football’s world champion successfully defended its crown.
The first great Italian side of Giuseppe Meazza and Giovanni Ferrari, champions at home in 1934, became the first to accomplish the feat when they triumphed four years later in Paris, and Brazil’s title of 1962 followed up its 1958 win, where a 17-year-old Pele announced himself on the world stage with an unforgettable World Cup finals.
Twelve tournaments have since been contested, and in none of them did the trophy stay with the team that had won it the tournament before.
This is the history Spain are up against as they prepare for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. A point ahead of France in UEFA Qualification Group I, they have only Finland, Belarus and Georgia to play before December’s group stage draw, so at least their place in the finals would seem secure.
From there, however, nothing is certain, and more than a few World Cup holders have gone into the subsequent tournament with high hopes, only to fall flat on their faces.
The France team of 2002 springs immediately to mind.
Champions on home soil in 1998, they bowed out meekly in Korea and Japan—failing to score as much as a single goal.
In 1982 reigning champions Argentina also came well short of defending their title. They lost each of their second-round matches in Spain—to Italy and Brazil—and found the back of the net in neither.
Finally, 2006 winners Italy crashed out at the first hurdle four years ago in South Africa, winning none of its group-stage matches against Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand, with whom they could only manage a draw in Nelspruit.
Twenty-one days later Spain won the World Cup, and last July they became the first side ever to book-end the achievement with victories in the European Championship.
It’s that sort of staying power that will likely make Spain the favourite in Brazil. For while the international game can incredibly volatile, they have managed to reach a level of stability most club sides would be proud of.
Manager Vicente del Bosque will have been in charge of La Roja nearly six years when the first ball is kicked next June. He has so far taken charge of the national team on 70 occasions—the equivalent of almost two full club seasons—and has tasted defeat only six times.
The midfield trio of Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets has had a lot to do with his success. Modelled after Barcelona’s tiki-taka, the three remain compact even while exchanging positions in the centre of the park, and after a series of short, space-creating passes often look to spring an attacking teammate further upfield.
With Andres Iniesta operating in a slightly more advanced role than he’s used to with the Blaugrana, Spain are able to link play better than any of their international opponents, and so confident is del Bosque in his playmakers’ abilities to create chances that he has often forgone the use of a centre-forward in favour of a “false 9.”
There are good players coming down the pipeline as well.
Malaga attacker Isco will almost certainly be among the group of 23 del Bosque brings to Brazil next year, and both Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke and Real Sociedad defender Inigo Martinez could be part of the setup as well.
What Spain seem to have hit upon is a recipe for success composed of equal parts sustainability and renewal. And when a good thing is being enhanced instead of altered repeatedly, the sky is the limit.
Spain have every chance of repeating as World Cup winners in 2014, and if they do they’ll make some history of their own.
Iker Casillas, assuming he remains the No. 1 goalkeeper, would become the first-ever captain to receive the World Cup trophy in back-to-back tournaments.