A Brief History of Host Nations At The World Cup

29 Jul 1986: An Argentinian player kicks the ball in frustration after Rudi Voller scores West Germany's second goal during the World Cup final at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. Argentina won the match 3-2. Mandatory Credit: David Cannon/Allsport

While the rest of the world hopes that Mohamed Salah recovers from injury in time to appear at the World Cup, Russian football fans will probably hope that he does not. They are already fearful of what the next few weeks might hold for their ageing team, so if Salah comes back and starts firing on all cylinders, Russia might struggle even to get out of their group.

If that happens, Russia would probably have put in the worst performance by a World Cup host ever. As this brief history of host nations at the World Cup shows, the tournament hosts often win the World Cup. At the very least, they put in a performance that fills their people with pride. The way things are looking now, Russia will struggle to achieve either of those two objectives.

Host Nations At The World Cup

Uruguay 1930: Performance by Host Nation – Winners

In 1930, Uruguay set the bar high for all future World Cup host nations by winning the inaugural World Cup. They were already an outstanding team, having won two successive Olympic tournaments in 1924 and 1928. Before the introduction of the World Cup, the Olympics was the biggest global footballing competition. And the fact that they won the final against bitter local rivals Argentina just made their triumph all the sweeter.

Italy 1934: Performance by Host Nation – Winners

For all the entirely justifiable concerns about staging the World Cup in Russia in 2018, given what increasingly appears to be the return of the Cold War, it is worth remembering that several World Cups have already been staged in what might be called ‘dictator-friendly conditions’. The first of those was Italy 1934 when Mussolini almost personally oversaw the triumph of the Azzurri. Presumably, the Italian players knew what might happen to them if they did not win a home World Cup and so made damn sure that they did.

France 1938: Performance by Host Nation – Quarter-finalists

In 1938, France became the first World Cup hosts not to win the tournament. In fact, they only made it as far as the quarter-finals. Here, they were beaten by the eventual winners, Italy, who became the first team to retain the World Cup. Only Brazil in 1958 and 1962 have replicated that achievement. The entire tournament was played out against the backdrop of the looming World War and the Azzurri’s triumph was not warmly celebrated on French soil, to say the least.

Brazil 1950: Performance by Host Nation – Losing Finalists

It is remarkable that Brazil have never won the tournament on the two occasions that they have hosted it. As painful as 2014 was, the first failure on home soil was arguably even more devastating because, of course, Brazil had not won the World Cup at all by that point. ‘The defeat’, as it is still known in Brazil to this day, came in the final to Uruguay, who were making their first appearance at the World Cup since their own home triumph in 1930. They had boycotted the 1934 and 1938 tournaments in protest at the European nations, including Italy, that had failed to travel to South America in 1930. Once again, Uruguay triumphed over a bitter local rival. This triumph, though, was even more impressive as it was achieved away from home.

Switzerland 1954: Performance by Host Nation -Quarter-finalists

Switzerland are financial giants rather than football giants. As such, the one time that they hosted the World Cup they did well just to make it out of the group and reach the quarter-finals. That was particularly true given that they had to defeat Italy to win a play-off when the two nations had finished level on points in their group. Play-offs were used before other factors such as goal difference began to be taken into account. In the last eight, Switzerland succumbed to Austria in an extraordinary game, losing 7-5. Sadly, the chances of such a score-line being repeated in any of the games at Russia 2018 are remote.

Sweden 1958: Performance by Host Nation – Losing Finalists

Brazil finally atoned for ‘The Defeat’ on home soil in 1950 by winning their first World Cup in Sweden eight years later, with the 17-year-old Pele and Garrincha (the one-man Rolling Stones to Pele’s Beatles) to the fore. Unlike Brazil in 1950, Sweden were not devastated to have lost at the final hurdle. In fact, for such a small nation even to make the final was an enormous triumph. That was why both teams – winners and losers – were so happy to celebrate together after the final.

Chile 1962: Performance by Host Nation – Losing Semi-finalists

If the performances by the host nation in 1962 are remembered at all today, it is usually for the infamous scenes in the Chile-Italy game in the first round. That match was immortalised as ‘The Battle of Santiago’ when two Italians were sent off and all 22 players could have been dismissed, such was the level of violence. Nevertheless, Chile were still a good enough footballing team to make the semi-finals, where they eventually lost to Brazil 4-2. To this day, 1962 remains a high-water mark for Chilean football and it will remain so for at least one more World Cup, given that Alexis Sanchez et al didn’t even make it to Russia.

England 1966: Performance by Host Nation – Winners

The English may have ‘invented’ football at the end of the 19th century, but it was only when the World Cup was held in England that the game’s inventors managed to win its greatest prize. More than half a century on, England have only once come close to winning the World Cup again. Indeed, so poor have been most of England’s performances in World Cups since 1966 that they may just to wait until they are hosts again (if FIFA ever deigns to give them such an opportunity) before they can seriously challenge again for the world title.

Mexico 1970: Performance by Host Nation – Losing Quarter-finalists

In one sense, Mexico may be the greatest World Cup hosts. The two tournaments that they have staged (1970 and 1986) are often regarded as the two greatest World Cup tournaments. In another sense, they have been unexceptional hosts. On both occasions, they got out of their group but lost their first knockout match. Italy did it for them in 1970, with the fine team of Rivera and Riva (who both scored against Mexico in a 4-1 win) eliminating the tournament hosts en route to the legendary final against Brazil (where, of course, Italy themselves lost 4-1).

West Germany 1974: Performance by Host Nation – Winners

West Germany won their second World Cup when they were the hosts in 1974. Of course, at the time Germany was divided into East and West, and it was the ‘Ostis’ (Easterners) who won ‘The Battle of the Two Germanys’, when they surprisingly won 1-0 in their group encounter. However, having won that most localised of battles, West Germany went on to win the World Cup war by defeating the great Johan Cruyff Dutch team 2-1 in the final.

Argentina 1978: Performance by Host Nation – Winners

As with Italy in 1934, Argentina in 1978 was a contentious choice as World Cup hosts. Like all dictators everywhere, the Argentine junta were keen to make the most of any sporting success and so threw all their weight behind the country’s football team. However, Argentina struggled to get out of an ultra-competitive first-round group. They did, though, eventually, make it all the way to the final. Once there, they triumphed in true technicolour style. They became the second host nation in succession to defeat a supposedly superior Dutch side.

Spain 1982: Performance by Host Nation – Lost in Second Round Group Stage

So complicated was the World Cup format in 1982 that it is difficult to summarise the achievement of hosts, Spain. Suffice to say that they exited in the second round group stage, losing to eventual runners-up Germany after already losing in the first round to the minnows of Northern Ireland. All in all, Spain’s performance in ’82 was about as good as the tournament format. Both sucked.

Mexico 1986: Performance by Host Nation – Lost in Last 16

Having stepped in at the last minute to replace original hosts Colombia (which had been devastated by earthquakes and economic disaster), Mexico replicated their 1970 performance in 1986 by reaching the quarter-finals. They lost on penalties to Germany, who would go on to reach the final against Diego Maradona’s Argentina. Thus, Mexico, despite never having excelled themselves on home soil, could legitimately claim to have provided the stage for both the Greatest World Cup team ever (Brazil 70) AND the Greatest World Cup individual ever (the aforementioned Maradona).

Italy 1990: Performance by Host Nation – Losing Semi-finalists

With Italian football now seemingly reduced to a succession of Juventus titles (seven and counting) and the Azzurri’s failure to reach the World Cup finals for the first time since 1958, it is easy to forget how good it once was. Between 1982 and 2000, Italian club football was the greatest on the planet. It had become known as ‘the World’s League’. However, the Azzurri failed to win the World Cup on home soil for a second time. They lost to Maradona’s Argentina in the semi-final on penalties, on an infamous, dramatic night in Naples that a future Verdi or Puccini will surely regard as the perfect storyline for a great opera.

USA 1994: Performance by Host Nation – Lost in Last 16

The USA, which for much of the 20th century had blithely ignored the world’s game, finally caught up with the rest of the world in 1994, when they hosted the World Cup. For all the grand setting of a continent-sized country and its gigantic stadia, the USA’s football team was fairly unremarkable. They did well to defeat Colombia in the first round. Doubts persist to this day, however, that the vastly superior Colombians had been bribed to lose by the country’s drug cartels. However, they then lost 1-0 to the eventual winners, Brazil, limping out relatively meekly even though Brazil had had a man sent off early on.

France 1998: Performance by Host Nation – Winners

Sixty years on, France finally made up for the disappointment of 1938 by winning the World Cup on home soil. The truly great French team of Zidane, Desailly et al were not strongly favoured at the outset. However, they improved enormously as the tournament progressed. They ended up defeating not only Italy in the quarter-finals but mighty Brazil, the defending champions, in the final. Paris duly celebrated on a scale not seen since the end of the Second World War.

Japan/South Korea 2002: Performance by Host Nations – Japan (Lost in Last 16)/South Korea (Losing Semi-Finalists)

The first and only World Cup so far to have two host nations saw those nations enjoy wildly differing fortunes. Japan did well to qualify from their group but then lost to Turkey in the last 16. By complete contrast, South Korea (under the wise tutelage of veteran Dutch coach Guus Hiddink) went all the way to the semi-finals, beating both Italy and Spain en route before finally succumbing to Germany.

Germany 2006: Performance by Host Nation – Losing Semi-finalist

The united Germany of 2006 could not replicate what West Germany alone had achieved in 1974, namely winning the World Cup on home soil. However, that is hardly surprising. The 1974 West Germany featured several all-time greats, such as Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller, whereas in 2006 Germany’s only truly world-class player was a young Philip Lahm (and even Lahm was yet to attain that status). Consequently, Germany did well to reach the last four, where they lost to Italy, the eventual winners.

South Africa 2010: Performance by Host Nation – First Round Exit

So far, South Africa are the only World Cup hosts to exit the tournament in the first round. However, even if Russia do make the knockout stages, they will do well to match the sheer joy that South Africa generated as World Cup hosts (the dreaded vuvuzuelas apart, of course). And at least South Africa won their last group match against a divided and dispirited France. They had publicly argued with coach Raymond Domenech, to give them one small triumph on home soil.

Brazil 2014: Performance by Host Nation – Losing Semi-finalists

As in 1950, Brazil failed again as hosts in 2014. And as in 1950, they failed spectacularly, losing 7-1 to Germany in the semi-final. However, for all the shame of that result, it is surely the most powerful motivation for Brazil this time around. They will hope that Neymar has recovered from injury sufficiently to justify their status as joint-favourites with holders Germany to win the 2018 World Cup.

And Russia 2018…?

No-one (not even Vladimir Putin himself) thinks that Russia will become the seventh host nation to win the World Cup. An infinitely more realistic ambition is that they will reach the knockout stages. However, as said at the outset, that may all come down to the status of Mo Salah’s fitness. With a strong Uruguay looking set to win the group, it is surely between Russia and Egypt for second. And if Salah is fit and looking for redemption after the agony of the Champions League final, then it is entirely possible that in 2018 Russia will replace South Africa as the worst ever World Cup hosts, at least on the field of play.

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