Three of the last four World Cup champions have failed even to survive group play. Not since 1962, when Brazil pulled it off, has a nation successfully defended its world title.
Most recently, Spain, after winning the 2010 World Cup (and the 2012 Euro) was eliminated after its first two group games.
Italy won the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but four years later, in South Africa, finished last in Group F.
2002 World Cup champion Brazil fared better in 2006, reaching the quarterfinals, where it lost to France.
At the 2002 World Cup, defending champion France finished last in Group A.
And now we come to Germany, which qualified for Russia 2018 in recording-setting fashion, winning all 10 of its games while outscoring its foes 43-4. The best previous run in European qualifying came from Spain, 10-0-0 and 28-5 goals.
Optimism bounds in Germany for good reason: The rise of promising young talent since the 2014 World Cup.
Last summer, Germany won the Confederations Cup with the youngest squad at the tournament while resting a slew of veterans, including world champs Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller, Toni Kroos, and the central defensive duo of Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels.
Also last summer, Germany won the U-21 European Championship, despite the fact that six players eligible for that tournament were part of its Confederations Cup squad. That’s not including the 21-year-old Manchester City star Leroy Sane, a Schalke 04 product, who was injured.
Just how deep is the German national team player pool was demonstrated in World Cup qualifying when 37 players -- the most in German World Cup qualifying history -- saw action for Coach Joachim Löw.
Only 24 players saw action in Germany’s 10 qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup.
“The coach has for the World Cup a wealth of personnel like never before,” says the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Players who have debuted for Germany since the 2014 World Cup and considered likely to make the roster for Russia 2018 include:
• Bayern Munich attack-minded defender Joshua Kimmich (22 years old), who started all 10 qualifiers.
• Forward Timo Werner, the Confederations Cup Golden Boot winner, at age 21 has scored 26 goals in 37 Bundesliga games and six goals in eight appearances for Germany.
• The 22-year-old Schalke 04 midfielder Leon Goretzka, who has scored six goals in 12 games for Germany.
• Outside back/defensive midfielder Jonas Hector.
There’s also Sane, 21-year-old winger Julian Brandt, 22-year-old winger Serge Gnabry and 23-year-old midfielder Emre Can and 28-year-old forward Lars Stindle.
Since the 2014 World Cup, defender Philipp Lahm, forward Miroslav Klose and midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger have retired from national team play.
Germany’s 2014 squad was the sixth youngest at the World Cup with an average age of 26.31. It included Julian Draxler, who made one appearance as a sub. Now age 24, the Paris St. Germain winger has 38 caps and was Confederations Cup Golden Ball winner.
“The players who will make the [World Cup squad] must at that point be at the highest level and must at any time, at every minute and second bring forth a top effort when they’re called upon,” said Löw. “That’s the basis on which were working.”
Loew has the luxury of building a squad with a healthy balance of youth and experience.
Spain staying too loyal to the veterans who won two Euros and the 2010 World Cup has been cited as a reason for its demise at the 2014 World Cup, where with an average age of 28.24 Coach Vicente del Bosque fielded the tournament’s eighth oldest squad.
“Do not believe that we’re the only ones with very good players,” said Löw. “The other nations have also improved development unbelievably and are determined. Even us as world champions must reinvent and redefine ourselves.”