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Sunday, March 14, 2010
Updated: March 15, 11:23 AM ET
Big hopes, early exits

By Leander Schaerlaeckens
ESPN.com

Each World Cup knows its surprises, its sweethearts, its Cinderella team. But for every team that goes further than it could reasonably be expected to, a country that should have moved on has to crash out early. Here then are the five most shocking first-round exits in World Cup history.

5. Soviet Union, 1990

In the late '80s, Ukrainian Valeriy Lobanovskiy had built the Soviet Union into one of the best national teams in the world. His form of total football, which he had conceived with Dynamo Kiev at roughly the same time it had sprouted up in the Netherlands, was the perfect embodiment of the Soviet system. With nine of his former Dynamo pupils, Lobanovskiy had built a starless team with frightening efficiency. The side shone brightly at Euro '88 in West Germany, where the Soviets made it to the final but lost to the Netherlands, and was expected to produce similar results at the World Cup in Italy.

Even though at the 1990 tournament four of six groups would advance three of their four entrants, depending on the results of the third-place teams, the Soviet Union was unable to progress to the next round. It lost its opening game 2-0 to Romania and its second game to Argentina by the same score. It subsequently needed Argentina to lose to Romania and to make up its minus-4 goal difference and surpass Argentina's plus-1 in order to avoid the first-round elimination. It wasn't to be. In spite of a 4-0 win against group winner Cameroon, Argentina drew with Romania and the Soviets were outski.

4. Colombia, 1994

For the 1994 World Cup, Colombia had not only Pelé's backing to win it but also the hope of all of South America resting on its shoulders, being the only team at that tournament embodying the continent's insouciant style of soccer. As evidenced by Pelé's pick, expectations were high. And with reason. Colombia had dismantled a mighty Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires in qualifiers and, led by its talismanic leader Carlos Valderrama, who sported a blond afro, were destined for greatness in the U.S.

Although World Cup 1990 had been a disappointment, the '94 edition would transpire as tragic. Colombia had gone undefeated in qualifiers, but it did nothing in losing its first two games at the competition (against Romania and, improbably, the U.S.), allegedly perturbed by myriad threats from gambling syndicates and drug cartels over tactics, lineups and expectations. The losses would cost Colombia the tournament, as a 2-0 win against Switzerland wasn't enough to secure one of the four spots in the second round handed to the best third-place teams from the six groups. The U.S. and Romania would advance rather than Colombia. An unlucky own goal against the U.S. would cost Colombian defender Andres Escobar his life. In an act believed to be retribution for the own goal, which supposedly cost a lot of powerful people a lot of gambling money, he was shot to death outside a bar.

3. France/Argentina, 2002

The least that could be expected of a France team that had so gloriously won World Cup 1998 on its own turf was that it would make it past the first round in the next tournament. It would fail to do so in 2002, even though it returned most of its starters from '98 -- minus important Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps -- and boasted a much strengthened attack.

In the defense of its title, France stumbled at the first hurdle, losing to World Cup newcomer Senegal 1-0. A 0-0 draw with Uruguay and a 2-0 loss to Denmark would send the French out the back door without having scored a single goal.

Another favorite to hoist the gold statuette was Argentina. It too failed to make much of a dent in its opposition. Although the Argentines won their opening game to Nigeria 1-0, a narrow loss to England and a tie with Sweden meant that the latter two advanced ahead of the stacked Argentine team, which had a slew of players in their primes who had advanced much further in previous tournaments.

2. Brazil, 1966

Brazil had won the 1958 and 1962 World Cups. It would win the 1970 edition, too, earning that 12-year span the "Golden Era" label, owing as much to the haul of three World Cups as the presence of superlative talents such as Pelé, Tostão, Carlos Alberto, Didi, Vava and Garrincha.

There is a very noticeable gap in the trophy case of that peerless generation: World Cup '66. Brazil had long been known as not only the most talented team in the world but also the best prepared one. In England, that preparation fell short. Brazil's club teams all campaigned heavily to have as many of their players included as possible, suddenly aware of the exposure (read: value) their players could gain at the highest stage. With just months to go before the tournament was to kick off, Brazil was still working with a group of 46 players, having to somehow whittle that down to 22. Chaos and consternation ensued. That and a widespread hack-a-Pelé campaign kept Brazil from notching a string of four straight World Cup victories.

Although Pelé and Garrincha led Brazil to a 2-0 victory over Bulgaria in its opening game in Liverpool, subsequent games were lost to Hungary (3-1) and, horror of horrors, former colonizers Portugal (3-1). The impossible had happened. Brazil was eliminated.

1. England, 1950

In 1950, there was England, and then there was everybody else. Whether England truly invented soccer, as it has long boasted, is unlikely. It certainly did bring the sport into the modern era, though, establishing its rulebook and colonizing the rest of the world for the soccer cause. No country has done more for the development of the sport. That's why, in 1950, winning the first World Cup it would enter -- politics had prevented it from playing in the first three installments from 1930 through 1938 -- was considered a formality, a foregone conclusion.

England hadn't just perfected the sport, it also possessed the best players in the world. All of them. Tom Finney, Laurie Hughes, Stan Mortensen, Alf Ramsey and Stanley Matthews were the best at what they did. A Great Britain team had defeated a rest-of-Europe team 6-1 before the tournament in Brazil. With such an embarrassment of riches, Britain would be using the tournament as a demonstration of modern soccer -- surely. A hard-fought 2-0 opening game victory over Chile and rumblings within the British camp suggested otherwise. And after the English had been virtually knocked out by the most improbable of defeats against the U.S. (1-0), their fate was sealed by a loss to Spain (1-0). As such, England did not survive the unforgiving group stages, which at the time graduated just one of three or four teams to the next round.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com.