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Top 7 Worst Title Defenses in Football History

AFCON trophy
© Ace Football

Defending a league title is no easy feat, but some champions have failed spectacularly in their attempts.

From unexpected injuries to controversial managerial decisions, these title defenses went down in history for all the wrong reasons. Here, we delve into the seven worst title defenses of all time.

7. Istanbul Başakşehir (2020-21)

In the 2019-20 season, Istanbul Başakşehir made history by winning the Turkish Super League for the first time. However, their reign was short-lived and shrouded in controversy. Known for their ties to Turkish politics, Başakşehir plummeted to 12th place the following season, just eight points above the relegation zone. Despite retaining most of their key players, a mix of injuries, an aging squad, and possible political shifts contributed to their dramatic fall.

6. France (2002 World Cup)

France entered the 2002 World Cup as the reigning champions and Euro 2000 winners. However, their campaign was a complete disaster. Star player Zinedine Zidane’s injury in a warm-up game set the tone for their performance. France failed to score a single goal and finished bottom of their group, marking one of the worst World Cup title defenses ever.

5. AC Milan (1996-97)

AC Milan’s dominance in the early 90s was unquestionable, but their title defense in the 1996-97 season was a disaster. After Fabio Capello left for Real Madrid, Milan’s new manager, Oscar Tabarez, couldn’t manage the star-studded squad effectively. Injuries and internal conflicts further marred their season, resulting in an 11th place finish, just six points above relegation.

4. Leeds United (1992-93)

Leeds United’s 1991-92 First Division title win was quickly overshadowed by their dreadful Premier League campaign the following season. Despite keeping their manager and most of their squad, Leeds finished 17th, just two points above the relegation zone. A winless away record and the sale of Eric Cantona to Manchester United were major factors in their collapse.

3. Herfølge BK (2000-01)

Herfølge BK’s fairy-tale Danish Superliga win in 1999-2000 was followed by a nightmare season. The club, from a town of just 7,000 people, plummeted from champions to 11th place in a 12-team league and were relegated. Injuries, key player departures, and their inability to replicate the previous season’s form led to their downfall.

2. Manchester City (1937-38)

Manchester City’s first English top-flight title in 1936-37 was followed by an inexplicable relegation the next season. Despite being the league’s top scorers, their defense was abysmal, leading to their drop. It remains the only season where the reigning champions were relegated, making it one of the most bizarre title defenses in football history.

1. FC Nürnberg (1968-69)

FC Nürnberg’s fall from grace after their 1967-68 Bundesliga title win is legendary. Manager Max Merkel’s decision to overhaul the squad backfired spectacularly. Nürnberg finished the next season in the relegation zone, making it the worst title defense in German and possibly world football history.

These examples serve as a reminder that success in football is fleeting and maintaining dominance requires more than just talent. Whether due to poor management, internal strife, or simply bad luck, these teams’ dramatic declines highlight the unpredictable nature of the sport.