The ones that fell by the wayside

Italy, the defending champion, was knocked out early from the 2010 edition. Skipper Fabio Cannavaro though finds a bit of comfort through the realisation that his side wasn’t the only defending champion to lose in the first round. France in 2002 and Brazil in 1966 had suffered the same fate. Priyansh takes a satirical look at teams, that have failed to live up to the top billing.

There are World Cup flops and then there are WORLD CUP FLOPS. The latter group doesn’t welcome the Hungarian team of 1954 or the Dutch squad of 1974 to their get-togethers. For, despite their failure to win the tournament, the duo at least played the final. If they were to arrive at the party, they would be criticised for being too chirpy for the surroundings.

The rest are made insufferable by their despondence. Zico proclaims in agitation, “the day that football died,” when reminded of that 2-3 loss to Italy at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

Jonathan Wilson, the inimitable tactics expert, sees that a few students of the game — secretly ushered inside the room — are influenced by the romantic notions of the Brazilians and sets about to provide clarity. He gathers the casually dressed youngsters in front of him and explains, “Rather, it was the day that a certain naivety in soccer died; it was the day after which it was no longer possible simply to pick the best players and allow them to get on with it; it was the day that system won. There was still place for great individual attacking talents, but they had to be incorporated into something knowing; they had to be protected and covered for.”

Hearing the phrase “great individual attacking talents”, Ruud Gullit is distracted from his ruminations. No longer does he sport the shaggy hairdo that came to define him and his game. Brazil’s 1982 disappointment reminds him of his experience at the 1990 tournament in Italy.

Gullit chooses to say nothing but can’t help reminiscing about the competition.

The spirit within the side in Italy was quintessentially Dutch — a lack of deference, cohesion and positivity dominated the atmosphere. Two years ago, at EURO 1988, the players had gifted coach Rinus Michels a watch to express admiration. In fact, when the watch was presented, Gullit had told Michels, “You are the best coach we’ve ever had.”

Much changed afterwards, although the squad remained almost the same. Eight months before the World Cup, the team decided that it wanted Johan Cruyff to be the manager. By then, Michels was in charge of the committee that selected the national coach. Ignoring the side’s preference, Leo Beenhakker was appointed. Gullit was hampered by a knee injury at the tournament but deeper malaises had struck the side too.

Gullit remembers TV anchor Kees Jansma’s words. “They were not a team at all. Every player had his own ideas, everyone was the hero by himself. Too many opinions. Too many islands. No atmosphere of togetherness, only superstardom.”

The Dutch started with a draw against Egypt and an incident after the match gave a glimpse into the fissures existing within the camp. Michels was speaking to a journalist on a free training pitch when he was interrupted by the Dutch football federation’s senior press officer Ger Stolk. Stolk carried a message from Gullit that read, “I’m afraid that in this area, it is forbidden to conduct interviews. I must ask you to terminate the interview now.”

Two more draws followed before a round of 16 exit at the hands of arch-rival Germany.

Gullit’s face wears a pained expression now. Patrice Evra, sitting idle all this while, suddenly notices the Dutch legend but avoids approaching him. The surrounding despondence has influenced him too. The memories of the 2010 tournament in South Africa rain upon him.

It was unavoidable, some would say. But Evra remembers the incident that led to a five-match ban for him and disenchantment within France with the national team; he had reasons to disagree.

It had all started during France’s second group match against Mexico. The French had already drawn with Uruguay and this encounter stood goalless at half-time.

Inside the dressing room, a very different encounter took place during the interval. Nicolas Anelka and manager Raymond Domenech were involved in an ugly spat that saw the striker sent back home for his indiscretion.

Domenech, ill-advisedly, gave the media a statement in which he labelled the players “imbeciles.” By then, the world had already witnessed a training ground stand-off between Evra and fitness coach Robert Duverne.

France exited the tournament at the group stage and the entire 23-member squad was suspended for new manager Laurent Blanc’s first match, in addition to longer bans awarded to a select few.

Unlike Gullit, Evra can’t keep mum and pours his heart out to John Terry. The former England skipper knows a thing or two about mutiny. While Evra was fighting his battles on the training ground, Terry was aiming to establish his supremacy over the squad at manager Fabio Capello’s expense.

Despite an impressive qualifying campaign, England found itself on the verge of an early exit after draws with USA and Algeria. Misjudging the situation, Terry — like he had done countless times at Chelsea — chose to speak for the players and gain an edge over Capello. Unfortunately for the central defender, the national team dynamic functioned differently and he was forced to step back. England left South Africa after a 1-4 thumping by Germany in the first knockout round.

Overhearing the conversation, Fabio Cannavaro is moved to wonder whether an attempt at mutiny could have saved Italy at the same tournament. The 2006 champion couldn’t progress past a group that included Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand.

Marcello Lippi had returned to defend the title he had won but Cannavaro was 37 and his side played uninspired football. The then skipper remembers the statement from the Gazzetta dello Sport editorial, “It was the darkest and most terrible day in the history of Italian football.”

Cannavaro, though, finds a bit of comfort through the realisation that his side wasn’t the only defending champion to lose in the first round.

France in 2002 and Brazil in 1966 had suffered the same fate.

Hey look! Zinedine Zidane is here too. The living legend of French football missed the first two matches due to a thigh injury in South Korea and Japan. When he did return, Zidane was heavily strapped-up and could only watch his team lose 0-2 to Denmark. The French had already lost to Senegal in the opening match and exited the tournament without scoring a goal, let alone winning a match.

Zidane’s intense visage looks gloomier upon reflection. But there’s a group of players who look worse, completely shattered.

Before the 1994 World Cup in USA, Colombia had been named as a favourite by Pele. Surely, considering the Brazilian master’s record, that wasn’t supposed to go well but even so, this was horrendous.

A 5-0 thrashing of Argentina in an away qualifying match had boosted the Colombians’ credentials. Moreover, the group draw was not very challenging as the South American country found itself placed alongside USA, Romania and Switzerland.

But defeats to the first two opponents ensured an early return flight for the Colombians, although some pride was regained with a win over Switzerland. During those years, Colombia was under the influence of drug lords, who also funded the national team.

The failure brought matters to a head and it culminated in the death of defender Andreas Escobar. Escobar had scored an own goal against the USA and upon returning home, got involved in an argument outside a nightclub. He was killed by bullet shots.

As talk of Escobar’s death percolates the room, the faces droop further. And it is followed by deafening silence. The flops leave the room, with regret painted all over them.