Preparing for a World Cup is not a simple task: When you make plans for a month-long tournament in another country, often on a different continent, you can run into all kinds of difficulties and inconveniences. Or as Spain found out on Wednesday, you can be plunged into total chaos.
Just two days before the team’s first match, the Spanish soccer federation sacked head coach Julen Lopetegui for agreeing to take over Real Madrid without telling his bosses. Lopetegui, unbeaten in his 20 games in charge, has been replaced by Spain’s sporting director Fernando Hierro, whose coaching career to date consists only of a short and largely unimpressive spell in charge of Spanish second division club Real Oviedo.
While the situation is far from ideal, at least fans of La Roja can rest assured that they are not alone in witnessing such upheaval and drama during the most important event in international soccer. Here are three of the most chaotic ever World Cup campaigns.
Ghana 2014: Super long long-haul flights, fist fights and kitbags full of cash
Supporters of the Ghanaian national team had a couple of good reasons to be optimistic ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil: The Black Stars had become only the third African team to reach a World Cup quarterfinal just four years earlier and their key players—all-time top goalscorer and captain Asamoah Gyan, Juventus winger Kwadwo Asamoah and AC Milan midfielder Sulley Muntari—were still at the peak of their careers.
Behind the scenes, though, things were much less settled. Preparations began badly: The squad flew from Amsterdam to Miami for a training camp in a journey that took 19 hours, which was followed a week later by a 12-hour economy class flight to Brazil.
“We were squeezed into economy with the legs hurting,” star midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng said. “It may sound strange for the average citizen but it is demanding for a high-performance athlete. Meanwhile, our [federation] president sat in business class with his wife and his two kids.”
Boateng said he then had to change rooms at the “dump” of a hotel the team stayed at in Brazil because his was so flooded that it resembled a swimming pool.
Then, just before the crucial final group game with Portugal, both Boateng and Muntari were sent home; Boateng for “vulgar verbal assaults targeted at coach Kwesi Appiah” and Muntari for an “unprovoked physical attack” on a Ghanaian soccer executive. With growing discontent within the squad, things reached crisis point when the rest of the players threatened to boycott the match because of a dispute about bonuses that they were owed.
Gyan eventually struck a deal with Ghanaian President John Drahami Mahama to resolve the issue: The Ghanaian government would fly $3 million in cash to Brazil on Ghana’s presidential jet. The absurdity of the situation was perhaps best summed up by winger Christian Atsu, who could barely contain his laughter as he told bewildered reporters that the players would store the piles of money in their kitbags.
Ghana ended up losing 2-1 to Portugal anyway. Overall, the team managed just one point in the group stage, from a draw with Germany. Needless to say, they didn’t make it to the next round.
Ireland 2002: No kit, no balls, no captain
Ahead of the 2002 World Cup, the Republic of Ireland squad traveled to Saipan, a small island in the western Pacific, for a training camp. When they got there, there was one minor problem: Though the players arrived safe and sound, their footballs, kits and medical supplies did not.
Captain Roy Keane, one of the greatest players to represent Ireland and the man who had carried the team during the qualifying games, was not amused. Fired up after watching a Muhammad Ali biopic on the plane ride, Keane went and complained to head coach Mick McCarthy, stating that the gear should have arrived early. The next day, the team complained that the training pitch was too hard. “We could have watered it,” a FIFA liaison officer said to Keane, “if anyone had told us you were coming down.”
A day later, team members Steve Finnan and Lee Carsley picked up injuries while training on the sub-standard pitch, and Keane told McCarthy that he wanted to go home. His adviser, Michael Kennedy, and club manager, Alex Ferguson, managed to talk him out of it and convinced him to stay with the squad. Keane agreed to keep his head down—and he did, at least, until a reporter with a national newspaper asked how preparations were going.
“I can’t imagine any other country, countries in the world who are far worse off than us, playing on something like that [pitch],” Keane ranted to the Irish Times. “I don’t think it’s too much for us to ask, just for a pitch that’s even watered. It’s so dangerous. It’s rock hard. One or two of the lads have picked up injuries. I’m amazed there hasn’t been more, but give it time. But you know, we’re the Irish team, it’s a laugh and a joke.”
The interview didn’t go down well in the Irish camp, and after a team meeting McCarthy confirmed that Keane was being sent home. But Ireland still managed to perform admirably in Japan and South Korea, drawing with Cameroon and Germany and defeating Saudi Arabia in the group stage before losing to Spain on penalties in the round of 16.
Italy 2006: Calciopoli and a suicide attempt
In May 2006, one month before the World Cup was due to start in Germany, Italian police uncovered one of the biggest corruption scandals in soccer history.
Calciopoli, as it is now known, sent shockwaves through the soccer-loving nation. Managers of some of Italy’s biggest clubs—Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio, Fiorentina and Reggina—had apparently conspired to rig Serie A matches by ensuring favorable refereeing appointments. Several major clubs officials resigned and endless speculation about how the clubs would be punished as investigations continued into the World Cup period. There was talk of league champions being rescinded and clubs being demoted. Individual reputations were also on the line, as 12 of the 23-man national squad played for those clubs.
The Italian drama only got worse when Gianluca Pessotto, a former Italian national team player who had just been appointed Juventus manager, jumped out a fourth-story window in a suicide attempt. The news shook the squad in Germany, with some players flying back to Turin to visit him before Italy’s quarterfinal match with Ukraine. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon even said he was struggling to concentrate during the tournament because he was so worried about Pessotto.
Pessotto eventually made a full recovery, and it seemed as though Calciopoli actually united the Azzuri with the adversity the scandal brought. “We are family now, like never before,” declared coach Marcello Lippi. Italy went on to win its fourth World Cup, conceding just two goals on the way and exceeding the expectations of fans and pundits alike.