Feuds and Infighting: A Recent History of Player Mutinies at Major Tournaments

Robert O'Connor@@hoovesonfireContributing Football WriterJuly 5, 2016

Rory Martin, Bleacher Report

"I've got no respect for you," Roy Keane shouted at Ireland's 2002 World Cup boss Mick McCarthy. "The only reason I have any dealings with you is that you are somehow the manager of my country!"

Blow-ups, breakdowns and general mutinies assume many forms at major championships. Sometimes it's little more than unvarnished greed distracting from the pursuit of playing a good tournament. At others, it's more insidious, complicated histories throwing up complicated problems as working relationships collapse into scathing public attacks.

Sometimes, the causes are too bonkers to give credence.

In France in 2016, the terraces and streets have been the venue for flaring tempers, rather than training pitches and team hotels. In tournaments past, though, disorder has reigned behind the dressing room door. In fact, some of those we've seen on TV screens during Euro 2016 pleading for more adult behaviour from minorities of lawless fans have been less than civil themselves in the past. 

History is hardly replete with examples of levelheadedness winning out when tournament pressure is cranked up. As the following examples demonstrate, that dressing room door is often a flimsy seal on a fractious Pandora's box.


Netherlands, Euro 1996

It's 20 years this summer since boss Guus Hiddink of the Netherlands, in one of the many damage-limitation exercises which have pockmarked his career, saw his plans for Euro 1996 wrecked by a public bust-up between members of his stellar squad.

The problem was one inherited from the great Ajax side of the '90s. They were fresh from Champions League success in 1995, but behind closed doors they were being eaten up by ill feeling.

In one corner: Michael Reiziger, Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf (recently departed for Sampdoria) and Edgar Davids. None of them were older than 23. But, teammate Peter Hoekstra says, as pivotal members of the European Cup-winning side, they were irked at being on a lower pay scale than the team's older hands: Danny Blind, Ronald de Boer and Edwin van der Sar.

Hoekstra, a full-back, was another of the young Ajax contingent in the 22 selected for the tournament in England, though he wasn't one of the belligerents. He recalls a tense camp wracked with infighting and a weakened team spirit.

Edgar Davids in action for Netherlands in 1995
Edgar Davids in action for Netherlands in 1995Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

"It was all about the salary of some Ajax players," he told Bleacher Report from his home in Groningen, Holland. "The younger players were on less than the older players and they wanted to be paid the same. They brought that to the tournament with them, but it was after the game against Switzerland that it really blew up.

"[Edgar] Davids had been left out of the team for the game"—the midfielder came on as a substitute in the 80th minute—"and afterwards he was angry with Hiddink and he said some bad words. He told him he had his face in Danny Blind's, er, orifice. You understand me?"

Hiddink understood, and responded brutally, dismissing Davids from his squad.

"They [the Ajax players] made it bigger than what it was," says Hoekstra, noting that the unhappy group were very young.

"All right, they'd just won the Champions League, but it was normal at Ajax then for players who had played a little bit longer in the first team, players like Danny Blind and Ronald de Boer, to earn a little bit more," he says. "That was the philosophy of Ajax. But it came to the national team and caused us some problems."

14 Dec 1996:  A portrait of Guus Hiddink the manager of Holland taken before the start of the World cup qualifier between Belgium and Holland in Belgium. Holland won the match 0-3. Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill/Allsport
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

There may or may not have been more to the story. The press thought there was. The quartet of complaining players were all black, the higher-paid established trio all white, and a photo of a team meal in the grounds of the squad hotel appears to show a racial rift.

Hiddink is standing, telling the photographer to go away, according to forward Youri Mulder, who spoke to the Guardian in 2012. Behind him, all of the black players are seated at one table.

"It never was a racial thing, you know," says Hoekstra of the rumours that began to circulate after the photo appeared.

Mulder, who, like Hoekstra, is white, told the Guardian that he never got the feeling from Kluivert, his roommate, that the black players were upset about racism.

Kluivert, Seedorf and Davids had said, "We are the cabal," in a TV interview following a qualification play-off win over Ireland, and many took that to be a statement of racial solidarity. Not so, Mulder told the Guardian: "'We are the cabal'...was more like: 'We are strong together.'"

Mulder said the photo was an unhappy coincidence. The team chef had a particular specialty from Surinam, he said, which appealed to the team's black players, all of whom shared that heritage. So they sat together for ease in serving.

"Players just sit with whom they have something in common, you know?" Hoekstra says. "It happens in clubs where you'll have the Spanish players eating together or the Chinese players eating together, but the press turned it into this story of black against white.

England despatched Holland 4-1 at Euro 96
England despatched Holland 4-1 at Euro 96Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

"That surprised us. There were many friendships within that squad and there still are today. It just wasn't true that there was a racial divide."

Perhaps not, but it's worth noting that the black players involved have never said publicly that there was no racial element to the rift.

The Netherlands famously were hammered by England 4-1 in the group stage, and they then lost to France on penalty kicks in the quarter-finals.

The media may have magnified the problems the Dutch created for themselves at Euro '96, but sometimes, the truth on the inside is clearly as rancid as the reports suggest.

Slovenia, 2002 World Cup

In 2002, Slovenia were trailing 1-0 to Spain in their World Cup opener in Gwangju, South Korea, when coach Srecko Katanec laid the straw that broke the back of his tense relationship with the team's star player, Zlatko Zahovic.

As Slovenia, making their tournament debut, chased the game, Katanec replaced Zahovic with Tottenham's Milenko Acimovic. Days after the 3-1 loss, in one of the more harrowing scenes from World Cup history, Katanec openly wept as the world watched him deliver a press conference to explain the rift which had erupted between him and Zahovic.

Zahovic (left) in action for Slovenia against Spain at World Cup 2002
Zahovic (left) in action for Slovenia against Spain at World Cup 2002Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The breakdown owed in part to the pummeling egos of two of Slovenian football's biggest personalities but drew added venom from a quirk of the country's national identity.

Katanec, who had worked wonders with the side to bring them first to the European Championships in 2000 and then to the World Cup, hails from the capital, Ljubljana; Zahovic, the apex of Slovenia's attacking threat and indispensable to his side's hopes in the Far East, from the eastern region of Styria.

Relations between the regions have long been strained, and those between the two men were no better. They had clashed in the build-up to the World Cup, with the coach accusing Zahovic in the press of failing to pull his weight for the team. The tensions came to a head against Spain.

"There were things going on during the game," Katanec told the assembled press, as translated in the book, Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe, by Jonathan Wilson. He continued:

[Zahovic] said I was a Ljubljanska P—[he broke off from an expletive]. He said I was subbing only Styrians and I should take another one off so that another Ljubljancan could play. After the game I was told that I was a prick of a coach, I had been a prick of a player and that he could buy me, my house and my family. ... So now you know what happened.

The press conference had been called in order to explain to the world—an unprecedented level of attention for little Slovenia—the decision not to send Zahovic home. The board of the Slovenian Football Federation (NZS) had made that call even though the team, according to Zahovic himself, per the Guardian, had backed Katanec in a dressing room meeting.

Alongside the decision, Wilson writes in Behind the Curtain, an embargo was placed by the NZS on all members of the Slovenia party in Korea, banning them from discussing the incident in the media.

The arch-narcissist Zahovic, though, knew only his own rule.

Katanec pictured in 2002
Katanec pictured in 2002ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/Getty Images

"People who dig a hole for others often end up falling in that hole themselves," he told an impromptu press conference later that day at the team's training camp on the island of Jeju, according to the Guardian. "Yes there were hard words exchanged, but I never mentioned [Katanec's] parents or their nationality. ... This has been going on a long time. ... He wanted to provoke my reaction from day one of the preparations."

That was enough for the NZS, which sent Zahovic home.

Rarely have two such high-profile men worked so hard to dodge culpability. In truth each had earned his share.

If Zahovic's barbs had been needlessly personal—and in the context of the brittle harmony that existed in post-independence Slovenia, the midfielder's accusations were at best recklessly insensitive—then Katanec's candour in sharing them with the world in the middle of the tournament set the whole thing spinning into irretrievable chaos.

Republic of Ireland, 2002 World Cup

The Slovenia affair was an uncomfortable reminder of the bile that had spilled from the feud between McCarthy and Keane just a couple of weeks earlier.

According to Keane's autobiography, it had begun for him as a gripe against what he perceived to be the Football Association of Ireland's (FAI) poor preparations at the team's training camp in Saipan.

NIIGATA - JUNE 1:  Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy during the 2002 FIFA World Cup - First Round, Group E match between the Republic of Ireland v Cameroon played at the Niigtata Prefectual Stadium, Niigata, Japan on June 1, 2002. The match ended
Stu Forster/Getty Images

Training kits had failed to arrive, the practice pitch was too hard to use, and Keane, already riled by what he perceived to have been shoddy travel arrangements from Dublin to Japan, was spitting feathers. At the end of the first day of training in Saipan, following a public row with goalkeeper Alan Kelly over Kelly's reluctance to take part in a five-a-side game, Keane took McCarthy to one side and told him he planned to leave the squad and return home.

After some quiet introspection, Keane reversed his decision, but not before giving an explosive interview with the Irish Times which laid the FAI's malaise bare for the world to see.

The result was the emergency team meeting called by McCarthy at which the manager received from his captain, according to striker Niall Quinn in the Irish magazine Hot Press, "the most surgical slaughtering anyone has ever got."

As McCarthy reeled from the 10-minute hurricane of abuse just delivered upon him—most of it not nearly as repeatable in polite company—the next words that mattered, according to Keane: The Autobiography, came from Keane's solicitor, Michael Kennedy. "You've been kicked out," he told his client over the phone.

Within an hour of the incident McCarthy—flanked by Quinn, his new captain Steve Staunton and goalkeeper Kelly, one of Keane's closer allies within the squad—was explaining to the world that the Manchester United midfielder had been dismissed from duty.

Keane promptly packed his bags and within 24 hours was on a plane out of Saipan, Ireland's training site. He was bound for Manchester, his World Cup over and, as recounted in the Guardian, a tempest of recriminations just beginning.

The parallels between Keane and Zahovic and Katanec and McCarthy are striking. Both players were the outstanding talents of their generation, genuine world stars in otherwise workmanlike teams who, for this reason and that, took exception to the men appointed to lead their respective countries.

Keane had never been settled with the idea of the English-born McCarthy as manager despite the latter's lengthy international career in Ireland green. Zahovic too used the ethnic background of the Ljubljanska Katanec, of Croatian heritage, to twist the knife into his nemesis, though he would later deny this was a factor in his dislike for the man.

Both players were almost pathological in their pursuit of excellence and saw the men appointed to lead their respective countries as unworthy of the responsibility.

France, 2010 World Cup

Shades indeed of Raymond Domenech, the fumbling fall guy of the French implosion in South Africa in 2010.

Whereas McCarthy and Katanec had each lost the respect of his talisman, Domenech blundered his way to an all-out mutiny within his squad, the players going as far as to call a strike against their flailing coach, refusing to train until Domenech agreed to revoke his decision to banish the ever-feisty Nicholas Anelka.

France's coach Raymond Domenech waves as he walks on the pitch prior to the start of the Group A first round 2010 World Cup football match France vs. South Africa on June 22, 2010 at Free State Stadium in Mangaung/Bloemfontein. NO PUSH TO MOBILE / MOBILE
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/Getty Images

There was no show of solidarity for Domenech, the like of which was afforded very publicly to his Irish and Slovenian counterparts, as France suffered one of the most ignominious exits in World Cup history.  


Ghana, 2014 World Cup

The prize for most wanton sabotage, though, surely goes to the Ghana team of 2014, who threatened strike action against their football association unless cash payment of bonuses was made before their final group game against Portugal.

Cue a convoy of Brazilian state police cars taxiing nearly $3 million in cash to Brasilia to head off the Ghanaians' threat to boycott their final game, money which remarkably was kept in the players' luggage while they crashed out of the World Cup with a 2-1 defeat.

"We love our nation and we are going to play for our nation," said midfielder Christian Atsu on the day the money touched down in Brazil from Ghana. If there has been a more disingenuous declaration of patriotism in the cause of a World Cup, it has not survived on the public record.

"It becomes very difficult to have a good tournament when these things are happening" says Hoekstra, the events of 20 years ago still percolating vivaciously in his mind. "It affects the spirit in the team and that has consequences on the pitch."

The collective record of these five squads at the affected tournaments makes for depressing reading. Slovenia lost all three games in South Korea, while Ghana and France were also eliminated at the group stage without a win to their name.

Between them, these countries managed two victories from 17 games, scoring 16 and conceding 24.

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