Published On: Fri, Jun 15th, 2018

3 teams Spain, Portugal could emulate in trying to endure off-the-pitch noise

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It wouldn’t be a proper World Cup without distractions looming ominously in the background. How fitting then that Spain and Portugal, set to square off in the tournament’s first heavyweight tilt Friday, were both forced to prepare amid tense background turmoil.

Zinedine Zidane’s unexpected resignation as Real Madrid manager kicked off a whirlwind of speculation, little of which involved Julen Lopetegui. Nevertheless, the Spain manager agreed to replace Zidane after the World Cup, unbeknownst to the Spanish Football Association. The RFEF sacked Lopetegui in response, replacing him with Fernando Hierro on the eve of the tournament.

Meanwhile, 630 kilometres away in Lisbon, Sporting CP, which enlists four of the national team’s players, is in a state of disarray. After being attacked by masked intruders at the club’s training ground, several players have submitted requests to unilaterally cancel their contracts with the club, though outspoken president Bruno de Carvalho has promised legal action in response.

While both teams are still expected to secure their spots in the knockout stage, the wrinkles of their off-the-field scandals could affect their World Cup journeys, as other nations came to realise in past editions.

Here are three national teams that suffered through controversies leading up to their World Cup campaigns.

Ireland – Keane erupts on McCarthy in Saipan (2002)

What happened: As the Republic of Ireland prepared for the 2002 World Cup, The Boys in Green trekked to the island of Saipan in the Pacific for some final training. Upon their arrival, however, captain Roy Keane was incredibly disappointed by the conditions of the team’s camp, and he aired his grievances in a candid interview with the Irish Times, courtesy of The Guardian.

That prompted Mick McCarthy, then Ireland’s manager, to confront Keane about the article, which led to one of the most infamous rows between player and manager that reportedly featured an onslaught of obscenities from Keane. The captain was subsequently sent home before the tournament began, and it took over two years before he played for Ireland again, well after McCarthy was dismissed from his post.

How the team fared: Despite losing its star player, Ireland made it out of the group stage, notching a memorable draw with eventual finalist Germany in the process, and only went out in the round of 16 after a penalty shootout loss to Spain. Despite performing admirably in its third World Cup campaign in four qualification attempts, Ireland has yet to appear in the tournament since.

Italy – Calciopoli (2006)

What happened: The footballing world was thrown upside down in 2006 when investigations unearthed the scandal that rocked Italian football. Infamously dubbed “Calciopoli,” the bombshell implicated five Serie A clubs – Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio, and Reggina – for their roles in match-fixing by hand-picking favourable referees.

Juventus, the two-time champion at the time, was hit with the harshest penalties, receiving instant relegation to Serie B and being stripped of its last two league titles. Milan, Lazio, and Fiorentina all escaped demotion but were hit with differing point penalties to begin next season, and the latter two were consequently bounced from their spots in European competition.

How the team fared: With the Calciopoli verdicts still lingering in the background – the punishments weren’t finalised until a month after the World Cup – Italy pulled off perhaps one of the greatest footballing runs in the face of adversity. It topped a tricky group consisting of Ghana, the Czech Republic, and the United States with ease before going on to eliminate Australia, Ukraine, and Germany in order, conceding just a single goal in its road to the final. There, it prevailed against France on penalties, earning its fourth World Cup title.

France – Les Bleus implode (2010)

What happened: France drew strong criticism following its qualification play-off against Ireland after Thierry Henry admitted to using his arm to keep the ball in play and set up William Gallas’ extra-time goal in the second leg that ultimately pushed the French through. Despite massive blowback from Ireland fans, France’s spot in the World Cup was confirmed, but a dark shadow appeared to now hang over its qualification. It didn’t take long for everything to come undone in the group stage.

After a scoreless opening draw with Uruguay, France was upset 2-0 by Mexico, and Nicolas Anelka unleashed a verbal tirade on manager Raymond Domenech during the loss at half-time. Anelka was then sent home by the French FA (FFF) for refusing to apologise for his comments, but his dismissal sparked a training boycott from the rest of the team, led by captain Patrice Evra, who was also caught in a heated exchange with a trainer. As a result, Evra was benched for the final group stage match, as were a number of other first-team players.

How the team fared: With a minute chance still of progressing from the group despite the chaos, France completed its dramatic collapse in the final match, losing 2-1 to host South Africa and assuring itself of a last-place finish with just one goal in three games. Domenech, whose tenure was already confirmed to be ending after the tournament, was subsequently replaced by Laurent Blanc, and the FFF suspended the entire World Cup squad for one game as a result.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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