It sounded like the sort of harrowing experience a victim of a mafia attack might recall. In the dead of night, a sinister knock at the door to be told by a group of men that it was time to leave. Pack your things, you’re coming with us.
Yet this was the way Cameroon’s Italia 90 rejects were informed of their dismissal from the national squad for that summer’s World Cup. Russian manager Valery Nepomnyaschy would decide who to cut and perform the most brutal ‘knock and drop’ along with his coaches – gradually whittling down the numbers to a final 22.
“We arrived at breakfast and you’d see that one or two players weren’t there, tomorrow two more players [weren’t there]. Players disappeared one by one,” midfielder Emmanuel Maboang remembers in new book How to Win the World Cup.
“Every day I was counting ‘one, two, three… twenty-seven’, ‘one, two, three… twenty-five’ and you realised somebody has gone back last night. You couldn’t speak a lot because tomorrow it could be you, while everyone else is asleep, who is sent back in the night.
“Then one morning at 9am, he [Nepomnyaschy] said ‘congratulations’ and you saw you were in the 22.”
Nepomnyaschy’s unorthodox approach to squad selection might seem like the sort of thing that wouldn’t do much for team morale – especially considering he refused to divulge reasons for jilting players – but it did the Indomitable Lions no harm, as they beat holders Argentina in the tournament opener and became the first African quarter-finalists. The Russian would probably claim it kept his charges on their toes.
In truth, the history of the World Cup is punctuated with different ways to let dropped players down and there’s no good way to tell someone they won’t be going to the tournament. Thankfully, advances in technology mean the dreaded phone call is a much more painless method of sharing the bad news.
Back in the World Cup’s first year, the news didn’t always come from the coach. For Romania’s players in 1930, their fate was in the hands of King Carol II who picked the Tricolori squad that would spend two months playing and travelling to and from the inaugural tournament in Uruguay.
The monarch’s involvement possibly wasn’t as horrifying for boss Costel Radulescu as it may seem by modern standards, though. King Carol did make the picks, but partly because his political diplomacy was needed to secure the release of a large group of players who had initially been denied leave from the English oil company they worked for.
Radulescu wasn’t alone in not picking their own World Cup squad. It was commonplace for a pre-ordained selection committee representing the country’s FA to make the calls in the early years of international football.
One of the first coaches to stand up to that order was Italy’s Vittorio Pozzo, the only manager to retain the World Cup – albeit his two successes in 1934 and 1938 did come under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.
While there were rumours that the government’s preference was for only fascist party members to be selected, Pozzo was adamant making selection decisions on the basis of football was better. He even earned dispensation to call on players from Italy’s oriundi, a term used for non-nationals with Italian heritage.
Under contrasting circumstances, Sir Alf Ramsey made a similar demand to have full control of selection before taking the England manager’s job in 1963. Ramsey’s predecessor, Walter Winterbottom, would often have his starting XI chosen for him by a nine-man committee.
That paved the way for more managers to follow suit in the future, but moved the onus on to coaches to tell their players the bad news.
That can be particularly tricky when larger squads are taken to pre-tournament training camps, only to be told in the same environment that they won’t go on to the finals. Just ask Glenn Hoddle as he was met with an irate Paul Gascoigne after the midfielder was cut ahead of France 98.
“We heard it, we heard him smashing up the room – I think there were a few tables thrown,” says Rob Lee in How to Win the World Cup.
“As I went down the corridor to Glenn’s room, there was a big backlog of players. I was probably behind Alan [Shearer] or Teddy [Sheringham] and there was a big backlog, there must have been four, fix, six players and we knew something had kicked off – and obviously we knew it was Gazza.”
Hoddle had made his mind up the day before, but had delayed revealing his final selection because he wanted to speak to each player one-on-one to explain his decision. The trouble was, by setting a number of back-to-back appointments, it created an audience for the sort of explosive response Gazza gave.
Lee had suffered the same fate as his fellow midfielder when he was dropped from Terry Venables’ Euro 96 squad two years earlier and received the bad news while in China, so had to hang around before taking a 13-hour flight back to England. Perhaps there’s no good way to go.
“Out of the 22, there’s probably 15 or 16 who 100% know and the ret of you are thinking ‘it could be, it might not be’, you dread it,” Lee explains.
“In 96, we were all away in China playing a couple of games and the squad was announced while we were abroad and you got called to see Terry Venables. I still remember Bryan Robson [Venables’ assistant] coming and saying ‘Terry wants to see you’ and you know you’re in trouble. I had to a 13-hour flight back and it was just awful, absolutely dreadful.
“In 98, they [the dropped players] were quite lucky because the way Glenn did it, the five or so who weren’t in were quickly on the flight and away. That’s just the way the players will have wanted it, there’s no point hanging around if you’re not involved so it was quite a good way of doing it – and the camp was only a couple of hours away in La Manga.”
Unlike Hoddle, some managers shirk the personal touch completely and prefer to let the news settle in on its own. Some go down the old PE teacher route of pinning a squad list outside their office for players to learn their fate themselves, whereas France’s World Cup-winning boss Aime Jacquet went for an X Factor-style group announcement to tell dropped players en masse that they wouldn’t be in his squad in 1998.
For each decision and way to announce it, there are pros and cons. But whichever way a selection goes, there’s always bound to be fall out.