RIO DE JANEIRO — The World Cup hasn’t even begun and already there’s been a training ground run-in between two Dutch players and Cameroon’s entire team delayed its flight to Brazil in a dispute over their tournament bonus.
Prodigious talent often goes hand-in-hand with oversized egos and managing them can be a fulltime job for team leaders in the pressure-cooker environment of the sport’s showcase event.
Sometimes, players’ feelings need as much massaging as their muscles.
“Conflict is inevitable,” sports psychologist Bradley Busch of London-based mental skills training company Inner Drive said Monday. “It is what the team then does with it that is important.”
Disputes among players or between teams and coaching staff are nothing new at major tournaments.
The Dutch were in the eye of the storm at the 1996 European Championship, with coach Guus Hiddink sending home pugnacious midfielder Edgar Davids from England after a profanity-laced outburst accusing him of being a stooge for veteran players.
Dutch media reported that the squad was divided between a young group of aspiring greats like Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Michael Reiziger and Patrick Kluivert rebelling against established stars like Danny Blind, Dennis Bergkamp and Ronald de Boer. Ironically, Blind and Kluivert are now senior members of Louis van Gaal’s technical staff in Rio.
But it’s not just a Dutch problem.
Four years ago in South Africa, France had a meltdown for the ages thanks to disputes between players and coach Raymond Domenech.
The team shocked the nation and provoked the ire of politicians and fans alike by refusing to train after Nicolas Anelka had been sent home for insulting Domenech during halftime of France’s second group game against Mexico.
Domenech later called the players “a bunch of irresponsible, stupid brats.”
Coaches might not always be so candid about how they feel, but they must know about possible conflicts and deal with them if they are to get through weeks of intensive preparations and must-win matches at the World Cup.
“Everyone has their own reputation and personality and agendas. In one squad, you have 23 of these so I think tensions will inevitably arise,” Busch said. “Over the course of a tournament it is important to have good, clear communication and processes where people can talk freely and honestly and not see it as a personal attack.”
Cameroon’s refusal to fly to Brazil until their bonuses were raised — the national football association had to take out a loan to cover the demands — could have been about more than money.
“If you feel like your status is being undermined, that sets alarm bells ringing,” Busch said.
The squad finally arrived in Brazil on Monday, just four days ahead of the team’s World Cup opener against Mexico.
Among other notable sporting spats, Portugal players famously rebelled ahead of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico in a dispute over money and the United States flopped at France in 1998.
The American team was riven by infighting in France and lost all three of its games. Players were highly critical of coach Steve Sampson, who had surprisingly dropped captain John Harkes two months before the tournament. Sampson later said he axed his captain because Harkes was having an affair with the wife of teammate Eric Wynalda. Harkes has long denied the affair.
These days, most teams travel with sports psychologists to help players deal with the pressures they face. One of the first to do so was Brazil when it traveled to Sweden for the 1958 tournament. The move paid immediate dividends, with Brazil becoming world champion for the first time. Of course, the team didn’t only take a psychologist; it also included a 17-year-old kid called Pele in the squad.
Ahead of this tournament, the Netherlands’ Bruno Martins Indi made no secret of his spat with Arjen Robben after the two clashed Sunday on the sun-drenched training pitch of Rio club Flamengo, but he said there would be no lingering bad blood.
“We’ll leave it for what it is,” the Feyenoord defender said.
The Dutch incident may even be a good sign — that the team desperately wants to win the World Cup for the first time after a hat trick of second-place finishes in 1974, ‘78 and 2010.
“If that is based on everyone wanting to train hard and intense because that is the team values, then it is easy to overcome,” Busch said.