The World Cup is just days away and for many footballers, it will represent the pinnacle of their career. For Paolo Guerrero though, his dream lies in tatters. The Peru striker is in danger of missing the tournament due to a preposterous drugs ban
He tested positive for the benzoylecgonine – the main metabolite of cocaine – after drinking a contaminated tea containing it and received a 12-month suspension from FIFA, later reduced to six months on appeal when it was acknowledged that he had unknowingly ingested the substance. When he took the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, they stretched the ban to 14 months, once again ruling Guerrero out of the summer showpiece despite accepting that he wasn’t using benzoylecgonine for physical gain.
For a country with the size and history of Peru (their last World Cup appearance was in 1982), it is a crushing blow. 16 years ago, the Republic of Ireland were deprived of their star player in the build-up under many different circumstances. Roy Keane was primed to lead Ireland on the world stage in Japan and South Korea, but a long-standing feud erupted on a remote island and ruined everything.
The Saipan story may have taken place in 2002, but its first chapter was penned a decade beforehand in Boston. Jack Charlton was in the last phase of his term as Ireland manager and there was a changing of the guard within the squad. Many of the players who were central to qualifying for Euro ‘88 and Italia ‘90 successively were nearing the end and a new generation had broken through, including a headstrong young midfielder then at Nottingham Forest.
Ireland missed out on that summer’s European Championships in Sweden, so instead participated in a four-team invitational across the Atlantic. At the conclusion of the money-spinning exhibition, the Irish team went out on the beer. The following morning, the squad were due to fly home, but Keane and Steve Staunton carried on where they’d left off at the hotel bar and were late for the airport bus. Charlton berated them for their timekeeping, only for Keane to bite back. When the bus set off, McCarthy chimed in and claimed Keane was out of order. Keane’s response was blunt.
“Go fuck yourself captain fantastic.”
When McCarthy was brought in to replace Charlton after the Englishman had retired, he extended the olive branch and even named Keane skipper. The player was still unhappy, challenging McCarthy and regularly taking aim at the Football Association of Ireland over what he perceived as an amateurish set up by comparison to what he was familiar with at his club Manchester United. His main bone of contention related to the travel arrangements, which situated the players in the cramped seats at the back of planes while the FAI board members wined and dined in first class.
By the time the qualification campaign for 2002 began, the level of notoriety Keane had attained at home was almost incomparable. Think Conor McGregor, only in the world’s most recognisable sport. He was the best player at one of the biggest clubs and led United to the treble in 1999. His face adorned billboards and everywhere he went he was bombarded with attention.
Ireland was drawn in a daunting group with Netherlands and Portugal. Keane’s performances in that campaign were the stuff of legend though. He guided them through tough encounters in Amsterdam and Lisbon unbeaten, before scoring in a 1-1 draw against the Portuguese in Dublin.
In the last group match with the Oranje, Keane set the tone early on by crunching Marc Overmars in a challenge which would probably warrant a red card in modern football. He then produced one of the great individual displays in a green shirt – tackling, hustling, passing, blocking, winning the ball back in one half before creating in the other. Every time a Dutch player turned, Keane was in their face, snapping at their heels and chipping away at their psyche.
It was one of those relentless runs which led to Jason McAteer’s decisive goal. Ireland held on with ten men to win 1-0 and earn a playoff spot, effectively eliminating Louis Van Gael’s side in the process. As the Irish players and supporters celebrated deliriously, McCarthy left the sea of bodies to offer Keane his hand. Keane, topless and clutching a Dutch jersey, shook it tepidly in response and quite noticeably turned his head in the opposite direction. It was the most nakedly clear sign yet of the contempt the player held for his manager.
Ireland qualified by edging Iran 2-1 in the playoffs. Keane started the first leg in Dublin but missed the second after a prior arrangement with Alex Ferguson and his club to allow him to rehab a hip injury. It was an issue which would rear its head again.
As the World Cup neared, the leading nations finalised their preparations close to the tournament venues. The FAI in their infinite wisdom decided to send the Irish team to Saipan – a dormant volcanic island previously known as the last line of defence for the Japanese in World War II. The purpose of the trip was essentially for the players to rest and relax after a long club season, but Keane – who was aiming to win the whole thing – disapproved of the facilities and set up. “Someone has to hold their hands up. It’s like training on a car park.”
To compound his frustrations, the training kits and balls hadn’t shown up. He threatened to leave, but an eleventh-hour intervention from Alex Ferguson convinced him to change his mind. A few days after, Keane sat down for an interview with journalist Paul Kimmage and his rage still hadn’t subsided. Kimmage agreed to let Tom Humphries of the Irish Times join the discussion on the provision that they held their pieces off until his Sunday column went live. Humphries reneged on the deal and the Irish Times published their version in which Keane outlined all of the issues he had.
The interview was taken as an affront to the team by McCarthy, who confronted Keane in a squad meeting in front of all his teammates with a copy of the newspaper demanding answers. McCarthy then accused Keane of faking an injury so he could miss the second leg of the play-off against Iran, which prompted Keane to launch a merciless tirade in McCarthy’s direction.
“Mick, you’re a liar…you’re a fucking wanker. I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager, and I don’t rate you as a person. You’re a fucking wanker and you can stick your World Cup up your arse. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your bollocks.”
Later that day, McCarthy announced to a stunned press conference that he had sent Keane home. What ensued was unprecedented. The incident garnered astonishing levels of media attention and it was the only story on news bulletins. In what was akin to civil war, families were divided, friends fell out and the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was even brought in to try to broker Keane’s return. The player himself gave an interview to state broadcaster RTE and was clearly hurting, but stood by his principals. Ireland would go on without him at the tournament though and reached the last 16, losing to Spain on penalties. In retrospect, many pondered how far they could have gone had Keane played.
After the World Cup finished, Keane was exiled and only returned two years later, long after McCarthy had departed the manager’s role. The FAI commissioned an external review of the tournament titled ‘the Genesis Report’, and the results were in line with much of Keane’s criticisms, finding that the FAI’s structure wasn’t conducive to proper planning and preparation in a team environment. Despite his reintegration to the set up in 2004, Keane would never play at a World Cup again and Ireland would have to wait until Euro 2012 to qualify for another major tournament. Later in ITV’s ‘Best of Enemies’ documentary on the Keane-Patrick Vieira rivalry, Keane admitted his regret at not playing in 2002.
“To play in the World Cup. It would have been nice to play. A lot of people were disappointed, particularly my family.”
You get the sense it still eats away at him all these years later. It could have been oh so different.