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10 World Cup scandals that shocked Planet Football

Diego Maradona USA '94

From fixing to failed drug tests, bloodthirsty battles to player revolts, Jon O'Brien looks at the events which have dragged the game's biggest tournament into dispute

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10. The jobsworth referee

Nicknamed ‘The Book’ for his jobsworth approach to refereeing, Welsh official Clive Thomas took pedantry to new heights during Brazil and Sweden’s opening World Cup game in 1978. With the score 1-1 at the end of normal time, the South Americans looked to have netted a 91st-minute winner when Zico connected with Nelinho’s corner.

However, while Thomas had allowed Brazil to take the corner, he’d actually blown his whistle when the ball was in mid-air, having determined that exactly 15 seconds of stoppage time was more than adequate. Despite being sent home by FIFA for his ridiculously precise sense of timekeeping, Thomas remained unrepentant, later insisting that Zico was “possibly only four-tenths of a second too late, but too late nevertheless”.

9. Maradona’s failed dope test

Maradona’s fall from World Cup grace in 1994 didn’t exactly come as a shock to anyone who'd witnessed his celebration against Greece. The pumped-up Argentine’s wild eyes almost popped out of his head as he stared intensely down the camera during his side’s 4-0 Group A victory.

Following their subsequent victory over Nigeria, Maradona – who'd already served a 15-month ban for failing a drug test for cocaine – once again found himself at the centre of a drug scandal. This time around he’d tested positive for ephedrine, a substance which the playmaker claimed he’d unknowingly ingested when his trainer unwittingly gave him the wrong energy drink. FIFA didn’t buy it, and sent him home with his reputation in tatters once again.

8. The French revolt

You can usually rely on the French to bring some drama, but South Africa 2010 was something else. Their summer of discontent began the night before their opening game when Florent Malouda nearly came to blows with boss Raymond Domenech. Things got worse after an uninspiring 45 minutes against Mexico when Nicolas Anelka told Domenech to: “Go f*** yourself you son of a w****” at half-time.

The striker was subsequently sent home by the French Football Federation, much to the dismay of his team-mates who staged a highly public protest the next day. Led by captain Patrice Evra, the mutiny led to every single player abandoning an open training session and head for the team bus, where they hastily prepared a statement declaring their opposition to Anelka’s expulsion.

The FFF’s decision stood and, after losing their final game to hosts South Africa, all 23 squad members received a one-match suspension.   

FEATURE High farce and high treason in the Highveld: France at World Cup 2010

7. The Ronaldo mystery

Having scored four goals and created three assists during his journey to the 1998 final, Ronaldo was poised to become Brazil’s greatest World Cup hero since Pele. But only 72 minutes before the biggest match of his career, the striker’s name was removed from the starting line-up.

Just as the news began to ripple around the world, Ronaldo was suddenly reinstated. The visibly dazed striker spent the following 90 minutes a shadow of his former glorious self, with hosts France taking full advantage to win 3-0.

It was later revealed that Ronaldo had suffered a seizure just hours before kick-off, but had reportedly pleaded with coach Mario Zagallo to let him play at the last minute. That didn’t stop the conspiracy theories, though, with a nervous breakdown, FIFA fix and a botched injection just some of the more enduring tales bandied about.   

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6. The alleged fix

Argentina’s 1978 World Cup campaign on home soil also spawned a wave of conspiracy theories, largely thanks to their second-round 6-0 thrashing of Peru. Many believe the Argentine government interfered to ensure that the hosts achieved the four-goal victory they needed to progress.

Peru had conceded only six goals across their previous five games, which made their sudden collapse all the more suspicious. A significant shipment of grain to the country, the unfreezing of a bank account, release of 13 exiled dissidents and a plain old-fashioned financial bribe have all been cited as a major influence on the result. But 40 years on, there hasn’t been a shred of hard evidence to back up a single one.