What does being left out of a World Cup team look like?
It’s been more than 12 years since Sasha Kelgestan walked into a conference room a few hours after midnight in a hotel in Hartford, Connecticut and saw all of the US men’s national team coaching staff.
However, as he headed home from LA Galaxy training on a Monday afternoon last September, Kljestan’s voice cracked and then paused as he recalled the scene.
He said, “Sorry, I’m going to get emotional.”
This week, players from 32 countries around the world received the worst news of their careers: They will not be playing in the 2022 World Cup. For some, that will be the closest they get to the biggest stage of the game. For others, it will be a stimulating moment that fuels future success.
With the 26-man expected picks up and shouting about who should be on the team and not, it’s easy to forget that for some of the players involved, this week will crystallize in deep disappointment. It’s a moment that many careless players can’t get rid of completely, no matter how much time has passed. The feeling in their stomach is still there years later.
“You’re just working on something really hard and you’ve got these big dreams,” Klestan said. “And then it’s like… you can’t do that.”
The spectrum of sentiment has already been clarified this week as several World Cup nations have begun to announce their rosters.
After the Brazil announcement, a video went viral showing Fiorentina striker Pedro dropping to his knee to propose to his girlfriend who joined the team. A few hours later, pictures emerged of Atletico Madrid’s Matthews Kona quietly standing alone outside a building, peering through a window after receiving the bad news related to the failure to make the same roster.
Really sad to see Matthews being like this. I’m sure he picked the right European club to go to rather than Atletico Madrid, he’d be on that list too. pic.twitter.com/5iJMZVtXxp
– Brazil football 🇧🇷 (BrasilEdition) November 7 2022
Two of the most famous stories on the World Cup roster lie on both sides of the Atlantic with the two teams facing Group B on November 25: the United States and England.
In 1994, after going through a few months of grueling training, defender Jeff Agus was not included in the United States’ home squad that summer. It was so devastating that it burned down the national team’s training set.
“The amount of physical and mental pain and anguish we went through to get to that place, it was two years—maybe not hell, but it was a lot of work,” Agus said. “To finish it at that point and not make it a challenge for me. It was really hard.
“I was taking a shower, and I didn’t want to see (the training set) anymore. I was putting it in the trash at first. (burning it in the heater) I just wanted to move on from that as fast as I could.”
Agus went on to make the 1998 and 2002 World Cup squads in the United States, starting all three group matches in South Korea as the United States reached the quarter-finals.
In 1998, England star Paul Gascoigne was left out of Glenn Hoddle’s squad. Gascoigne starred at the 1990 World Cup and at Euro 96, and the players remembered hearing the scattered furniture when he received the news that he would not go to the finals in France at a pre-tournament training camp.
For Phil Neville, who played in three European Championships with England (1996, 2000, 2004) but was left out of three World Cup teams, including Hoddle’s in 1998, Gascoigne’s exclusion exacerbated the situation.
“I just remember being handed a piece of paper with the details of my flight home,” Neville said. “I can’t even remember what Glenn told me.”
“We all got our 10 minute intervals and then waited to go see Glenn Hoddle one by one. Glenn thought a lot about it—and maybe if Paul Gascoigne hadn’t been one of the six disqualified, it would have been easier.” Ian Walker, Andy Hincliffe, Nicky Butt, Dion Dublin and me, we were really good players and we were all really disappointed, but we wouldn’t cause problems, while the fact that Jazza was one of the six made her more open to criticism.”
Twenty years later, the first World Cup cut with Neville was cut as he sat across from the desk.
As manager of the England women’s national team, Neville had to go through a round of cuts ahead of the 2019 World Cup in France. Talk with Olympic coaches about how they handle cutbacks for their teams to try to understand if there’s an ideal way to handle the process. Of course, he had his own experiences to draw from – his meeting with Hoddle and two phone calls from then England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson before the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.
On the surface, Neville said, it looks like it would be the best one-on-one route to pass the news in person. In fact, it is not so simple.
“I went through three cycles, after being told yes or no over 10 years and then becoming a manager, I realized there’s probably no good way to tell you that you’re not on the team,” Neville said.
“Being told face to face is fine. But what was difficult was the cold weather afterwards. You were told and then I had to go downstairs and get on the bus and go to an airport to go back to England. It was difficult, especially when I was a young player at the time.
“I felt so cold. I didn’t feel like I had any time to comprehend the scale of it – of not going to the World Cup – before I got on the bus and got turned away.”
It ended up with Neville surveying the candidates for the England squad for 2019 on how they would like to get the news delivered. The players voted for an early morning email, with a window to meet the coaches that afternoon.
This World Cup offers a different situation to coaches.
With the tournament taking place in the middle of the season for many clubs, the national teams do not set up their traditional camps before the World Cup. As such, players are notified of their choice, by phone, email, or even live broadcast while the roster announcements are broadcast.
According to multiple sources, American coach Greg Berhalter began informing the players this week of whether they had joined the squad ahead of the official announcement on Wednesday.
Earlier this year, Berhalter spoke about how he handled those calls.
“What I would say is that we are going to take the decisions very seriously,” Berhalter said. “We are constantly trading. We will feel bad for (some) men and happy for other men.
“It’s an emotional process where we care about every one of our players in the group of players. We care about every player who’s been on the field or has been on our training ground since we got involved in 2019. And it’s never easy conversations. But, in the end, we try to do what we feel is The best for the team and the team will always be the most important thing.”
It’s an admission that no matter how the news is delivered, devastation is hard to avoid. Juan Carlos Osorio, who coached Mexico at the World Cup in Russia 2018, summed up the impossible nature of the task.
“It is very difficult to interrupt a person’s dreams,” Osorio said. “I think there is no other decision more difficult than this.”
Former American defender Michael Parkhurst was among those dropped from the squad in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The decision came suddenly from then-head coach Jürgen Klinsmann in the first part of the camp. The team had just finished a training session at Stanford University when Klinsmann began making the cuts, notorious for removing American star Landon Donovan from the team.
Parkhurst knew he was on the bubble, but held on to a level of hope.
“It is clear that everyone’s dream is to reach the World Cup,” he said. “And I knew very well that this would be my only chance. I was 30 years old.”
The players realized cuts were made that day after training, but Parkhurst didn’t see Klinsmann, so he headed to a session at the gym after the workout. Approaching the locker room after returning from practice, the manager was waiting for him at the door.
Like Neville, there was a juxtaposition between being told – Parkhurst appreciated the individual style Klinsmann chose – and then dealing with the fallout in a somewhat awkward place.
“It was tough,” Parkhurst said. “I had to go into the locker room (after) and take a shower and change. It’s hard because you’re there and obviously very frustrated, but at the same time you’re with guys trying to (manage) their enthusiasm. … You want to wish them well at the World Cup, But you are emotionally conflicted about what’s going on.”
Like Parkhurst, Kelgestan knew he was on the bubble during the American camp ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. His former teammate, Jesse Marsh, was an aide on coach Bob Bradley’s crew and told him where he was standing at camp. Kljestan knew he had to jump on other players to make up the team.
After a 4-2 defeat to the Czech Republic in late May, Bradley decided to finish his squad for the tournament starting in mid-June.
“We were all expecting the cuts would happen maybe a week later, and I think after that match he had already made up his mind, so they kind of told us to hang out after dinner, we can call you guys out later,” recalls Kljestan.
“And then I just remember as if I was sitting in my room… It must have been like 2 am at this point. I got a call to my room from my team manager, Pam Perkins. And she was just like, ‘Oh, there’s going to be a meeting in the dining room.'” You can go down. I booked it right away. I couldn’t wait to find out what was going on somehow. And I was the first one there in the dining room and all the coaches were sitting there and I was like, I don’t think that’s a good sign.”
Kljestan paused to gather himself.
And then they said, ‘Oh, we’ll wait for the other six.’ But I was like, ‘Okay, now I know I’m one of the seven that won’t go.’ And I was like, ‘Do I really need to wait that long?’ And they were like, ‘No,’ You can go,” and they were basically like, “Listen, you don’t make the team,” and they shook my hand and that was it. And that was like the worst moment ever.”
Kljestan returned to his room and was comforted by goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who was his roommate, and the other players. Marsh paused to do the same.
Guzan, who was on two US teams for the World Cup (2010 and 2014), remembers how helpless he felt trying to offer any kind of real consolation to Klestan. That moment stuck with him as well, and confirmed the sheer scale of these decisions.
“The fact that he’s still emotional about it to this day shows you what it means for players to be able to represent your country at the World Cup,” Guzan said.
However, Kelgeistan felt as if he had taken something important away from the moment. He would never compete in the World Cup, but just weeks after Bradley’s decision, he was transferred from Chivas USA, then based in Los Angeles, to Anderlecht, Belgium, and was cruising down a path that saw him play for 12 more seasons — and counting.
In other words, the worst moment in your career doesn’t have to be a defining moment.
“The moral of the story is that my career after that moment was 10 times better than my career before that moment,” said Klestan. “I didn’t let it drag me down, you know? I just think we have so many ups and downs in our jobs and so many big moments in our careers, but you can never let one moment define you.
“It sounds cliched, but that was the worst moment of my career emotionally and after that I still played a lot of matches for the national team, and I still had a great career. I went and played in the Champions League. I am very proud of the way I handled that moment. And I think maybe not everyone has the same reaction and that’s holding them back a little bit.
“I would just say that you can’t let down a single moment that will derail what you believe in yourself and what you can achieve in your career.”
Writers Oliver Kaye, Felipe Cardenas and Pablo Maurer contributed to this story.
(Top image by Landon Donovan and Sacha Kljestan: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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