Off the Ball

Tunnel visions raise a smile

The teams of Germany and Nigeria are seen on their way to the pitch
© Getty Images

One of football’s principal rules is that a game lasts 90 minutes, with all the action of interest sandwiched between kick-off and the referee’s final whistle. In theory, anyway. In reality, every match gets under way long before the clock starts, as the players mingle in the corridor that leads to the pitch, before likewise ending on their route back to the dressing rooms. now recalls some of the legendary stories and myths surrounding incidents that took place even before the teams crossed the white line.

Call it intimidation, pressure or downright scare tactics, but provoking opponents in the tunnel has long been a strategy employed to eke out a psychological advantage in the run-up to a game. When the players in question also happen to be the captains of two Premier League heavyweights and neither are known as shrinking violets, then the reverberations are enough to shake the stadiums walls.

That was the case at Arsenal’s former stronghold, Highbury, when the famous marbled halls were rattled by the aftershocks of an altercation between Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane as fellow title contenders Manchester United came to town. Rushing to the aid of his team-mate Gary Neville, who was exchanging a few choice words with Vieira, Keane pointed to his opposite number and then to the end of the narrow corridor as he warned: “I’ll see you out there. Shut your mouth, you. Every week you pretend you’re a nice guy.” That animated discussion has gone down in Premier League history, and although Vieira went on to open the scoring, it was the Red Devils who came out on top with a 4-2 success at the home of their rivals.

That tale no doubt rings true for another French player, defender Basile Boli, who was also renowned for his committed approach to the game. Before an encounter with Nantes during the 1980s, the Auxerre centre-back was entrusted with the task of keeping prolific Yugoslavian strikerVahid Halilhodzic quiet. “I won my match in the tunnel,” explained the future UEFA Champions League winner a few years later. “We were side by side in the tunnel and I said to him: ‘You’re a dead man.’ I scared the hell out of him and he did nothing all match.”

Intimidation is an integral part of football in South America too, and nowhere more so than Uruguay. La Celeste’s reputation as a team that never shies away from a challenge was cemented in the away dressing room at the Maracana ahead of the deciding match of the 1950 FIFA World Cup™. Fully aware that they were massive underdogs and overwhelmed by the 203,850 Brazil supporters who had come to watch them lose, Uruguay’s players were readying themselves to be undone by the Seleçao.

I won my match in the tunnel. We were side by side in the tunnel and I said to him: ‘You’re a dead man.’

Obdulio Varela saw things differently, however. “Don’t think about all those people and don’t look up,” the team captain ordered his compatriots before they took to the field. “The match will happen down here, on the ground, and if we win nothing will happen. Matches are won with guts and feet.” When the final whistle blew, it was Uruguay who were crowned world champions, while the whole of Brazil wept.

A few days previously, however, it was Brazil who benefitted from a pre-match incident, when Yugoslavia’s best player Rajko Mitic had the misfortune to walk into a girder and cut his head open. That left the European side starting with ten men against the hosts, and by the time their star striker could enter the fray with his head in bandages, they had already conceded a goal to Ademir and were heading for a 2-0 reverse.

Stadium corridors can clearly be dangerous places, and half a century after Mitic’s malaise, Scottish midfielder Michael Stewart failed to heed the lesson. Sent off against Hamilton Academical, the Hearts captain made the rash decision to vent his anger by kicking the tunnel wall, only to slip and end up writhing in pain on the ground. Hearts were also involved when a referee sparked amusement in the stands by electrocuting himself on his earpiece during a match against Celtic. Thankfully, no lasting damage was done.

As for Celtic themselves, the history of the Glasgow giants was indelibly marked by a tunnel episode on their way to becoming the first British club to win a European trophy. Up against 1964 and 1965 European and world champions Inter Milan in Lisbon, Celtic looked to be major outsiders ahead of the 1967 showpiece. "There they were, all six-footers with Ambre Solaire suntans, Colgate smiles and sleek-backed hair," recalled the team's star winger, Jimmy 'Jinky' Johnstone. "Each and every one of them looked like the film star Cesar Romero. They even smelled beautiful! And there's us lot - midgets! I've got no teeth, Bobby Lennox hasn't any, and old Ronnie Simpson's got none, top or bottom. The Italians are staring down at us and we're grinning back up at them with our great gumsy grins. We must have looked like something out of the circus!"

Unperturbed, Bertie Auld opted to respond with a stirring burst of melody. The midfielder launched into the club anthem, the Celtic Song, and his team-mates followed suit, to the general surprise of the Nerazzurri. "You should have seen the expressions on the Italians' faces," chuckled captain Billy McNeill. "I think they thought they were playing a pub team!" The Serie A titans were left stunned after the final whistle too as the scoreboard told of a 2-1 victory for their Scottish opponents, and the legend of the Lisbon Lions was born.

English side Liverpool have now won Europe’s most prestigious prize five times and have long been recognised as giants of the continental game. One of the most enduring facets of their aura is the ‘This is Anfield’ sign that greets players in the tunnel just before they head out on to the pitch. Designed to faze visiting teams, it also serves to motivate the Reds themselves, with tradition dictating that each player touch the inscription for good luck. Beaten 3-1 by Liverpool at Anfield after having triumphed 1-0 at home in 1977, Saint-Etienne were perhaps persuaded by that experience to install a sign of their own, and the tunnel of their Stade Geoffroy-Guichard home now boasts the message 'Ici c’est le chaudron' (This is the Cauldron).

The Italians are staring down at us and we're grinning back up at them with our great gumsy grins. We must have looked like something out of the circus!

Former St-Etienne youth prospect Gregory Coupet is another player with a tunnel story, as he owed his lengthy and successful stint with local rivals Lyon to an incident behind the scenes. The current Paris Saint-Germain custodian was in fact recruited by OL in 1997 as a replacement for Pascal Olmeta, his predecessor having been sacked by the club following a clash in the tunnel with team-mate Jean-Luc Sassus.

Nowadays, Lyon are more likely to stand united than divided in the corridors of a stadium. After their excellent recent draw at Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League first knockout round, the French club’s Argentinian duo Lisandro Lopez and Cesar Delgado made a point of reminding Real defender Sergio Ramos of his pre-match prediction. “Hey, you, didn’t you say you’d win 3-0?” they asked. In the wake of Lyon’s 1-0 home leg win, the Spanish international had indeed foreseen a straightforward success for his side at the Santiago Bernabeu, but while he was forced to eat his words, he nonetheless treated his giddy opponents to a different take on the moral of the story. “You have to know how to lose but you also have to know how to win,” he told them.

Better known for his exploits with the ball at his feet, Los Merengues legend Alfredo Di Stefano could also impress away from the action. Heading into a European Cup meeting with Nice at Madrid’s old Chamartin stadium in 1960, his colleague Rial was determined to wipe out their 3-2 away-leg setback and told Di Stefano of his hunger to “win big”. The Blond Arrow replied: “First, we’re going to eat. Only after that will we think about chocolate.” Real won the match 4-0, having consumed both main course and dessert.

A few years later, Di Stefano was seeing out the twilight of his career at Espanyol. Less influential on the pitch, he could nonetheless still make waves in the tunnel and did just that during a fixture against Levante in 1964/65. Sent off, he treated Levante’s technical secretary Ramon Balaguer to a loud slap that echoed through the Estadio Vallejo as he trudged back to the dressing room.

Another Argentinian to have served the Espanyol cause, Pablo Cavallero had a friend who was a fan of the Dutch striker and then Barcelona marksman Patrick Kluivert. Ahead of a Barcelona city derby he asked Kluivert if they could swap shirts after the game, and made a point of repeating his request during added time. As the final whistle blew, Cavallero chased the former Ajax star down the tunnel to remind him of his promise. “Honestly, I was a bit embarrassed but once again I asked him: ‘Patrick, Patrick, your shirt!’” recalled the former Periquitos goalkeeper afterwards. “He gave it to me and just as I was about to take mine off to exchange it, he said: ‘No, no. that’s OK; keep it.’ I doubt he even knew my name.”

Kluivert’s predecessor at the Camp Nou, Romario, could be just as dismissive – even of his own team-mates. Ahead of his Liga debut, the Brazilian international was offered some friendly words of advice by goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta but took none too kindly to the lessons on offer. “Wait, you’re going to teach me how to score goals?” asked O Baixinho. Some 90 minutes later, Barça were toasting a 3-0 victory earned courtesy of a Romario hat-trick.

That irreverent approach has spectacularly backfired on occasion, though, as Brazil’s women’s team discovered during the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in Shanghai. The Auriverde's bout of dancing and singing in the tunnel ahead of the showpiece encounter clearly irritated final opponents Germany, giving the Europeans another source of motivation as they geared up for a 2-0 success.

Lastly, while there is always plenty happening in the tunnel, it is always wise to choose the right moment before making it your destination. Former UEFA President Lennart Johansson found that out to his enormous chagrin after leaving his seat in the 90th minute of the 1999 Champions League final. Heading down to hand Bayern Munich the trophy, with the Bundesliga side leading 1-0 at the death, he passed Bobby Charlton in the bowels of the Camp Nou and told the Manchester United icon: “I’m sorry.” By the time he had left the tunnel again, United were winning 2-1 and about to clinch victory thanks to a pair of strikes in added time.

Recommended Stories

Tunnel Stories

Live Scores

Tunnel Stories

02 Apr 2010