Have you ever refused to go to work? Would you turn down the chance to represent your country? It’s rather simplistic to answer yes or no to either question without some context to guide us, but it’s amazing how often footballers have refused to play for their club or country for one reason or another. Some have, subjectively speaking, good reason for their refusal, whereas others have behaved like spoilt brats in effectively downing tools – from the list below, we’ll let you make your own minds up as to who fits in which category.
One major footballing boycott came to an end in September 2023 when members of the Spanish women’s team ended their lengthy absence from the international scene. As many as 15 players refused to appear for their national team until changes were made to the leadership of football in Spain, which makes the nation’s World Cup win that same year all the more incredible.
Those involved in the boycott would meet with officials from the Spanish football federation, and after a seven-hour pow-wow they eventually agreed to return to the international fold after being given assurances that the sport in Spain would be governed with a greater focus on equality and fairness. A happy ending – hopefully – to a long and drawn-out process. But these things don’t always end in such an agreeable way for all parties.
Has Anyone Ever Refused to Play at the World Cup?
As the pinnacle of football, you would think that anyone would be crackers not to want to play at the World Cup. But sometimes, that decision is taken unilaterally without any input from the players. For example, at the 1938 World Cup, both Argentina and Uruguay boycotted the tournament after FIFA decided to hold a second successive edition on European soil – namely France – as opposed to hosting the event in South America.
The Uruguayans had a habit back then of boycotting the World Cup. Back in 1930, when pub quiz fans will know that Uruguay won the inaugural edition of the tournament, only four teams from Europe travelled to play in the event hosted by the South American nation. So, in true ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’ fashion, defending champions Uruguay boycotted the 1934 edition in Italy in protest at the European apathy.
Incredibly, the 1934 World Cup saw the only boycott from England, Scotland, Wales and the-then allied Ireland – they had withdrawn their support from FIFA at the time over their, and this is genuinely how the World Cup was described by FA chief Charles Sutcliffe, ‘joke’ of a tournament.
The 1966 World Cup will forever be remembered in England as the ultimate edition – until they win another (if they do), of course, but for an entire continent it was a tournament to forget. This time it was Africa who boycotted the World Cup – as in literally the whole continent. After FIFA failed to hand any automatic qualification places to teams from Africa, they simply refused to play; the only time that an entire jurisdiction has declined an invitation to qualify for the event.
Sometimes even World Cup qualifiers are hampered by boycotts. When Scotland were scheduled to play Estonia in a qualifying game back in 1996, they complained to FIFA over the use of temporary floodlights at the Kadrioru Stadium in Tallinn which made it difficult for the Scots to see their teammates in their dark shirts. In an attempt at a compromise, FIFA said that the game could kick off in daylight hours instead – in protest, Estonia boycotted the game, allowing Scotland to claim victory by simply kicking off before the referee blew the full-time whistle.
Five Footballers That Have Refused to Play for Their Club
When agitating for a transfer for a new club, some players have decided simply not to bother playing for their present employer – not exactly in keeping with contract law, but every player knows it’s highly likely that their club would rather sell them than sack them and make no money.
1. Raheem Sterling
That was the thought process for Raheem Sterling, who decided that the best way to force through his desired move to Manchester City from Liverpool was to down tools and boycott the Reds altogether.
2. Dimitri Payet
If you’ve ever questioned the power that footballers wield over their clubs, look no further than former West Ham maestro, Dimitri Payet, for evidence of that. In January 2017, the Frenchman – a terrace hero for the Hammers – simply decided that he didn’t want to play for the London club anymore, citing the defensive style of boss, Slaven Bilic, as the reason. Fearing that an injury might ruin his chances of a transfer away, Payet boycotted training and refused to play in any games – he was sold to Marseille that very same month.
3. Kieron Dyer
Some players completely forget the ‘professional’ part of the role of professional footballer when it suits. In 2004, Kieron Dyer flatly refused to play on the right wing for Newcastle United – for him, it was central midfield or nothing. Bobby Robson didn’t give in to his demands, and so Dyer was handed a watching brief instead.
4. Cristiano Ronaldo
Sometimes, a player will turn up to a game with every intention of playing – before boycotting at some point during the action. In October 2022, Manchester United played Tottenham and, with just minutes left on the clock, Red Devils boss, Erik ten Hag, decided to substitute Cristiano Ronaldo onto the field.
But CR7 simply refused to come on, instead flouncing off down the touchline and into the changing rooms. His contract with United was mutually torn up just weeks later. And it’s not just the modern player that’s empowered enough to refuse to play.
5. George Best
Another legendary Manchester United winger, George Best, went on strike after the club’s then manager – Tommy Doherty – had the temerity to drop Best after he went on a three-day drinking binge. So tenacious was the Irishman that he never kicked a ball for United again. FIFA had to step in to secure his release from his contract, but Best was never the same player and saw out his career with a series of journeyman moves.