The FIFA World Cup begins Friday in South Africa, and nerves are as frayed as the tail end of a menacing lightning bolt. Coaches, players and fans feel anxious about their team's chances in the grandest sporting event of all.
To calm their anxieties, some coaches recently met with renowned French sports psychologist Dr. Pierre-Klouseau (P.K.) Freeqique at his reputable clinic in Johannesburg. Coaches of such high stature rarely gather in a collective group therapy session. But they were desperate.
Vincente del Bosque, the coach of Spain, spoke first. Spain has never won the World Cup despite boasting some of the top players in the world. They won the 2008 European championships and are once again a tournament favorite.
"We have never played past the quarterfinals in a World Cup," he said. "I have never felt such unbearable pressure. I worry that we will once again not live up to our expectations. How do I deal with this?"
"Focus only on things you can control," Dr. Freeqique said. "Are your tactics sound? Have you prepared well? If you can answer 'yes' to those questions, then you will do well."
"But I keep having the same bad dream," the coach said. "We lose in the quarterfinals, again. I am a bludgeoned bull in a bullfight, and the matador is Cristiano Ronaldo."
"Try positive imagery," the doctor said. "Imagine you're being carried off the field by your team after winning the championship. Picture Fernando Torres scoring a hat trick in a semifinal win over Brazil. Mr. Maradona, you've won a World Cup. Perhaps you can offer some advice for Mr. del Bosque."
Diego Maradona is the most revered player in Argentina history and is now the team's beleaguered coach (the team made it to the final on the last day of qualifying). He scored five times when Argentina won the 1986 World Cup, one with the help of his hand famously called the "hand of God" goal. Maradona, as renowned in the past for his reckless, drug-and alcohol fueled behavior off the field as for his magical moments on it, spoke in an irritated tone.
"I don't remember a thing about the '86 tournament," he said with remorse. "I was so high I swear God reached out of a cloud and handed that ball to me on a rhinestone platter when I scored that goal in the quarterfinals against England. Everything was a blur. Sorry, I can't help much."
"That must have been quite a moment," Dr. Freequique said. "So, Mr. Maradona, why are you here today? Are you still hallucinating?"
"No, I wish," he said. "This is much worse. I'm concerned that after this tournament I will no longer be considered the greatest Argentine player of all time. Our superstar, Lionel Messi, is ready to have the best tournament in history. I want to win the Cup, but I don't want Lionel to do so well. Is it okay to think like this?"
"No, Mr. Maradona, it is not," the doctor said. "You need to grow up."
"But I have lived like a child all my life," Maradona said. "How do I do this?"
"Think of others more than yourself," Dr. Freequique said. "Open your heart and share good feelings with others. Open your mind; enjoy positive thoughts about those you envy."
Another coach chuckled with incredulity before speaking.
"Remember, this is Maradona," England manager Fabio Capello said. "He leaves the perch of superiority as eagerly as the Queen quaffs a pint of Budweiser beer."
"Gentlemen, please," the doctor said. "There's no need for criticism. Let's embrace a mutual respect for each other. Mr. Capello, what are your concerns?"
"I feel like I've lost control of my team," he said. "My captain slept with the fiance of another player. The media treat us like a pile of rotten Hagus. We have so many injuries we're spending half of our budget on physios and pain killers. And we haven't won this thing since 1966. I don't know what to do."
Dr. Freeqique felt England's coach needed positive reinforcement. "Mr. Capello, you have a history of success," he said. "You've won the Serie A seven times, two La Liga championships, a Champions League title. England cruised through qualifying. Focus on your accomplishments and how you achieved them, and they will guide you through the tournament."
French coach Raymond Domenech could listen no more without commenting.
"Ha!" he bellowed. "You English worry so. Free yourself of fear. Feast on your feats. Relish your role as favorite."
"But I am Italian," Capello said.
"Even worse," Domenech said. "You are too emotional."
"No need for petty comments, Mr. Domenech," the doctor said. "Let us focus now on your issues. What brings you here today?"
"I feel guilty," he said, suddenly glum. "We should not be in this tournament. We qualified by cheating."
France advanced to the finals in a playoff against Ireland after the team's striker Thierry Henry scored the winning goal in extra time with the help of his hand.
"Mr. Henry's goal should have not been allowed. I am disgusted," Domenech said.
"A travesty," Capello quipped.
"A thing of beauty," Maradona muttered, flashing a sly smile.
"It's nice that you appreciate Mr. Henry's work, Mr. Maradona, but let's focus on the problem," Dr. Freeqique said. "Mr. Domenech, there's nothing you can do to change the result, correct?"
"Yes, that is so."
"So savor your good fortune and take the result as a blessing."
"Thank you doctor, that is wise advise."
Dr. Freequique summed up the meeting with parting words. "I think we've accomplished much here today. Now go represent your countries with pride and honor. Be free of worry. Believe in your players. All will be well."
The four coaches felt more relaxed and confident. They walked out of the room together, wishing each other good fortune.
But their concerns reignited when they saw about a dozen players sitting in the waiting room. They included Wayne Rooney of England, Messi of Argentina, Frank Ribery of France and Spain's Cesc Fabregas. Expressions of worry enveloped the player's faces.
"Yes, I have much work to do today," Dr. Freequique said to no one in particular.
Meanwhile, a group of hooligans rallied outside. They yelled derogatory comments toward the coaches and players and threw rotten eggs at the windows.
And the games had yet to begin.