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The Unkindest Cuts

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Coaches have selected their 23-member squads (the deadline was June 1) for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and now they can focus on final preparations for the tournament that begins on July 11.

Except, perhaps, Mexico's Javier Aguirre.

Aguirre picked midfielder Giovani dos Santos for the team but omitted his brother Jonathan, a midfielder who played sparingly this year for Barcelona, one of the top clubs in the world. Reports say Giovani may quit Mexico's World Cup team out of protest and Jonathan is considering retiring from international football, an unlikely scenario considering he is only 20 years old.

Such strong reactions after failing to make a World Cup team are not rare and they exemplify the heightened emotions that make selecting a team for the tournament perhaps the toughest job for a coach in any sport. In American football, playing in a Super Bowl often defines a player's career. In world football, taking part in a World Cup defines a player's life. Perhaps the only equivalent is qualifying or being selected for an Olympic team, but some of those decisions are made more objectively than for a World Cup team.

One of the more interesting and publicly revealed expressions of disappointment involves former England midfielder Paul Gascoigne after he received word he would not play for his country at the 1998 World Cup in France. After confirming his fate, Gascoigne trashed the room where coach Glenn Hoddle told his players about his decisions.

Gascoigne had played for England in the 1990 World Cup but England failed to qualify for the 1994 tournament. The 1998 World Cup was Gascoigne's last realistic chance to play in the event. He was 31 at the time.

Two famous cases of World Cup rejection involved U.S. players. Jeff Agoos burned his team uniform in a fireplace at the team camp after he was the last person axed from the 1994 team.

U.S. coach Steve Sampson had named John Harkes the team "Captain for Life" and Harkes was promoted as one of the more marquee members of the team during the buildup for the 1998 finals. But Sampson announced well before the start of the tournament that he would not select Harkes, one of the more reliable and consistent contributors to the team, at the time blaming Harkes' lack of leadership and unwillingness to play certain positions. Harkes endured unsettled emotions for weeks as the drama dragged out until Sampson confirmed his decision about two weeks before the tournament began.

The coach revealed publicly for the first time earlier this year that he made the decision due to what he claims was an extramarital affair Harkes had with U.S. teammate Eric Wynalda's wife.

Both players still enjoyed a World Cup. Agoos was a member of the U.S. World Cup teams in 1998 and 2002, and played a pivotal role in the team reaching the quarterfinals in 2002. Harkes took part in the 1990 and 1994 tournaments.

Players earn a good bit of money for competing in a World Cup. In 2006, according to a Washington Post report, U.S. players received $37,500 for being named to the final roster, $3,750 for every Cup match played by the team and $3,000 for each friendly leading to the Cup, plus other bonuses for wins in the tournament. U.S. players earned $200,000 after reaching the quarterfinals of the 2002 tournament.

According to reports published Wednesday, U.S. players will receive a bonus of $54,000 even if they lose every game in group play. With that payoff, U.S. team member Robbie Findley would nearly match his 60,000 MLS base salary in 2009. And should the Americans miraculously win the tournament, each player would receive $895,000.

Mark Levinstein, the acting executive director of the U.S. National Team's Player's Association, said in an email Wednesday that the reports are incorrect but he did not comment further.

With the payoffs that players receive for taking part in the tournament, money would seem to be a major factor in a desire to be on a national team roster for a World Cup.

But many of the players in the tournament already earn millions of dollars in salary from their club teams. The money they receive from a World Cup appearance simply adds to their already luxurious lifestyles.

Agent Lyle Yorks of James Grant Sports represents 18 players who will take part in the South Africa World Cup, including 10 from the United States, led by defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Steven Cherundolo along with midfielders Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley.

"None of the discussions I've aver had with a player after receiving the news about making or not making a World Cup team had anything to do with financial implications," said Yorks. "It can present a lot of opportunities on the playing side and marketing side for a player. But the focus on all the players is just the thrill of representing your country in a World Cup."

Still, some players such as Findley could benefit greatly from the financial boost and if they show well in South Africa, their stock will rise among foreign club teams, ideally yielding better salaries abroad for younger players.

For the most part the best athletes yearn to compete in the best events and there's nothing better for a soccer player than a FIFA World Cup. Few things sting an athlete as strongly as finding out they barely missed selection for a World Cup team.

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