The world of sport is often seen by outsiders as one in which everyone is serious and focused. With a massive emphasis on professionalism and treating each game or event as a final, it would appear, at least initially, that there is no room for mischief. As a result, sport can become quite predictable and inevitably rather dull. It is refreshing therefore that while the majority of sportspeople treat their disciplines with the utmost respect, there are a brave few opportunists who transcend the sporting status quo. Whether they have made a fool of those who should know better, or their perceived mediocrity has allowed them to take the world by surprise, everyone can appreciate those who can offer a change from the norm, be it trick or treat.
Perhaps the most famous conman in footballing history, the story of Ali Dia still intrigues fans more than 20 years later. In 1996, Southampton manager Graeme Souness received a curious call allegedly from George Weah, one of the finest players of the era, who recommended a young Senegalese player who he played alongside at Paris Saint-Germain. Weah waxed lyrical about the young player, and naturally, his testimonies grabbed Souness’ attention. In no time, Dia was training with the Southampton squad and after just one session, he made the bench for the Saints’ next game against Leeds United. In the 32nd minute, Matt Le Tissier picked up an injury and had to be subbed, clearing the path for Dia to make his debut in the red and white jersey.
Almost immediately, however, it became clear that Souness had been sold a lie, as the hapless Dia appeared to be completely out of his depth. After stumbling through 53 minutes of dreadful football, the manager called his wunderkind ashore, thus bringing his top-flight career to a swift end. The club released him that same week, and when Weah explained that he had no recollection of ringing Souness at all, it became clear that he and the rest of the Southampton board had been duped. Years later, Souness seems unable to recall the incident, only remembering that “he didn’t touch the ball too many times”. But plenty of players and managers can give a stronger account of the day’s events, and Dia will forever be known as a player who got the jump on one of the most vigilant managers of all time.
If you didn’t spend all your waking hours on YouTube as a 10-year-old, then it is likely that you missed the antics of this French prankster. Gaillard is one of the world’s most famous YouTubers, with the 26th most subscribed channel on the video-sharing site. While some of his videos document his rather impressive football skills, it is his prank videos that draw in the viewers. In particular, Gaillard often chooses sporting occasions as the setting for his mischief. His most famous endeavour came at the 2002 Coupe de France final, where, dressed in the winning team’s full kit, Gaillard snuck in among the players and celebrated the win. President Jacques Chirac shook his hand and congratulated him on his hard work, and he ran onto the pitch with his adoptive teammates to lift the trophy and soak up the victory.
Gaillard has performed similar antics in other sports, such as posing as Yannick Noah’s doubles partner at a charity tennis event, singing the national anthem alongside the French volleyball team and running onto the pitch with the teams at a Top 14 rugby match. He even managed to attract 20,000 wild fans to a non-league football match in a small village near Montpellier, to make the players, “believe they were in the Champions League”. Nowadays, Gaillard is far too notorious in France to carry out his shenanigans without being recognised, but one can still enjoy his earlier stunts at the expense of the sporting elite.
Ireland vs England 2011
When England’s rugby teams are riding high, it is often the Irish that drag them back down to Earth. One remembers 2017, when the Red Roses came to Dublin in search of a Six Nations clean sweep, hoping to dispatch an inconsistent Irish team and claim a Grand Slam. England’s plans were scuppered in a scrappy affair at the Aviva Stadium as the men in green managed to spoil their celebrations and take the shine off their successful Championship campaign.
But perhaps more satisfying was a similar scenario in 2011: England had to beat Ireland on the final day to secure a Grand Slam ahead of that year’s World Cup in New Zealand. Everyone expected the English to win in Dublin, including kit sponsor Nike, who even released a tribute advertisement the week beforehand with the caption, “Grand Slam Champions 2011”. But the English tempted fate, and as retribution, the Irish punished them at the Aviva with a comprehensive 24-8 victory. After a disastrous display in the Irish capital, England went home with their tails between their legs and Ireland proved once again that even during a poor campaign, they can be counted on to trip up the Auld Enemy.
Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci
Even today, the name Toto Schillaci is met with disdain by Irish fans. After all, it was the Italian’s goal in the World Cup quarter-final which sent Jack Charlton’s boys in green home from Italia ‘90. While he is guilty of spoiling the Irish party, one cannot ignore his sensational performance at that World Cup. A surprise inclusion in the Italy squad, Schillaci scored six goals for the Azzurri during the tournament, claiming both the Golden Boot Award and Golden Ball for best player of the competition. He also played a significant role in Italy’s third-place finish at their home tournament. All this from a player who played for lower league team Messina until a year before, and made his international debut just two months before the World Cup kicked off.
It is surprising, therefore, that Schillaci went on to have such an unremarkable career. Schillaci moved to Juventus, then to Inter Milan, both of which expected great things from the talismanic striker. But dogged by injuries, Schillaci failed to make much of an impact at either club and eventually left for Japanese club Jubilo Iwata. Schillaci hung up his boots in 1999 and while he failed to recreate the heady days of his prime, Italia ‘90 will be forever known as Toto’s tournament.
At the start of the 90s, Mike Tyson was the undisputed king of boxing. Since his professional debut in 1985, Tyson had won all of his 37 bouts and was casually scooping up heavyweight titles across the board. Outside of the ring, Tyson’s personal life was marred by controversies; allegations of domestic violence, together with tensions in his professional relationships, were doing no favours for his public image. To restore his reputation, Tyson was scheduled to battle Evander Holyfield in late 1990. Before that, as a kind of warm-up bout, he was to fight Buster Douglas, who was relatively successful in the ring, but did not hold a candle to Tyson’s achievements. In short, almost everyone saw the match as Tyson’s to lose.
However, Douglas had other ideas. He demonstrated in the opening rounds that he meant business, while Tyson never quite got comfortable or into any sort of rhythm. His weakness was Douglas’ opportunity, and the 42-1 underdog landed heavy blows on his shell shocked opponent. And in the 10th round, Douglas finished the job with a series of sharp punches, knocking Tyson to the canvas and sealing one of the biggest upsets in sporting history. Douglas, the new heavyweight champion, was naturally overwhelmed with emotion. Despite losing his title to Holyfield in the very next fight, Douglas’ legacy has endured as the boxer who cut down the king in his prime.
Japan, Rugby World Cup 2015
The Japanese are not exactly famed for their dominance in international rugby. They may be kings of the Asian rugby scene, but they have never been able to deliver on the world stage. The Brave Blossoms opened their World Cup 2015 campaign against former champions South Africa, with many anticipating a relatively one-sided match in Brighton. Despite being under the guidance of master tactician Eddie Jones, no one gave the Japanese much of a shout.
Japan defied their critics, however, in the Amex Stadium, stunning both the Springboks and the world with a dynamic, spectacular performance. South Africa battled hard to save face and the result was a pulsating group stage encounter. With the last play of the game, Japan crossed the whitewash for a famous try to secure the greatest win in their history and produce one of sport’s greatest upsets. Japan did not qualify from their group and Eddie Jones left the team to fill the role of England head coach, but the cherry-whites will be forever remembered for the day they shocked the Springboks in the World Cup.