Football
Tom Hamilton, Senior Writer 62d

What's it like playing at a World Cup without a club? Cristiano Ronaldo and only few others know

DOHA, Qatar -- A trivia question for you: What does Cristiano Ronaldo have in common with defenders Andre Ooijer and Gary Breen? Well, when Manchester United announced he had left the club "by mutual agreement," Ronaldo was suddenly playing in a World Cup without a club to his name, an experience he shares with those two former players from previous competitions.

It's a rare circumstance, one made even more so in Qatar by the World Cup's one-off scheduling in the middle of the European season: Most contracts expire on June 30, which means players are unable to really find a new club until the summer, when the World Cup usually begins. (This World Cup was moved only because Qatar's climate made summer unsafe for athletes.)

And in previous editions, most players would've had their next moves lined up anyway, like Frank Lampard in 2014, who had announced he was leaving Chelsea before the World Cup, but had agreed to join New York City FC after the tournament. (He actually ended up playing for Manchester City, but that's another story.)

But for some like Ooijer and Breen, when they joined up for national team duty with Netherlands in 2010 and Republic of Ireland in 2002 respectively, they faced an uncertain future beyond the tournament. Both released by their former clubs, they had no contract lined up and were left to navigate the wilderness of free agency while trying to focus and compete in the sport's biggest competition.

How a good World Cup can change a free agent's career

A glance through previous tournaments will uncover some free agents who made the World Cup a last hurrah of sorts, like Australia's Craig Moore, who played without a club at the 2010 World Cup after having left Greek Super League side AO Kavala in March. At the end of the tournament, he would play one more time in a Sydney United shirt before retiring.

But for other free agents, playing in a World Cup changed the trajectory of their career.

New Zealand midfielders David Mulligan and Simon Elliott were also without a club at the same tournament having both been released by Wellington Phoenix. They ended up at Auckland City and Chivas USA respectively.

At the 2014 World Cup, Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was a free agent after leaving Ligue 1 side Ajaccio. He put in a man-of-the-match performance against Brazil in the group stage and said afterwards: "I believe this was the best match of my life because this was a World Cup game and this is very important."

Ochoa followed that up with another spectacular showing against Netherlands in Mexico's round-of-16 defeat, but his form saw him linked with Real Madrid and Marseille. "It was not a bad time to play well. He won't have a difficult time getting a contract," ex-US goalkeeper Brad Friedel said at the time. He ended up at LaLiga side Malaga.

Elsewhere, the great Zinedine Zidane was technically without a club when he planted a headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final. It was his last act as a professional footballer. And while it may not be a World Cup, Hal Robson-Kanu deserves an honourable mention for his performances at Euro 2016. His remarkable Cruyff-turn goal against Belgium saw Wales into the semifinals and him nominated for the Puskas Award for goal of the year. He would later move to West Brom.

At this tournament, other than Ronaldo there has been one other player between clubs: Ecuador's Jhegson Sebastian Mendez is available as a free agent after his contract with LAFC finished, though the franchise is in talks to retain him. Ecuador have already been eliminated from the World Cup, and his chance to create more leverage in negotiations is over.

Ronaldo and the circus at Portugal's World Cup

Portugal are adamant that Ronaldo's future won't distract them from their goal of winning the World Cup. They have learnt from previous experiences the value of minimising outside noise -- their 2018 World Cup campaign was destabilised by speculation, according to manager Fernando Santos, as he explained ahead of their opening match against Ghana last week.

"Six or seven players came to the Russia [World Cup] in between clubs, and I'm telling you this because ultimately we all discussed this [as a squad]," Santos said. "You think I might be joking, but I saw one of them talking to the head of security about this and talking about a long time -- they were talking about the same issue.

"Even though it's the same environment as now, it was something that shifted the focus then. It was a difficult situation with players negotiating contracts -- it was really challenging. But we are seeing a very good environment here."

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Santos said he hasn't spoken to Ronaldo about his future, while his ex-Manchester United teammate Bruno Fernandes said there was no danger of it becoming a distraction.

"This hasn't been discussed and we've had no comment about it in our time together," Fernandes said. "The important thing is the players are focused with a great spirit -- they're focused and see what they expect -- they are realistic about the challenges they are facing."

The practical points of being without a club will not impact Ronaldo. A player is insured through their national federation, as well as through their clubs, while one leading agent told ESPN that "virtually every player at the World Cup should have their own career-ending insurance anyway." But for a player like Ronaldo, such nuts and bolts may not be on his mind anyway.

Just ask Andre Ooijer, who went through it himself at the 2010 World Cup.

"To be honest I never thought about those things," Ooijer says, remembering where he was at the time. "Just for me, it was OK, I'm out of contract, I want to go to the World Cup, that's it. That was my only thought. I only wanted to go to the World Cup -- on the day of the final, I'd have turned 36 so most players at that stage are retired."

Ronaldo turns 38 in February, but he doesn't seem ready to slow down. "It was a week that finished this chapter," Ronaldo said after scoring in Portugal's 3-2 win over Ghana. "It is closed and now I want to start on a good foot. We started, we won. I could help my team and all the rest doesn't matter."

Regardless, the speculation will continue over Ronaldo's future through this tournament, but for the time being he is part of a select group of players who know what it's like to be looking for a future home while playing at the World Cup.

To be a free agent at the peak of your career

A good World Cup can do wonders for a free agent -- that is true for a player like Ronaldo, and it is especially true for players in their prime, which Gary Breen was when he made the Republic of Ireland squad for the 2002 World Cup.

Then 28 years old, Breen hoped a good showing at the tournament would earn him a move abroad. The previous 2001-02 season, he'd been a mainstay in the Coventry City that finished midtable in the old First Division, but he was Premier League-class. With his contract running down, some of the top-flight teams had started to show interest. But when his deal was up, rather than weighing up his next move, he had more immediate priorities.

"Coventry terminated my contract just before the World Cup," Breen tells ESPN. "It meant I had to go find insurance elsewhere, as the FAI said you have to have insurance, if I remember rightly, to play under their association. So, it was it was just such a headache. And then you get to the World Cup. And you know, your mindset, of course, is on playing, but you do have it at the back of your mind that if I get injured, you know, I'm in big trouble."

He'd already secured legend status for the Irish supporters, as they sang "We all dream of a team of Gary Breens" in his honour to the tune of The Beatles' "Yellow Submarine." At the World Cup he forced his way into the starting line-up ahead of Richard Dunne and Kenny Cunningham, and started all three of their group games as they drew with Cameroon and Germany, before beating Saudi Arabia 3-0 with Breen grabbing their second.

"It was a dream to play for Ireland. That was that was at the forefront of anything I was thinking, if you do well here you might be able to catch a club's notice as they didn't have to pay a transfer fee."

It was around this time between the group stage and the knockouts that he knew of Inter Milan's interest. They were keen on him doing his medical in Asia, to fast-track the move, aware that other teams were looking at Breen. It was a dream move for him. He committed to signing for the Serie A giants, and said he'd head straight there after the tournament for the necessary medicals and paperwork.

"I was 28, I was in my prime, I was about to go and play for a club and with the greatest respect, being bashful in it, Milan weren't going to go and buy me for whatever fee I was worth at the time," he says. "They had Hector Cuper at the time, and they were spending a lot on players. I'd grown up watching Gazzetta Football Italia [on Channel 4, in the UK] and to play in Italy was a dream of mine.

"My partner -- now wife -- was also really excited. It was great. Like, everything was going really well. In terms of my form of Ireland, I felt I was, it was the perfect time. I was really up for learning a language. And then culturally as well, I'll be big into things like that life experience. I felt, yeah, I'd love to go there."

The Republic of Ireland were eventually knocked out by Spain on penalties in the round of 16. Breen remembers thinking they could've reached at least the semifinals such was their draw, but instead of making a deeper run, he turned his mind to his new home in Milan. But then, heartbreak.

"Back in January or February before the World Cup, I'd suffered a knee injury," he says. "And when I got to Inter, that knee came up on a scan, and I was told I'd failed my medical. I'd gone from the massive high of playing at the World Cup for my country, to this massive, massive low. It was heart-breaking. It was very, very hard to get over.

Breen would go on to sign for West Ham, but the move didn't work out. A season later he moved to Sunderland on a free transfer where he played for three seasons, before retiring in 2010. The impact of that move breaking down with Inter was huge, to the extent he'd switch off the TV whenever they were playing.

"West Ham are such a brilliant club with, they genuinely are," Breen says. "But it just didn't work out for me. Every moment, I was just thinking, that I should be elsewhere, you know, I couldn't get out of my head. It was just always at the back of my mind, all those different scenarios. The frustrating thing is, I never had any issues with that knee ever again."

Compartmentalising club and country when you have no club

There's already a circus and speculation around where Ronaldo will end up next. He's already been linked with big money moves to Saudi Arabia, with Al-Hilal reportedly interested and Al-Nassr offering him more than £300 million. You'd imagine his agent Jorge Mendes is fielding calls from all over the world.

It was a different world for Ooijer back in 2010, who was 35 when he was called up by Netherlands for their pre-World Cup camp. He had moved back to PSV ahead of the 2009-10 season, having played for three years at Blackburn, to boost his chances of getting a call to go to South Africa with the national team. The transfer didn't really work out as he had hoped, but when he got the phone call from PSV telling him he'd been released, it still came as a shock.

"I had a really rough year, and I didn't get my football perspective, didn't get my best football out at PSV -- so they had an option to extend my contract and they didn't extend it," Ooijer, who is now an assistant coach at PSV, tells ESPN.

"They waited just before the World Cup. We joined up as a [Netherlands] squad on Wednesday. On the Monday before, they told me they weren't extending. It was short notice that I knew I was without a club. I told my agent they're not extending my contract -- I was already 35 at the time and then I was like: what to do now?

"The camp was the pre-selection one, and I just wanted to be in the [World Cup] squad. I had attended at the World Cup in '98 and '06 and it was my third World Cup -- and I knew it would be my last one ever. So I was focusing on the national team, I tried to keep that focus and put the fact I didn't have a contract next to me so I could focus on the national team as I wanted to put my foot in on everything."

Those teammates who knew Ooijer well had seen how he compartmentalised the death of his parents, losing them both over a two-year period in his 20s. His club career woes wouldn't affect him.

"The boys knew me for a long time so they knew I could separate things easily regardless of having a lot going on in my private life," he says. "So they knew. I told them I will focus on the World Cup.

"I needed to be focused, sharp and fit. So I thought I'll go, and I'll see from there -- if I get some minutes yes. Or no, maybe I'll retire. So I was focusing on the World Cup. In the end, I ended up in the squad and I played the quarterfinal against Brazil."

Ooijer was called into the starting lineup just 20 minutes before that World Cup match against Brazil after Joris Mathijsen picked up an injury in the warmup. Ooijer went on to put in a remarkable performance as the Netherlands knocked out Brazil, 2-1.

Though he was 35 at the time, it prompted a flood of interest. He already knew Ajax were keen to recruit him, but then came offers from abroad. He parked the excitement, delegating it all to his agent. "I told him I wanted to just focus on the World Cup and you know what I want and don't want, and keep it away from me and I don't want to hear anything about it," Ooijer said. "During the World Cup I was not focusing on any clubs."

Ooijer's final match in the Netherlands jersey proved to be that quarterfinal against Brazil. The Netherlands would go on to the final to face Spain, losing to Andres Iniesta's extra-time goal.

Ooijer phoned his agent and told him he was retiring. It was the perfect end: nearly a decade earlier, his international debut was against Brazil, and now his final match was against Brazil. It was full circle, so he went on holiday with teammates Arjen Robben, Mark van Bommel and Giovanni van Bronkhurst and their families. They trained a little together.

"I was fit and the boys were saying I was stupid to retire as I'd just played in a World Cup quarterfinal. So I called the manager and said, what's left for me? I said let's try PSV again but they said no. Ajax was there, I was a little uncertain about going there because of the rivalry with PSV, but I knew their manager Martin Jol so I went there. Once you retire, you retire -- you don't get time back."

There he played a season as understudy to Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. He was the elder statesman in a dressing room full of young talent, like Christian Eriksen, Daley Blind, Luis Suarez and Siem de Jong.

"I was the grandad of the squad," Ooijer said. "But I liked the role." He'd play two seasons at Ajax and retired in 2012. The World Cup performances granted Ooijer two extra years on the field.

Ronaldo, 38 in two months, is also towards the end of his career, although he has shown no interest in retirement. Pundits have raised doubts that top European clubs will be interested in Ronaldo, despite his pedigree -- but just ask Ooijer or Breen: A good World Cup could quickly change that. Ronaldo may among the most well-known footballers on the planet, but there's nothing like showing up on the world's biggest stage, the World Cup.

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