Off The Ball

It's a funny old game

Tottenham Hotspur and England star Paul Gascoigne having fun with giant cut-out cards of international football stars Diego Maradona, Argentina, and the dreadlocked Ruud Gullit, Holland
© Getty Images

Across various parts of the world, 1 April is a day of jokes, pranks and various other hijinks as part of the tradition known as April Fool's Day. To mark the spirit of the day, takes a look at some of the occasions when football’s funny men have had us doubled up with laughter, enjoyed their own bit of mischief or fans and players alike have been the butt of the joke.

More often than not it is the clubs that tend to have some fun on April Fool's Day itself, and every now and then some do not take the calendar into account when reading the sports headlines. This occurred back in 1988, when news of Spartak Moscow's 'deal' to sign Maradona flew around the world, only to be sheepishly corrected soon after. Visitors to Rangers' website in 2003 were also greeted by the announcement of a new signing – Galatasaray's Yardis Alpolfo for £10m. However, those who have a talent for anagrams soon realised that the supposedly Greek striker's name rearranged back to April Fool's Day.

Journeyman jesters
As we have the legends of the game on the field, there are the slapstick stars off it, who have a gift for terrorising team-mates, coaches and all who come into contact with them in the spirit of having a laugh at their expense. Franck Ribery is most certainly one of them.

His repertoire of practical jokes is unending, having tripped up coaches in training and dumped a bucket of water on team-mate Olivier Kahn from a nearby roof to name just two. He even pulled an April Fool's Day prank himself, telling the world three months ahead of UEFA EURO 2008 that France would not be taking part. “The season is too busy and my team just won’t be competitive,” he joked online.

He even went as far as crashing the Bayern Munich bus while on tour in Dubai, an escapade that links him to one of the game's other great tricksters – Paul Gascoigne. Gazza took the wheel of the team coach while at Middlesbrough, with similar consequences, but has built a sterling reputation as a serial comedian.

Cars have often been the object of his mischievousness. One of his favourite pranks was while at Newcastle United he stuck the whistle from a kettle – which shrieks when the water has boiled – up captain Glenn Roeder's car exhaust pipe. “You could hear the whistling from a mile away and I was crying my eyes out laughing!” Roeder spent £380 at the mechanics trying to find the problem, too.

Another automobile that felt his wrath was that of Rangers team-mate Gordon Durie. Armed with two freshly-caught trout, he and Ally McCoist hid both fish around Durie's car. McCoist recalled, seeing the now-stinking car a few days later, saying: “You know the wee Christmas tree air fresheners, it was like Sherwood forest in there!” It's a classic trick in the football prankster's arsenal, with German goalkeeper Lutz Pfannenstiel doing similar while at Wimbledon, while Mario Balotelli's Maserati at Manchester City came in for similar treatment.

Terrorised on TV
It is not just in private moments players have had to be on their guard, as even when the television cameras are rolling all might not be what it seems. Following his concussion in the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ Final, Germany's Christoph Kramer was presented with some interviews from team-mates recalling his time on the field – but with Kramer having no memory of the first-half, they had some fun with it.

“When he wanted to swap jerseys with the referee I thought, this is enough,” lied captain Philipp Lahm. While Thomas Muller went a step further saying: “Nobody knows what else he would’ve done. Maybe take off the ref’s underwear.”

Fatmire Alushi, a compatriot on the women's national team, has also been found doubting herself on German TV, after the likes of Marta, her sporting director Siegfried Detrich and team-mate Nia Kunzer all convinced her she was moving to play for Western New York Flash without her knowledge. Insinuating there was a clause in her contract, having just signed at 1. FFC Frankfurt, which had seen a year-long loan move triggered, the now Paris Saint-Germain midfielder suffered a tense few minutes on camera until the joke was revealed.

Sometimes the set-up is a little less obvious, such as when Angel Di Maria was the subject of a hidden camera prank, where the then-Benfica star was arrested after running into a passer-by with his car. The Argentinian protested his innocence, but was clapped in handcuffs until his Brazilian team-mate David Luizrevealed what was going on.

Former Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand even presented a whole programme around fooling team-mates back in 2006, called 'Rio's World Cup wind-ups'. It saw Shaun Wright-Phillips accidentally get a restaurant worker deported, Peter Crouch involved in a dodgy business deal and David Beckham made late and irate by being driven around town all day.

The men between the posts
The game also has plenty of fun-loving characters who just want to put a smile on people's faces.

As some people say, you don’t have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper, but it helps. That maxim could well apply to Mexican custodian Jaime Gomez, one of Guadalajara’s all time idols.

The man they called El Tubo revealed his gift for comedy during a derby match with city rivals Atlas in 1955. Chivas were winning comfortably, so comfortably in fact that the Atlas fans stationed behind the under-worked keeper’s goal were reduced to hurling insults at him. With so little to do, Gomez had the temerity to borrow a magazine from one of the spectators and sat down against a post to read it.

His reading session lasted no more than ten seconds, but it was time enough for a photographer to capture the moment for posterity and for the player to incur the referee’s wrath. When he blew for half-time he warned Gomez that he would send him off if he did again. The keeper, who died in 2004 and was forever associated with that legendary photograph, promised he wouldn’t.

One keeper who made even more of an impact in the media than Gomez was Argentinian shot-stopper Angel David Comizzo, whose comic turn came in an October 1992 Superclásico between Boca Juniors and River Plate at the Bombonera.

When I saw what it was I just picked it up, had a couple of puffs and threw it back. Then I just took the corner as if nothing had happened.

Spotting a little radio that had fallen from the stands, just moments after his side had been awarded a penalty, the Millonarios keeper picked it up, put the headphones attached to it in his ears and, surrounded on all sides by home fans, awaited the fateful spot-kick, which would tie the score at 1-1 if successful.

To his dismay, however, opposite number Fernando Navarro Montoya kept out Hernan Diaz’s kick, prompting much amusement among the Boca fans, most of it directed at Comizzo. Speaking to the magazine El Gráfico some ten years later, when he was still playing, he said: “I wouldn’t pick a radio up from the ground now even if I was drunk.”

The evil weed and the demon drinkStaying in Argentinian football, there is the even more amusing case of talented Paraguayan playmaker Gabriel Gonzalez, who made his name with Asuncion club Olimpia and also played in Spain, Peru and for his national side. Nicknamed El Loco (The Madman) owing to his eccentricities, Gonzalez achieved lasting comic fame while playing for Estudiantes in a 1994 derby against La Plata rivals Gimnasia y Esgrima.

Waiting to take a corner, the Paraguayan entertainer was struck by a cigarette thrown at him by an opposing fan. “It hit me on the shoulder and when I saw what it was I just picked it up, had a couple of puffs and threw it back,” he told local newspaper El Día after the game. “Then I just took the corner as if nothing had happened. They wanted to kill me, but to me it was just a laugh.”  

Former Scotland striker Steven Thompson also gave into temptation during a 2009 pre-season friendly between his club side Burnley and Portland Timbers in the USA. After falling over the billboards at one stage in the game, Thompson came to rest right by a stall promoting a certain brand of beer.

“I landed on this person’s table and I don’t know what happened, I just instinctively grabbed this guy’s pint and had a drink,” the player later said. While the striker’s cheeky sip caused plenty of chuckles in the crowd, the Burnley directors were less pleased, fining the player a week’s wages for “unprofessional conduct.”  

Taking it in their strideThe food and drink theme continues with Mick Quinn, a burly former centre-forward who had just as big an appetite for scoring goals as he did for eating pies. A cult figure in the 1980s and 90 at Portsmouth, Newcastle United and Coventry City and a string of other clubs, the affable Quinn was the butt of many jokes from rival fans because of his weight and size.

As he later recalled, however, there was one day when he got his own back: “I remember at West Ham once we were waiting for a corner and some fan shouted “Who ate all the pies?” and threw a pie at me. I actually managed to catch a bit of it and I just ate it in front of him! I didn’t make a fuss and his mates started giving him stick.”

I wouldn’t pick a radio up from the ground now even if I was drunk.

German strikerJurgen Klinsmann, showed he had a sense of humour following some criticism after making the move from Monaco to Tottenham. Branded a “diver” by the English press, a tag that did not go down well with the blonde-haired striker, Klinsmann gave them the perfect retort when he made his debut for Spurs, scoring a goal and celebrating with a swan dive, which became a trademark of his.

The last of our football jokers is ex-Argentinian referee Angel Sanchez, who took charge of two matches at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan. Prompted by his wife, the former umpire opened a museum with 600 items collected during the course of his career, among them a series of objects thrown at him from the stands: a lighter, a mobile phone and a radio.

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