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The cruelest cut: Spare a thought for absentees

PARIS (AP) — It is the cruelest cut in soccer, the guillotine that axes dreams. One moment, a player thinks, hopes, is led to believe that he might be heading to the World Cup. Then comes a knock on the door or the uncomfortable meeting in the coach's office. Sorry, the boss will say, we have to trim the squad. It's the rules. You're out.

American defender Jeff Agoos burned his shirt and shorts in anger when this happened to him in 1994. Paul Gascoigne flew into a temper when Glenn Hoddle dropped the midfielder from England's squad for France '98, smashing up the manager's room at their pre-World Cup training camp.

"He was like a man possessed," Hoddle recalled later. "I thought he was going to hit me."

So spare a compassionate thought for those who are about to go through this trauma, and for the managers who must make the tough choices. The only upside for the likes of French forward Karim Benzema and midfielder Patrick Vieira, for Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, English goalkeeper Paul Robinson or Italian defender Nicola Legrottaglie is that they got their bad news early, when they were excluded from the first preliminary lists of 30 players that the 32 World Cup teams had to send to FIFA by Tuesday's deadline.

The letdown must be huge. Vieira says coach Raymond Domenech didn't call him before announcing his selection on prime-time evening television. Understandably, the 33-year-old was unhappy that his illustrious international career ended in such fashion. Having played in three World Cups and 107 games for France, Vieira at the very least deserved a personal word of thanks.

But at least he can now go on vacation. As tough as it has been for the now former French captain, it might be worse for the dozens of players who were elated to be included on the provisional squads but who will be dropped when rosters are trimmed again, as they must be, to 23 names by FIFA's next deadline of June 1.

Those late rejects will come within a fingertip of South Africa only to fall at the final hurdle. They will be quickly forgotten once the World Cup starts on June 11 but their disappointment will haunt some of them for years. For that reason, Adil Rami is wise to keep his excitement in check because the Lille defender who has never played for France is unlikely to make the final cut, even though he is on Domenech's short list. He says he told his mother to calm down when the coach called out his name on TV, because "there are 7 of us who are going to be dropped."

"It's painful to go through," says Mickael Landreau.

The French goalkeeper, also on Domenech's first roster for South Africa, speaks from bitter experience. He was among seven players the coach sent home from France's high altitude training camp in 2008, when he whittled his provisional 30 to the 23 he was allowed to take to the European Championship.

Forward Djibril Cisse, one of the condemned men, likened the experience to being voted off a television reality show. In what he later called "the worst moment of my coaching career," Domenech visited them one-by-one, with a fateful knock at their hotel room doors. Then, they were flown away by helicopter.

Domenech deserves some praise for not wanting to put players through that again. This time, he will take 24 or 25 of them — not the full provisional 30 — to Tignes in the French Alps next week. He reckons that leaving those who won't make the plane to South Africa out of the training camp will help ease their disappointment. He's probably right.

"It will be softer," Domenech said. "What is traumatizing is to live with the others, take part in all of the training and then hear someone knock on the door and say, 'You have finished playing, you can go home, the others are staying.'"

Brazil coach Dunga and Switzerland's Ottmar Hitzfeld went one step further, announcing immediately pared-down lists of 23 players.

They are lucky to have such confidence. Other coaches are bound to make enemies and break players' hearts between now and June 1.

Said Domenech: "I'm not sure that they realize just how complicated it sometimes can be for the coach."

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org