Brasilia: An airplane laden with cash descended into Brazilian airspace, or so Ghana's national soccer team was told Wednesday, and the question for each player shifted away from the topics of how to stop Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo or whether they had a realistic chance to advance to the second round of the World Cup.
What would they do with all the cash - as much as $130,000 per man - especially when any criminal with evil intent is aware they have it?
Ghana coach James Kwesi Appiah, sitting at a podium at a news conference, buried his face in his hands, trying to contain his laughter.
Christian Atsu, a 22-year-old midfielder, did not even try, bursting out laughing at the seemingly absurd events.
"That is a difficult question," Atsu said, pausing for a moment before laughing again. "I think we will keep it in our bags. We will keep the money in our bags and we love that. And then we will transfer all the money into our accounts."
The Ghanaian players' discontent over the lack of payment had been simmering for days, and exploded Tuesday when they refused to train - even threatening to boycott their match against Portugal on Thursday - until they were paid more than $3 million in appearance fees, to be divided among the 23 players.
The fragile situation even required an intervention by President John Dramani Mahama, who spoke to the players Tuesday and assured them the cash would be loaded on a plane and arrive Wednesday afternoon.
All the uncertainty wore on Ghana's coach as he prepared for a game against Portugal that, coupled with the matchup between the United States and Germany, will determine which two of those four teams will reach the knockout stages.
"Every coach wouldn't love to be in this situation where players are requesting moneys," Appiah said, "considering the fact you are playing in a very important game tomorrow. For the past two days have had no sleep. I could not close my eyes."
But Appiah had every reason to expect the matter would be closed to everyone's satisfaction by the end of Wednesday.
"Hopefully the plane should arrive in an hour or two," he said. "They have taken off already."
It would not be a World Cup without a team threatening a boycott over finances or internal feuds (the upheaval that affected the French national team in 2010, for example).
This year, Cameroon's players demanded their money in crisp bundles before leaving for Brazil. According to one Cameroonian journalist, the players received their cash in Puma sports bags. Some left the money with family members in Cameroon, and others brought it with them to Brazil.
FIFA, dreading a boycott by Ghana, was also involved in the negotiations, and the deputy sports minister of Ghana said on Citi FM radio in Ghana that the amount on the plane exceeded $3 million.
"The Ghana Football Association is happy to announce that His Excellency President John Dramani Mahama has personally intervened to have the Black Stars World Cup appearance fees paid by Wednesday afternoon," the association said in a statement. "President Mahama waded into the matter after agitation from the Black Stars players over their appearance fees for the World Cup, which has not been paid since the start of the competition."
According to Appiah, FIFA normally pays the countries' associations after the World Cup, at which point they make payments to the players, in most cases through bank transfers. Some Ghanaian players, apparently, did not trust the Ghanaian association to pony up.
But why cash?
"The practice in Ghana has always been, you pay the money to the players in cash, and that has always been the way all these years," Appiah said. "Some of the players don't even have an account in Ghana. The system in Africa is totally different from Europe. I am not saying that it is the best way. But you are coming from a different areas and you need to understand the differences."
These have been trying times for Appiah despite Ghana's surprising 2-2 draw with Germany. He acknowledged a training ground flare-up with his star player, Kevin-Prince Boateng, but said it was resolved.
He and his countrymen have also faced reports that the Ghanaian association has been tainted by match-fixing allegations at the youth level, which it has denied.
But for the players, the immediate concern was the delivery of bags of neatly piled denominations - they would not say what currency, or exactly how much.
"I don't think it is a good thing to reveal it to the media," Appiah said, adding, "The players would kill me."
Both he and Atsu promised that even if the bags were full of pretend money, they would still play Thursday, and play to win, hoping for the United States to lose.
"It would be bad if we lose the game because we are thinking about the money," Atsu said. "Even if we don't get the money, we will put everything behind us because the whole world is watching us."
© 2014 New York Times News Service