Playing in the World Cup is considered to be the pinnacle of football achievement. From Pele to Maradona to Cryuff, many legends have been born or been made even stronger at the world’s apex football tournament. That said, football is a team sport and as a result, there are a number of players who have done pretty much everything at other levels but have been unable to make it to the World Cup simply because of being a part of a team that was not good enough, or because they were injured, or for some other reasons. It does not make them lesser players, but it definitely takes the sheen off the World Cup.
So even as the official squads for the 2018 football World Cup are revealed, here are ten players who did it all in football, except play in the World Cup:
Alfredo Di Stefano
There are many who consider him to be one of the greatest players of all time, rivalling the likes of even Pele, Maradona and Cryuff. But while Alfredo di Stefano had a number of club titles to his credit, the Argentine forward, known for his ability to score as well as create goals, never actually played in a World Cup. And this was in spite of playing for no fewer than three countries – Argentina, Colombia and Spain. He left Argentina for financial reasons and started playing for Columbia in 1949, but this ruled him out of the 1950 and 1954 World Cups. He was expected to be part of a strong Spain squad in the 1958 World Cup, but in a massive upset, Scotland pipped Spain to qualify for the tournament. Even as all this was happening, Di Stefano was earning laurels at Real Madrid. He made it to the 1962 World Cup in Chile at the age of 36 but was injured and did not get to play a single match. ‘The Blonde Arrow’ would not hit the target at football’s premier target.
If you thought Di Stefano was the only football legend to represent different countries and still miss out on the World Cup, then spare a thought for Laszlo Kubala. Born in Hungary, the man would go on to represent the country of his birth, Czechoslovakia and Spain in a career spanning more than two decades. He is a legend to this day in Barcelona, where he scored an amazing 194 goals in 256 matches. And is considered by many to be the person who pioneered curving the ball around the “wall” in free kicks, making them direct scoring propositions. What he could NOT do, however, is play in the World Cup. He was included in Spain’s squad for the 1962 World Cup, but was one of the two stars who didn’t play at all because of injury. The other player? Alfredo di Stefano.
Perhaps the best target man of his era, Nordahl was legendary for his ability to be at the right place at the right time. The result was a staggering strike rate not just for clubs he played for but also for Sweden – he scored 43 goals in 33 matches for his country. Nordahl was part of the talented Swedish football team that won the gold medal at the 1948 Olympic Games, but was stopped from participating in the 1950 World Cup because he had signed a contract with AC Milan, and professionals were not allowed to play for the national team. He would never play in a World Cup, but his scoring record remains one to behold – no one has scored more goals for Milan (210 in 247 matches) and is the only player to have been the top scorer in an Italian league season five times.
The man about whom people said, “Maradona good, Pele better, George Best” is perhaps the most gifted to have never played in the World Cup. Best known for his achievements for Manchester United under Sir Matt Busby, where his good looks and fantastic football skills earned him the name “El Beatle,” Best however was part of a Northern Ireland team that never made it to the World Cup. It was not as if the Irish teams of 1966 and 1970 were not enough – they just managed to stumble in critical matches. By the time Northern Ireland did qualify for the World Cup – in 1982 – Best was a shadow of the player he had been, riddled with alcoholism. And yet the coach did think of adding him to the squad (Best was playing in the US at that time). However, he decided against it and the World Cup was deprived of one of the Best.
Ask anyone in the early eighties who the best midfielder in the world was, and it is a fair chance that one of the players named would have been the immensely talented Bernd Schuster. A star of the 1980 Euro Championships, Schuster combined sublime ball skills with energy and determination that was typically German, and was compared by many to the legendary Michel Platini. Unfortunately, he also possessed the temperament of a maverick and managed to rub teammates and managers the wrong way time and again. While no one denied his talent or ability, managers were loth to pick him in their teams because he was simply too hot to handle. He ended up becoming a legend at Barcelona, but would never get to play in the World Cup for reasons that we suspect that nothing to do with his footballing ability. “Der Blonde Engel” had a little too much of the devil in him for managers to handle.
One of the best strikers in Europe in the eighties, Ian Rush had the gift of popping up in the penalty area and put the ball in the net. Blessed with good ball skills, a decent turn of speed and a knack for sensing a goal, Rush broke all sorts of goalscoring records at Anfield and won domestic and European honours at club level. Ironically, however, the Wales team he was a part of never made it to the World Cup. The World Cup would never see a goal Rush. Pun intended.
Call him enfant terrible, call him errant genius, but the stark fact is that there was no forward quite like the mercurial Frenchman in the nineties. He was capable of brilliant skill at one moment, petulant behaviour at another, and for all his goal scoring prowess, remains one of the few players to have been banned from the sport for having assaulted a spectator. However, his moody genius was never seen at the World Cup. France failed to qualify for the 1990 edition of the tournament, but in 1994 were one of the favourites, with Cantona the leading star of the team. However, the team went to pieces in its final qualifying match, and missed out. By the time the 1998 tournament came around (and it was hosted by France), Cantona had surprised everyone by announcing his retirement from the sport at the age of 29. Imagine what he and Zidane could have achieved in tandem!
Perhaps the greatest player in the era of the English Premier League, Ryan Giggs could have walked into any club or country team of his choice, such were his dazzling dribbling skills on the wing. A Manchester United legend, he won enough silverware at Old Trafford to fill a living room, not least because he just went on and on, playing almost till forty. However, the Welsh football team in his era was simply not good enough to qualify for a major international tournament. As a consequence, he was never seen in a World Cup jersey. Ironically, Wales qualified for the European Championships shortly after his retirement. Mind you, he might still participate in the World Cup, but not as a player – he is the manager of the current Welsh squad.
The first football superstar from Africa, Weah was a striker who was known for not just scoring goals for an amazing level of skill and energy. Indeed, there are many who consider his goal for AC Milan against Verona in 1996, where he took the ball from his own penalty area into that of the opponents and then scored, to be one of the greatest goals of all time. He was the first African football player to win the prestigious Ballon d’Or in 1995, and for a while was considered the best football player on the planet (until a certain Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo shot to prominence). However, his country, Liberia, had a relatively weak football team, and as a result, Weah was never able to make it to the World Cup. He had to be content with a number of club honours, including being the top scorer in the UEFA Champions League once. Incidentally, he now has the chance to improve football standards in his country – he is the current President of Liberia.