The World Cup. For professional footballers, it represents the pinnacle of their careers. Even in a modern climate in which international football is widely maligned – not helped by the batch of scoreless draws we have seen in the World Cup 2018 playoffs – representing your country at the World Cup remains the greatest honour.
However, not every player gets to experience it. Even the most decorated, celebrated players on the club scene have missed out on the World Cup, going through a career without ever playing in a match at the quadrennial football spectacle.
It is often down to circumstance. Some players failed to make the World Cup because their country simply did not boast enough talent. On the other hand, some never qualified because they struggled to replicate their club form for the national side.
Yes, while the tournament has been lit up by the likes of Pelé, Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane in the past, some of game’s finest players never had the chance to mirror their exploits on the grandest stage.
Here are 20 of those players.
João Domingos Pinto
You would think that a player who managed to earn 70 caps for Portugal over a 13-year period would have been present at least one World Cup. Just ask Pinto, the legendary right-back who captained Porto to the 1987 European Cup and won no fewer than nine league titles during his 17 years at the Portuguese giants.
He was selected in the Team of the Tournament at the ’84 Euros and, although he was in the squad for the 1986 World Cup, he didn’t play a single game. He captained Portugal throughout their qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup, which ended in heartache with a 1-0 defeat to Italy.
Pinto left the pitch that day in tears. Sir Bobby Robson, who managed him for two years, said: “He has two hearts and four legs. It’s extremely difficult to find a player like him.” In Portugal, they referred to him simply as Capitão, but a glittering career ended without having turned out for his country on the biggest stage. He came closer than most, mind.
Widely regarded as one of the finest goalkeepers to ever grace the English game, Southall won two league titles, two FA Cups and a European Cup Winners’ Cup during his 17-year stint at Everton.
However, Southall never managed to reach the World Cup with Wales. He came agonisingly close in September 1985, when Wales hoped to reach the ’86 tournament in Mexico.
Eight years after Joe Jordan’s handball denied Wales entry to the 1978 World Cup, Wales’ golden generation of Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Mickey Thomas, Kevin Ratcliffe and Southall missed out once again when, needing a victory against the Scots, they drew 1-1 after a late Davie Cooper penalty cancelled out Hughes’ opener. Southall got his hand to the ball, but couldn’t keep it out.
Scotland progressed but, moments after the final whistle blew, Scotland’s elation turned to heartache when their legendary manager, Jock Stein, collapsed and died of a heart attack.
There was further pain for Southall in 1993 when, in November 1993, Wales needed to beat a Gheorghe Hagi-led Romania in Cardiff to reach the 1994 tournament. Unfortunately, Southall let a 25-yard strike from Hagi slip under his body as Wales lost 2-1. It just wasn’t meant to be.
Hulshoff was the free-spirited libero who was the missing piece in Rinus Michels’ totaalvoetbal puzzle at the 1974 World Cup. A mop-haired genius with an individual streak, Hulshoff was integral to the Ajax side that won a hat-trick of European Cups between 1971-73.
However, as the 1974 World Cup rolled around, Hulshoff was brutally denied his chance to shine alongside Johan Cruyff and that immensely-talented Netherlands side thanks to a knee injury.
Hulshoff was a tremendous exponent of Total Football, combining tactical flexibility, technical skill and intelligence to become a marauding sweeper who could influence the game higher up the pitch. In his absence, Michels played Arie Haan in his position to stop Gerd Muller in the ’74 final. Many people, to this day, say that the Netherlands would have won had Hulshoff been playing.
Edwards was one of the original ‘Busby Babes’ who was cut down in his prime in the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, one of 21 souls who lost their life that day.
The Manchester United legend made his England debut when he was just 18 and, as The Guardian‘s Daniel Taylor put it, he played “with the authority of a young man holding the keys to the football universe.”
But, in one of football’s most tragic incidents, Edwards’ life was cut tragically short at the Rechts der Isar hospital on February 21, 1958. Had he survived, Edwards would have surely gone on to become an England great, perhaps playing a part in the 1966 triumph alongside Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore.
The original ‘Boy Wonder’ of British football, Edwards’ remains one of the saddest tales the beautiful game has ever seen.
Schuster’s international career looked set when he became a European champion with Germany aged just 20. At the 1980 European Championships in Italy, Schuster starred for West Germany, setting up the opening goal in the final for Horst Hrubesch as they beat Belgium 2-1. His performances earned him the Silver Ball, behind Golden Ball winner and teammate Karl-Heinz Rummennige.
However, with his international career looking bright, Schuster fell out with his club coach Karl-Heinz Heddergott at Cologne. Although he bagged a move to Barcelona in 1980, Schuster’s rift with Heddergott prompted Jupp Derwall to vow never to pick him for Die Mannschaft again.
Derwall reinstated Schuster’s DFB privileges ahead of the 1982 World Cup in Spain, but it didn’t matter as the midfielder damaged knee ligaments and missed the tournament anyway.
Schuster retired from international football when he was just 24, which he claims was because he didn’t attend a post-match party following a friendly with Brazil. Bizarre.
The Manchester United legend, who famously called international football ‘recreational football,’ should have qualified for the 1966 World Cup. But the self-styled Green and White Army, despite boasting the bewitching winged talents of Best, couldn’t beat Albania.
Four years later, Best put in a disappointing performance at a packed Windsor Park in Belfast against the USSR as Northern Ireland once again failed to qualify.
Twelve years later, manager Billy Bingham considered putting a 36-year-old Best on the plane to go to the finals in Spain, but a plan for the veteran to go on loan from San Jose Earthquakes to Middlesbrough to work up his fitness fell through.
With that, Best, perhaps the most naturally gifted footballer of all time, never reached the World Cup.
Alfredo Di Stefano
Di Stefano belongs in the highest bracket of football’s greatest ever players. He stands tall alongside Pele, Maradona and Cruyff, and that’s without ever playing in a World Cup.
Di Stefano’s tale of missing the World Cup is more labyrinthine than most. Born in Buenos Aires, Di Stefano originally represented in Argentina in the late 1940s before declaring for Colombia when he joined Millonarios in 1949.
However, Los Cafeteros withdrew from the 1950 tournament and were banned in 1954. That didn’t bother Di Stefano much, though, as he just declared for Spain after signing for Real Madrid in 1953.
Spain had a wonderful squad of players that included László Kubala (who we’ll come to later), Luis Suárez (the original) and Francisco Gento. However, despite such a strong line-up, Spain failed to qualify for the 1958 tournament, capitulating at Hampden Park as they lost 4-2 to Scotland.
Di Stefano was included in the Spain squad for the 1962 tournament but, having picked up an injury, he failed to see a single minute of action. And that was that.
Like Di Stefano, Kubala represented three different nations during his career: Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Spain. After playing a total of nine times for Czechoslovakia (the country of his birth) and Hungary, Kubala adopted Spanish nationality and declared for La Roja.
Furious, the Hungarian FA accused him of stealing money from Budapest-based club Vasas and banned him for life. Kubala’s luck turned after that. Spain’s attempts to qualify for the 1954 World Cup were thwarted by the fact that FIFA hadn’t clued on to the concept of an aggregate yet.
They beat Turkey 4-1 at home and lost the away tie 1-0. A play-off was required. It ended 2-2 and Spain lost a drawing of lots.
Four years later, Kubala was part of the team that lost ignominiously to Scotland and, by the time Spain qualified for 1962, he had retired.
Giggs was captain of the England Schoolboys team but was never eligible to play for England. It didn’t really matter as Giggs has maintained through the years that, regardless of regulations, he would have played for Wales anyway.
He is one of the most decorated club footballers in the history of the game – his haul of 13 league titles with United may never be surpassed – but never played a tournament game for Wales. With all due respect, the Wales teams Giggs played in were inferior to the side that reached the Euro 2016 semi-finals in France.
Wales fans are left wondering how much they could have achieved had Giggs been in his prime 20 years later, devastating defenders alongside Gareth Bale.
Arguably the greatest African player of all time, Weah was held back by the simple fact that he hailed from a footballing minnow. Liberia came close in 1990 and 2002, but could never quite make it. They came to within a point of qualifying in 2002 but, for one of the game’s most explosive attacking talents, it was a bridge too far.
Weah, who was the first African to win FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or played 60 times for his country, scoring 22 goals.
One of Russia’s greatest players, Streltsov was an exceptional attacking player blessed with a great touch, pace and finishing. He starred for the Soviet Union as they won the gold medal at the 1956 Olympics. At just 19, he had the footballing world at his feet.
However, in May 1958, his world turned upside down. Streltsov was charged with the rape of Marina Lebedeva, a young woman he’d met at a party after leaving the USSR’s pre-World Cup training camp.
He was advised to confess as he was told that, in doing so, he would get to play at the World Cup that summer. Instead, he was sentenced to 12 years in the gulag.
He was released seven years later and went on to be named Soviet Footballer of the Year in 1967 and 1968, but never played in the World Cup.
Matt Le Tissier
One of the most beautifully gifted playmakers in the Premier League era, Le Tissier only ever managed eight caps for England.
Criminally under-used by England managers, Le Tissier’s loyalty to Southampton perhaps prevented him from being thrust into the spotlight at some of England’s bigger clubs. He turned down moves to Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea during his career, the latter costing him a chance to go to the World Cup he claims.
In 1995, Le Tissier didn’t speak to Chelsea manager Glenn Hoddle when the coach wanted him to join the Blues. The decision came back to haunt Le Tissier as Hoddle was appointed England manager and left him out of the squad for the 1998 World Cup.
Le Tissier admitted that turning down Chelsea led to a fraught relationship with Hoddle and perhaps cost him the chance of playing in the World Cup. Now, we’re left wondering what might have been.
Widely regarded as the finest player Ireland has ever produced, Liam Brady established himself in the 1970s as a playmaker with Arsenal before making the rare move of jumping ship to Italy, where he won two Serie A in a row in 1981 and 1982.
However, the 1979 PFA Player of the Year never played tournament football for the Republic of Ireland despite earning 72 caps.
Brady never saw eye-to-eye with Jack Charlton, and it cost him a place at the World Cup. Famously reluctant to embrace the Englishman’s direct style of football, he was marginalised before announcing his retirement during the qualifying campaign for Italia ’90 after Charlton subbed him off at half-time in a friendly with West Germany.
After Ireland qualified for the tournament, Brady declared himself available once again, but Charlton favoured those who had stuck with him throughout the qualifying campaign.
Brady never played for Ireland again.
Another Wales legend, Rush’s international career lasted 16 years but it failed to yield tournament football. After making his Wales debut in 1980, Rush enjoyed some memorable moments in the red of his country, including scoring the winning goal in a Euro 1992 qualifier against Germany.
But the World Cup, like with Giggs, Southall and indeed Bale so far, eluded Rush. His glittering club career with Liverpool will always be a consolation, of course, with five league titles, three FA Cups and a European Cup to his name.
One of the greatest players to ever grace the Premier League, Cantona remains a godly figure to Manchester United fans. It was ingenuity and leadership as the talisman in Alex Ferguson’s side in the early-to-mid 1990s that catapulted the club to four Premier League titles in the first five years after its rebranding from the old First Division.
However, Cantona was never quite able to replicate his majestic form on the international stage for Les Bleus. Part of the side that won the Under-21 European Championships in 1988, Cantona’s senior international career got off to a rocky start under manager Henri Michel. After being dropped for a game, Cantona called Michel a ‘bag of sh*t’ during a television interview. Outrage ensued. Cantona was banished.
However, Michel was sacked after failing to guide France to the 1990 World Cup and his successor, the legendary Michel Platini, immediately reinstated Cantona. After a poor Euro 1992 showing, Platini resigned and was replaced by Gérard Houllier, but the future Liverpool boss failed to lead the country to the 1994 World Cup.
Aimé Jacquet took over and appointed Cantona captain. However, after Cantona’s suspension from football for kicking a fan at Selhurst Park resulted in him losing his place to Zinedine Zidane. By the time he had served his suspension, France had moved on without him. They qualified for the 1998 World Cup without him and won the World Cup as hosts. Cantona had already retired from football by then.
Finland’s finest footballer, Litmanen became one of the world’s greatest attacking midfielders as part of the legendary Ajax team of the early 1990s. During his time in Amsterdam, he won five Eredivisie titles and a Champions League, finishing third in the 1995 Ballon d’Or standings.
However, despite being Finland’s most capped player and leading scorer, he could never lift them to a World Cup tournament. The closest Litmanen came was in 1998 when Finland were drawn in a qualifying group that included Switzerland, Hungary, Norway and Azerbaijan. With one game remaining, Finland hosted Hungary at the Olympiastadion in Helsinki in October 1997.
With Norway already comfortably through, Hungary and Finland lay second and third on 11 and ten points respectively, second-place advancing to the play-offs.
Finland were leading 1-0 going into stoppage-time when a 91st-minute own goal by goalkeeper Teuvo Johannes Moilanen gifted a decisive point to Hungary. Heartache for Finland and their legendary captain.
Another one of Africa’s greatest footballers, Aboutrika was influential for Egypt as they won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2006 and 2008, but never managed to make it to a World Cup.
Aboutrika’s World Cup dream ended in heartbreak when, in November 2009, Egypt lost to Algeria in a tiebreaking play-off to qualify for the finals in South Africa the following summer.
Egypt and Algeria had finished the second qualifying phase with identical records (played six, won four, drew one, lost one, scored nine, conceded four). As a result, a tiebreaker was called and Algeria edged it.
Aboutrika retired in 2013 with 105 caps and 38 goals.
Like Brady, Giles is another legendary Irishman never to have made the World Cup. Having made his debut in 1959, Giles was appointed player-manager in 1973 and oversaw an upturn in fortunes.
With Brady breaking through into the senior side in 1976, the Republic of Ireland had high hopes of qualifying for the 1978 tournament in Argentina. However, they ultimately finished two points short of qualification despite beating France at home during the campaign.
Giles’ place in English football cannot be disputed, though. A notoriously hardened but creative midfielder, he made over 500 appearances for Leeds United and won two league titles with the Yorkshire club.
In 2004, he was named as Ireland’s Golden Player by UEFA, recognising him as the single most outstanding player the country had produced of the past 50 years.
The inspirational captain and symbol of the fabled Grande Torino side of the 1940s, Mazzola was tragically killed in the Superga plane crash in 1949.
The beating heart of Torino in the 1940s, the versatile midfielder helped them to five Serie A titles but was robbed of the chance of competing in a World Cup.
He is still universally regarded as one of the finest Italian footballers of all time; a combination of finesse, power and skill that is rarely matched even to this day.
One of Africa’s greatest footballing exports, Abedi Ayew, more commonly known as Abedi Pele, made his name at Marseille in the 1990s, helping them to two French league titles and the Champions League in 1993.
He is a Ghanian legend, a three-time African Footballer of the Year who blazed a trail for African stars in Europe. He helped Ghana to the 1982 Africa Cup of Nations but the sides he played in were not as strong as the iconic side who reached the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup.
It’s a shame that Abedi Pele never had the chance to showcase his talents at the tournament like Asamoah Gyan et al did in South Africa, but his status as a Black Stars legend remains untouched regardless of which tournaments he played in.