When a manager picks his final squad for a major tournament, there is always likely to be questions asked regarding the players he has chosen and those he has left out. Opinions and disagreements within the game are so rife that this is unavoidable. With the major footballing nations with the largest talent pools available and the greatest weight of expectation, this scrutinising becomes far more intense.
There are some decisions though which don't just raise eyebrows, but actively shock nations and can cause uproar. Given this is particularly common among the type of nations mentioned above, it is little surprise that only two of the players on this list play/played for national teams which have never won a World Cup, and only one which has never reached a World Cup final.
These are 15 of the most controversial national team selections in history, yet some managers proved their decision making credentials by having very successful tournaments, while others crashed and burned, making their omissions look even more questionable. Ultimately, managers live and die by their decisions and the results that come of them. Here are the top 15 soccer stars who were shockingly left out of their national team squads:
15 Antonio Cassano - 2010 World Cup
Some might argue that leaving Antonio Cassano out of a national team squad is always understandable, given the player's renowned short temper and disagreements with other players and coaches. However, it was a great shock when Marcello Lippi left Cassano out of his World Cup squad for South Africa. Cassano had scored 26 goals and made 28 assists from 78 games in the two seasons prior to the tournament. Lippi instead opted for stability, picking many of the same players that had graced the field for the nation's 2006 World Cup win.
Lippi's decision was not justified as Italy finished bottom of group F behind Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand, without a single win to their name. The team lacked creativity up front and with Cassano, it's hard to imagine their attacking prowess not improving. Cassano was indeed called up for Euro 2012, where he performed well, alongside Mario Balotelli.
14 Carlos Tevez - 2014 World Cup
The wealth of fantastic forwards in the Argentina squad over the last decade would make it difficult for any manager to choose who is left out. In 2014, Alejandro Sabella opted for Higuain, Messi, Palacio, Aguero and Lavezzi, while leaving out Carlos Tevez. All are/were quality players, but Tevez had just been named Juventus' Player of the Year, scoring 21 goals as the team won Serie A and been named in the Serie A team of the year.
Sabella's decision didn't seem to affect the team negatively, as they did have a successful tournament. Sabella took Argentina to the World Cup final without Tevez in 2014, but his team succumbed to a 1-0 loss against Germany. When the margin is that narrow, questions will inevitably be asked, as many couldn't help but wonder if Tevez would have made a difference in a game where Argentina couldn't find a breakthrough.
13 Neymar - Copa America Centenario
One of the best players in the world, the poster boy for a nation and Brazil's only glimmer of hope at the 2014 World Cup; following a season in which he won the double at Barcelona and scored 31 goals, Neymar was left out of Brazil's 2016 Copa America squad. This was due to Barcelona requesting the player played only in one of the Copa America or the Rio Olympics, and Brazil opted for the latter. It's quite unusual for a team to set the Olympics as their priority, rather than a continental tournament. After a group stage departure leading to the sacking of head coach Dunga, the decision seems a little questionable now.
Needless to say, this won't happen for 2018, barring an immense drop in Neymar's game. Neymar never disappoints when playing for Brazil, so his omission in a tournament where Brazil crashed out makes it all the more difficult to swallow.
12 Liam Brady - 1990 World Cup
Liam Brady may have been 34 at the time, but widely considered one of the greatest Irish footballers of all time, his omission from Ireland's 1990 World Cup squad still came as a surprise to many. The former Arsenal and Juventus favorite had originally retired from international football during qualifying, but made himself available again once the team qualified. Manager Jack Charlton wanted to reward the players who had gotten him to Italia '90 though, and that meant no place for the three-time PFA Team of the Year man.
Ireland ended up exceeding expectations at the tournament, advancing past the group stages after three draws, and winning their Round of 16 match with Romania on penalties. They would eventually bow out to host Italy in the quarters. In all likelihood, Ireland went about as far as they would have even with Brady, but there just seemed to be something missing with Brady sitting at home.
11 Andy Cole - 1998 World Cup
Despite being the third highest scorer in Premier League history, Andy Cole only ever managed one goal for his country in 15 caps. The five-time Premier League winner scored 25 goals in the season prior to the 1998 World Cup, meaning most expected him to have earned a place on the plane to France. Yet Glenn Hoddle wasn't interested, claiming that the striker needed five chances to score one goal, much to the anger of Cole and his manager Alex Ferguson.
England disappointed at the tournament as usual. After advancing past the group stage, second behind Romania, they fell to Argentina on penalties in a thrilling Round of 16 match. Cole would suffer an injury prior to Euro 2000 and from there, his international career fizzled out. It's a shame England didn't bring him on the squad when he was at his absolute best heading into France '98.
10 Eric Cantona - Euro 1996
A cult hero at Manchester United and a Premier League great, Eric Cantona's international career was rather less successful. Having been in scintillating form for three seasons at Old Trafford and having scored 19 goals in the season prior to Euro '96, there was much shock when the Frenchman was left out of the national team squad. Cantona had been France's key playmaker and captain at the start of 1995, but lost that role to Zinedine Zidane following his karate kick on a Crystal Palace fan.
The France manager Aime Jacquet proved his decision making credentials by reaching the semi-finals and going on to win the World Cup two years later. In other years, this move probably would have come back to haunt France, but this came at just the right time with Zidane becoming an elite player.
Cantona never played for the national team again, but did play for France's national beach team until 2008.
9 Mario de Castro - 1930 World Cup
Going back the best part of a century to the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930, held in Uruguay, there was one man who really ought to have been there. Mario de Castro is the most prolific goalscorer in history, with a record of 1.95 goals per game, but such was the Rio-Sao Paolo axis that made up the Brazil squad, the Atletico Mineiro legend was largely overlooked.
He was asked to be second choice striker for Brazil but refused, and as such, the World Cup was deprived of the eras greatest goalscorer, and Brazil were knocked out in the group stages.
Brazil's 2-1 defeat to Yugoslavia in their first group game proved to be their undoing and you have to wonder if they would have generated a stronger attack with de Castro. Brazil could only look on while South American rivals Argentina and Uruguay advanced to the final.
8 David Beckham - 2012 Olympic Games
We come to a selection which shocked people more for off-field reasons than on-field ones. David Beckham was one of the figureheads behind London and Great Britain's successful 2012 Olympic bid. As such, he was expected to make Team GB's Olympic Football Team, which is allowed to include three players over the age of 23. Stuart Pearce selected Beckham for his provisional squad but there was shock when Becks failed to make the final cut, with Pearce instead choosing Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy and Micah Richards as his three overaged players. Team GB won their group but lost their first knockout game to South Korea.
It would have been a great to see Becks make one final run with the national team before his career ended, which made the decision all the more painful. Beckham would retire from the sport altogether in 2013.
7 Karim Benzema - Euro 2016
A very recent example but just as surprising as some of the classics on this list, the France squad for Euro 2016 was one of immense quality and depth. That being said, France only had two out-and-out strikers in their squad; Olivier Giroud and Andre-Pierre Gignac. One has had a questionable season at Arsenal and the other plays his club football in Mexico. Left out of the squad were Karim Benzema and Alexandre Lacazette. Benzema in particular caused a stir, the Frenchman scored 28 goals and won the Champions League with Real Madrid last season but was still overlooked by head coach Didier Deschamps.
The squad has done very well at Euro 2016 and France has had no troubles finding goals, so this absence hasn't been felt by the squad. We'll see if Benzema is able to work himself back into the good graces of France in the next couple of years for Russia 2018.
6 Paolo Rossi - Euro 1980
A World Cup and World Cup Golden Boot winner, widely regarded as one of the greatest Italian forwards of all time, Paolo Rossi was clearly an incredible talent. He scored 20 goals in 48 caps for Italy and managed 103 goals in 251 games at club level. In the season prior to Euro 1980, Rossi scored 13 Serie A goals for mid table Perugia, a tally beaten only by Alessandro Altobelli and Roberto Bettega, yet five forwards made Italy's Euro 1980 squad and Rossi was not one of them.
He would prove his omission a poor one two years later, winning the World Cup, Golden Boot, Golden Boot and Ballon d'Or all in 1982.
As for their results at the 1980 Euro, Italy finished behind Belgium in the group stage, having only scored one goal in their first three matches. With production like that from their lineup, the decision was immediately second guessed following the tournament.
5 Landon Donovan - 2014 World Cup
Another decision that shocked many people for off-field reasons as well as on-field ones was Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to omit Landon Donovan from his 2014 USMNT World Cup squad. With Donovan's career drawing to a close and the player being regarded as one of the finest and most decorated U.S. players of all time, many expected him to have a sure-fire place in his last World Cup. Klinsmann however wasn't interested in sentiment, and cited the LA Galaxy legend's self-imposed sabbatical as one of the key reasons behind leaving him out.
Things seemed to be going smoothly for the USA, as they were able to finish second in the tournament's group of death. However all those warm feelings went away when the United States suffered a 2-1 extra time loss to Belgium in the Round of 16.
4 Carlos Alberto Torres - 1966 World Cup
Carlos Alberto Torres made his club debut in 1963, aged 19, and his international debut in 1964, aged 20. Despite continuing his excellent form at Fluminese between 1963 and 1966, earning himself a move to Santos, he was somehow left out of Brazil's 1966 World Cup squad. Brazil were dumped out in the group stages, after losses to Hungary and Portugal.
As a reaction to their embarrassing finish, they immediately recalled Carlos Alberto Torres following the World Cup and made him captain, under their new boss. He repaid the faith shown in him by performing superbly as Brazil won the 1970 World Cup. You can't help but wonder if Brazil could have made it four World Cups in a row if they had brought Carlos Alberto Torres in for 1966, as they had won the '58 and '62 World Cups before going on to win in 1970.
3 Paul Gascoigne - 1998 World Cup
One of the most naturally gifted English footballers to ever play the game, Paul Gascoigne was particularly fondly remembered for his passion and performances in an England shirt. His performances at Italia '90 and Euro '96 had made him a national treasure, and aged 31, the 1998 World Cup was likely to be his last major tournament. Despite helping England to qualify, reports of Gazza's drinking, late night partying and fitness concerns saw him miss out on Glenn Hoddle's squad, to the enormous shock of both Gascoigne and the English public.
Hoddle reflected on his decision last year:
"I gave him so many opportunities to get himself fit," Hoddle said. "Six or seven months before, I said, ‘Look, you’ve got to be fitter, this is another chance, this may be your last World Cup.’ But you could see he was never fit. It was the saddest thing I’ve ever had to do, was leave Paul Gascoigne out. And that was purely because he wasn’t fit, and he wouldn’t have been fit for the tournament."
2 Agostino Di Bartolomei - 1982 World Cup
Regarded by many as the greatest uncapped Italian footballer of all time, Agostino Di Bartolomei is an AS Roma legend, having captained one of the club's finest teams (particularly in the early 1980s) and won four trophies with the club. Between 1979 and 1984, Roma won one Scudetto, three Coppa Italias and reached the European Cup final, all achieved with Di Bartolomei as their captain and linchpin.
The 1982 World Cup, which came bang in the middle of this era would surely see the player be a key man for Italy then, right? Well that was not the case, as he failed to even make Italy's squad, although Enzo Bearzot could not be questioned too much, as Italy still managed to win the World Cup.
1 Gre-No-Li - 1950 and 1954 World Cups
It is three players rather than one that comes in at top spot. Gre-No-Li, or sometimes simply Grenoli, was the name given to the trio of Swedish strikers Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm, who all played for Sweden in the 1940s and AC Milan in the 1950s. Regarded as three of the finest players of their era, and Nordahl in particular one of the all time greatest strikers, it was an incredibly stupid decision taken by Swedish officials to prevent all three from representing Sweden at the 1950 and 1954 World Cups.
The trio weren't picked on the grounds that they had transferred to Italy, the Serie A and AC Milan, rather than opting to remain in Sweden and play their club football in their native land. As a result, Sweden lost the semi-final in 1950 and failed to qualify in 1954. Once they changed their minds in 1958 to host the World Cup, Nordahl had retired while Gren and Liedholm were 37 and 35 respectively, yet they still inspired Sweden to reach the World Cup final, beaten only by a sublime Brazil team.