In the debate over who is the greatest player of all time, the argument set against current stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is often their lack of success on the international stage, particularly in the World Cup, in comparison to the stars of yesteryear such as Pele and Maradona. Messi and Ronaldo have had the chance to shine at a World Cup though, with both appearing in three World Cups to date.
Imagine then, being a world class player who never even had the opportunity to step onto the field and take part in the world’s greatest football competition. The World Cup is often when legends are defined, where they play their greatest football on the grandest stage. Pele in the final in 1958 and 1970, Geoff Hurst in the 1966 final and Maradona throughout the 1986 competition are just some examples of this. While fans will always watch games, billions of people watch the World Cup, so that is really where names are immortalized.
The players on this list include some of the greatest players that the game has ever seen. It includes the most successful player in football history and multiple Ballon d’Or and Champions League winners; the latter stages of the list in particular include genuine contenders for the title of greatest player in history, and it is a great shame none of these players performed at a World Cup. Whether it be due to playing on terrible national teams or bad luck with injuries or even in some cases tragedy, they never got the chance to shine on the biggest stage.
The list only includes retired players, meaning the likes of Gareth Bale and Dimitar Berbatov miss out. Here are the top 20 soccer players to never play in a World Cup.
20. Johnny Giles
Best remembered for his 12 years at Leeds United, Johnny Giles also played for Manchester United, West Brom, Philadelphia Fury and Shamrock Rovers. He won an FA Cup with Manchester United and 2 First Division titles, one FA Cup and one League Cup with Leeds United. He was widely considered one of the stars of Leeds’ highly successful side of the 1970s under Don Revie, and was twice named in the PFA Team of the Year. In 2004, Giles was named the greatest Irish player of the last 50 years and he made a list of 100 Football League legends in 1998. He won 59 caps for Ireland but never reached a World Cup.
19. Liam Brady
Another Irishman, whose international career overlapped with Giles’, Liam Brady experienced his greatest club success outside of the UK. He spent the majority of his career – seven years – with Arsenal, but the club only managed to win the FA Cup in his time there. With Juventus though, Brady tasted more silverware, winning two Serie A titles, later appearing for Sampdoria, Inter Milan, Ascoli and West Ham United. A great technician and passer of the ball, Brady won 72 caps for Ireland but once again, never played in a World Cup. He was named in the PFA Team of the Year three times, once winning the Players’ Player of the Year award, and is a member of the English football Hall of Fame.
18. Neville Southall
One of Britain’s greatest ever goalkeepers, Neville Southall is an Everton legend. Although younger supporters may be more used to seeing pictures of Southall looking comically overweight – and this did affect his later career – in his prime, he was one of the finest goalkeepers in the world. He won two league titles, two FA Cups, four Charity Shields and one European Cup Winners’ Cup titles with Everton, as well as making the PFA Team of the Year himself four times. He was even named in World Soccer Magazine’s countdown of the 100 greatest players of all time. Southall played 92 games for Wales, but in a rather mediocre squad, he unsurprisingly never reached a World Cup.
17. Ian Rush
Two Irish internationals followed by two Welsh internationals. Ian Rush is a Liverpool legend and for good reason too. With 346 goals in all competitions, Rush is Liverpool’s all-time top scorer and he was named the club’s third greatest player of all time in an official fans poll taken in 2006, finishing behind only Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard. Rush was hugely successful at Anfield, winning five league titles, two FA Cups, two European Cups, five League Cups and three Charity Shields.
Individually, he was Liverpool’s top scorer in nine separate seasons, being named in the PFA Team of the Year five times and winning the European Golden Boot once. He scored 28 goals in 73 caps for Wales, making him the country’s all-time leading scorer.
16. Jari Litmanen
The greatest Finnish footballer of all time, it is of little surprise that Jari Litmanen never got the chance to grace a World Cup. Finland have never qualified for the finals of a World Cup and even the birth of an international star like Litmanen couldn’t change that. It is generally accepted that Litmanen should have achieved more, but even so, he still won five league titles in Holland, the Champions League, UEFA Cup and 14 other titles and trophies. With 32 goals from 137 caps, Litmanen is Finland’s all-time most capped player and all-time top scorer, and was once named the 53rd greatest player of all time.
15. Bernd Schuster
Despite winning a European Championship in which he was named among the Team of the Tournament and won the Silver Ball as the competition’s second best player in 1980, Bern Schuster never played in a World Cup for West Germany. Considered one of the finest foreign players in La Liga throughout the 1980s, Schuster played for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Athletico Madrid, where he won 14 titles in total. He was nominated for the Ballon d’Or three times, finishing second in 1980 and third in 1981, and was twice named the best foreign player in La Liga.
He would have undoubtedly played for West Germany at a World Cup but retired at the age of 24 due to disagreements with the country’s management.
14. Andy Cole
Currently joined with Wayne Rooney as the second highest scorer in Premier League history, behind only Alan Shearer, Andy Cole had a wonderful career. He began scoring prolifically for Bristol City, before continuing in the same vein for Newcastle United before his biggest move to Old Trafford, where he went on to spend six years playing under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Cole won five league titles and a Champions League at Old Trafford, scoring 187 Premier League goals over his career, and 272 in all competitions. He won only 15 caps for England, and never appeared in a World Cup for his country.
13. Bert Trautmann
The only uncapped player on this list, Bert Trautmann is without doubt the greatest goalkeeper Germany never had. A former Luftwaffe paratrooper, Trautmann refused repatriation, and made England his home, eventually becoming a star at Manchester City. He spent 15 years between the sticks with the Sky Blues, playing 545 games, famously winning an FA Cup in 1956 despite suffering a broken neck and playing on. He was unable to represent West Germany due to a ruling at the time regarding non-German based players. Had such a ruling not been in place, Trautmann would undoubtedly have played for his country and appeared in several World Cups.
12. Eric Cantona
Alex Ferguson recently described Eric Cantona as one of only four genuinely world class players he ever managed. Yet this world class talent never got the chance to prove himself in a World Cup. Cantona joined Manchester United from Leeds United, and gave the whole club a lift, going on to win four Premier League titles and two FA Cups, before Cantona retired at the tender age of 30. He came third in the 1993 Ballon d’Or award and won both Players’ Player of the Year and FWA Player of the Year during his time at Old Trafford.
Cantona won 45 caps for France, but caused a great deal of controversy. France failed to qualify for either the 1990 or 1994 World Cups, and by the time of the 1998 World Cup, Cantona had retired.
11. Allan Simonsen
A real legend of Danish football, Allan Simonsen won the 1977 Ballon d’Or, despite competition from the likes of Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and Kevin Keegan. Simonsen’s best years came with Borussia Monchengladbach and Barcelona, where he won the UEFA Cup twice and the Cup Winners’ Cup once, being the competition’s top scorer in two of his three cup successes. In domestic competitions, Simonsen won nine, including league titles in Denmark and Germany.
Denmark didn’t qualify for a World Cup until 1986, the year Simonsen ended his international career, and he didn’t feature at the competition.
10. Neil Franklin
Arguably England’s greatest ever defender, with only Bobby Moore for genuine competition, while Moore lifted the World Cup with England in 1966, Franklin never featured for his country at a finals. One of England’s key players, he rejected a call-up to the 1950 World Cup, and headed to Bogota, Colombia, to avoid the domestic wage cap in place at the time. Upon his speedy return, the FA banned Franklin from playing for England. A classy defender who preferred to bring the ball out from the back rather than hoof it, Franklin was something of a revolutionary, and changed the way in which players defended, certainly within the British game.
9. Abedi Pele
Abedi Ayew, or Abedi Pele as he has become better known, was one of the first stars of the African game, and is still considered by some to be the greatest African player of all time, and almost unanimously the greatest Ghanaian. Abedi Pele first emerged in Europe with Lille, before becoming a star player at Marseille, later featuring for the likes of Lyon and Torino. With Marseille he won three league titles (one later revoked) and the Champions League. He won 67 caps for Ghana, scoring 33 goals and winning the African Cup of Nations, but Ghana didn’t reach a World Cup until 2006, six years after Pele’s retirement.
8. Ryan Giggs
The most decorated player in football history, Ryan Giggs has won an incredible amount of club and individual honors, including; 13 Premier League titles, four FA Cups, nine Community Shields, three League Cups, two Champions Leagues and one Club World Cup. Individually, Giggs was named in the PFA Team of the Year six times, as well as the PFA Team of the Century. He played 963 games for Manchester United, scoring 168 goals, and holds the record for the most assists in Premier League history.
Giggs played for Wales 64 times, but never qualified for any major competition with his country.
7. Arsenio Erico
Widely regarded as the greatest Paraguayan footballer of all time, the Argentine Primera Division top 10 scorers consisted of nine Argentines and one Paraguayan, who sits atop of that list, and that man in Arsenio Erico. A wonderful goal scorer, Erico averaged just under a goal a game over his career, scoring 295 goals for Independiente in Argentina.
Noted for his technique and finishing, Erico’s international record was even more remarkable. He scored 56 goals in 26 games for Paraguay, although most were unofficial games. Paraguay reached their first World Cup in 1950, a year after Erico’s full retirement from the game.
6. George Weah
George Weah won the FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or awards in 1995, becoming the first, and still the only African player to do so in history. He spent 14 years in Europe, playing for Monaco, PSG, AC Milan, Chelsea, Man City and Marseille. He won league titles in three different countries and 11 trophies in total. He was named African Player of the Year three times and is a member of the AC Milan Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately for Weah, his national team were Liberia, who were very poor. He could help them qualify for the African Cup of Nations twice but never the World Cup.
5. Valentino Mazzola
He is often referred to as the greatest Italian footballer of all time. That is a mark of the ability of Valentino Mazzola. He was the captain and star player in the legendary Torino team of the 1940s that became known as ‘Grande Torino’. One of the greatest number 10s the game has ever known, Mazzola was capable of playing as both an attacking midfielder and an inside forward.
He made his name with Venezia, before going on to win five Serie A titles with Torino before being killed in the Superga air disaster, aged 30. He was Italy’s captain at the time and would have been the country’s star player at the 1950 World Cup were it not for the crash.
4. Duncan Edwards
Had Duncan Edwards not been killed in the Munich Air Disaster, many believe he would have captained England to World Cup success in 1966, rather than Bobby Moore. Edwards was already one of Manchester United’s star players when he died, aged just 21. Bobby Charlton described him as the only player who made him feel inferior.
Edwards was a big man, physically powerful but with a football brain to match and outstanding technical skills. He was one of the most complete players around, and had already played 177 games for Manchester United and won 18 caps for England when died at the tender age of 21.
3. Laszlo Kubala
Voted in 1999 as Barcelona’a greatest ever player, Kubala might have some stern competition from Lionel Messi now should the vote be repeated. His father was of Slovak-Polish origin and his mother was of Slovak-Hungarian origin. Kubala also moved about a great deal in his life, spending time in Hungary, Slovakia, Switzerland, Spain and more.
Internationally, he represented four different countries; Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Spain and Catalonia. He won four La Liga titles with Barcelona, and won 19 caps for Spain, scoring 11 goals. He was due to play in the 1962 World Cup for the country, but had to pull out of the squad late on due to injury.
2. George Best
It’s a great shame George Best never got to play in a World Cup. Best was a man who often shone on the biggest stage, as proven by his form in the 1968 European Cup with Manchester United and he would certainly have brought some spark to any World Cup he graced, even in a distinctly sub-par Northern Ireland squad. Best always championed the idea of a combined Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland squad, which perhaps would have increased his chances. Best, who won the 1968 Ballon d’Or, won only 37 caps for Northern Ireland, and Franz Beckenbauer once described him as, “probably the best player who never made it to a major world final.”
1. Alfredo Di Stefano
The greatest player to never grace the World Cup, yet many still consider him to be the greatest of all time. In any such discussion, Di Stefano’s name should certainly be up there with the likes of Puskas, Beckenbauer, Pele, Maradona and Messi. He is almost certainly the most complete player in the history of the game. Renowned for coming deep to get the ball before taking people on or playing a wicked pass, Di Stefano was the most vital cog of the legendary Real Madrid team of the 1950s.
Despite coming deep much of the time, Di Stefano still managed an incredible 376 goals in 522 games over his career, which makes him the fifth highest scorer in La Liga history and the third in the history of Real Madrid. Born in Argentina, Di Stefano played internationally for Argentina, Colombia and Spain, and all three consider him to be arguably their country’s greatest player ever. Much like Kubala, Di Stefano was named in Spain’s squad for the 1962 World Cup but missed out through injury. He won the Ballon d’Or twice and was named in the World Team of the Twentieth Century.
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