The best teams, naturally, tend to have the best players. When a player in a lesser team shines they are often snapped up by a larger team. In the modern game, arguably the most important factor in this is money. The team who can offer a player more money will likely sign their targets. There are of course exceptions though, although they are few and far between.
If you look at the greatest players of all-time, the likes of Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and Messi, they all played in exceptional club teams. The occasions in which there are exceptions to this rule can be down to a few factors. One is loyalty, some players become attached to a club and simply cannot be swayed to move. Another is the political situation, some countries regimes, particularly in Eastern Europe under communist rule, deny their players the opportunity to move to a non-domestic club.
Those are the two reasons which feature most frequently on this list. The term 'poor clubs' could be seen as somewhat harsh. Whilst some of the teams these players played for were genuinely poor, others were decent but just poor in relation to the players abilities. In some cases, playing for a lesser side can restrict a players development and international honours, whilst others become greats regardless. Here are the top 20 soccer players whose talents were wasted on poor clubs:
21 David Kipiani
A talented midfielder, David Kipiani spent almost his entire career at Locomotive Tbilisi. Whilst the club were a major force within the Soviet Union, they withheld Kipiani from receiving the worldwide recognition his play deserved. Over a 14 year career he won the Soviet Top League once and the Soviet Cup twice. Kipiani won 19 caps for the Soviet Union, scoring seven goals. He won bronze with the Soviets at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, but never got the chance to play at a World Cup.
20 Ivor Allchurch
A titan of Welsh football, Ivor Allchurch's ability has largely been overlooked outside of Wales over the years. A prolific inside-forward, Allchurch played for Swansea Town, Newcastle United and Cardiff City. Whilst not terrible teams, they were not teams fighting for titles, which is certainly the level at which Allchurch ought to have been playing. His class was shown on the international stage, where he played in the 1958 World Cup with Wales and was a star performer, helping the country reach the quarter-finals. At the time of his retirement, Alcchurch held the record for most caps and most goals for Wales.
19 Antonio Di Natale
Empoli and Udinese are not poor teams, but similarly they are not top teams. The fact that aged 38 and with retirement looming Antonio Di Natale has never lifted a trophy is testament to the fact he has been playing for clubs below his level. A cult hero at Udinese now, Di Natale is the eight highest scorer in Italian football history and the sixth highest in Serie A history. Between 2009 and 2011, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi scored more than Di Natale.
Despite his longevity, Di Natale has won only 42 caps for his country, a figure that would most likely be higher had he graced one of the top Milan or Turin-based teams.
18 Neil Franklin
Neil Franklin did certainly play in a very good team, the Stoke City team of 1946/47 which came agonizingly close to winning the First Division title. The departure of Stanley Matthews began the teams decline though, and in 1950, Franklin made the ill-fated decision to move to Colombia, turning down the England squad at the 1950 World Cup and playing for Santa Fe in Bogota to avoid the wage cap in England.
He returned after a number of weeks but was shunned by top flight teams, joining Hull City. The finest defender of his generation, Franklin had destroyed his career at 28, and played well below his level from then on, playing for teams such as Crewe, Stockport and Macclesfield.
17 Doctor Khumalo
As the biggest and most illustrious team in South Africa, it could be considered somewhat contentious to describe the Kaizer Chiefs as being a poor club. They are one of the giants of African football, but on the international stage, they are far from a top team. Their star performer for a number of years and the linchpin for the side throughout the 1990', Doctor Khumalo was an excellent footballer.
A gifted yet industrious midfielder with good technique and an eye for a pass, Khumalo won 50 caps for South Africa but other than two brief spells in Argentina and the U.S., Khumalo never got the chance to prove himself outside of Africa or in a genuinely good team.
16 George Best
George Best did of course play in a good team, an exceptional team in fact at one time. In his early 20's Manchester United were a real force, winning two league titles and a European Cup in 1968, an achievement which saw Best win the Ballon d'Or. However, both Best and Man Utd began a steep decline following their European success, finishing 11th the following season and being relegated the year Best left Old Trafford, in 1974. Aged 27, the Northern Irish international should have been coming into his prime. Instead, he began to grace minnows such as Jewish Guild, Dunstable Town and Stockport County. All club, with the greatest of respect, well below his level.
15 I. M. Vijayan
Inivalappil Mani Vijayan, better known as I.M. Vijayan, is a retired striker and widely regarded as one of the finest Indian footballers of all time. A country that has not been graced with many talented footballers, Vijayan was certainly a notable exception. A powerful and combative forward who scored prolifically, Vijayan had a number of offers from clubs outside of India, particularly other Asian countries, but chose not to leave his native nation. For the national team, he scored 40 goals in 79 games, but is relatively unknown outside of India having played only in the country's domestic leagues for very poor sides.
14 Jesus Arellano
A tricky winger, Jesus Arellano impressed at the 1998 World Cup in France at the age of 25 and was heavily linked with a move to Europe. Such a transfer never materialized though, and 'Cabrito' continued to ply his trade in Mexico. Throughout his career he was one of the stars of Liga MX, playing for Monterrey and Guadalajara, neither of whom are poor clubs but likewise neither of whom are major teams on the international stage.
Arellano deserved the chance to prove his worth outside of Mexico but such a chance never presented itself, he won 69 caps and scored seven goals for his country, playing in three World Cups.
13 Matt Le Tissier
A Southampton legend and (effectively) a one-club man, Matt Le Tissier's decision to spend his entire career playing on the south coast is one that divides opinion. Some, particularly Saints fans, would argue that it showed tremendous loyalty and commitment to the club, whilst others may suggest it displayed a lack of ambition and desire to play at the highest level. A very gifted attacking midfielder, Le Tissier was known for being a somewhat lazy player who was far better technically than he was physically. He is considered a Premier League legend but never won a major trophy and only won eight caps for England, arguably due to his reluctance to leave Southampton.
11 Khoren Oganesian
Widely regarded as the greatest Armenian footballer of all time, Khoren Oganesian is relatively unknown outside of the former Eastern Bloc. The son of an Armenian weightlifter, Oganesian was a graceful player with a wonderful left foot, capable of both scoring and assisting goals. He played only in Armenia and Uzbekistan, representing the USSR internationally.
Although he won four trophies at club level, the standard was poor, and Oganesian really ought to have been playing in more illustrious surroundings. He won 34 caps for the USSR, scoring six goals, against the likes of Argentina, Belgium and East Germany.
10 Giuseppe Signori
Capable as playing as both a striker or a left winger, Giuseppe Signori was prolific wherever he played. Quick, direct and possessing a powerful and accurate shot, Signori was one of the most feared forwards in Serie A throughout the 1990s. He scored a total of 260 league goals in 541 games, winning the Serie A top scorer accolade on three occasions and currently standing as the eighth highest scorer in the competitions history.
The best clubs Signori played for were Lazio and Sampdoria, neither of whom were top teams at that time, meaning the prolific forward never won a trophy in his entire career, actually coming closest with Italy in 1994 as a losing finalist at the World Cup.
9 Nicolae Dobrin
He may have played for one of the top teams in Romania at that time, but Nicolae Dobrin was a player who could have graced any team on the planet in his prime, and the fact he never had the chance to play for a top team is a real shame. There was no lack of interest in the enormously gifted attacking midfielder; Real Madrid made an offer of $2 million in 1973, but the communist Romanian regime denied Dobrin a move outside of the country, meaning he saw out his career with Arges Pitesti rather than Real Madrid.
8 Johnny Haynes
Famously the first footballer to earn £100 a week in 1961, Johnny Haynes was once described by Pele as the "best passer of the ball I've ever seen". Widely regarded as the finest player in Fulham's history, Haynes was a wonderful midfielder, with great technique, passing and vision.
He spent 18 years at Craven Cottage, effectively his entire career, and whilst it didn't effect his international career, winning 56 caps for England, it did effect his club career. Fulham were not a top team, and whilst Haynes should have been winning multiple trophies, he ended up playing much of his career in the second tier, and some even in the third.
7 Magico Gonzalez
A player of outstanding natural ability, Jorge Alberto González Barillas (better known as 'Magico Gonzalez') was capable of lighting up any game on his day. Problems with his attitude, personality and behaviour prevented him from making it at the highest level, but he repeatedly showed just how capable he was against the best in the business. Almost his entire time in Europe was spent with Cadiz, with whom he played in both the first and second tier, staying at the club despite interest from PSG, Fiorentina and Sampdoria.
Gonzalez is still a much-loved figure but had he ironed out his off-field issues and played for a top team he could have been regarded as an all-time great.
6 Willington Ortiz
Willington Ortiz is a player who had immense success in Colombia, but still makes this list by virtue of the quality, or lack of, in the Colombian league. With Millonarios and America de Cali, Ortiz won six Colombian league titles, and was the outstanding player in the division for more than a decade. The talented midfielder who was named the greatest Colombian footballer of all-time by IFFHS really should've been given a chance to prove himself in a top league, but the opportunity never came.
He won 49 caps for Colombia but just missed out on their golden generation of the 1990s, meaning he never had the chance to prove himself at a World Cup.
5 Sir Tom Finney
Sir Tom Finney did not allow playing for a lesser team to tarnish his legacy or regard within the game, still considered one of the greatest English players of all time, despite never winning a trophy. Finley spent his entire 16 year career at boyhood club Preston North-End, despite having the ability to comfortably get in any team in the country, if mot the continent.
He guided Preston to three top three finishes in the First Division and one FA Cup final, and the team was relegated a year after Finney's retirement, emphasizing his importance. Finney still won 76 caps for England, scoring 30 goals, but it is a real shame a player of his ability never won the trophies he deserved.
4 Georgi Asparuhov
Loyalty and political regimes have been the two most common reasons for great players remaining at lesser teams, and in Georgi Asparuhov's case it was a combination of the two. Playing under communist rule in Bulgaria, Asparuhov was unlikely to be granted a move outside the country, but despite interest from Benfica and AC Milan, he never stated any intention to leave his boyhood club, Levski Sofia.
Relatively unknown outside Bulgaria, within the country he is regarded as arguably their greatest ever player, with only Hristo Stoichkov for competition. Although he had domestic success, like Stoichkov, Asparuhov could have played for one of Europe's top teams. The majestic forward died in a car crash aged 28, Levski Sofia's stadium is named in his honour.
3 Lee Wai Tong
Almost unanimously regarded as the greatest Chinese footballer of all time, Lee Wai Tong is believed to have scored more than 1,000 career league goals, with some sources putting the figure as high as 1,260. Whilst the South China team he played in was the best in China at that time, it was still very poor in international terms, and well below the level Tong should have been playing.
The first time he got a chance on the international stage was the 1936 Olympic Games, at which time Arsenal tried to sign him, but were ultimately put off by the player's age (he was already 31). A German newspaper once ranked Lee Wai Tong among the five greatest players of all time, along with Pele, Puskas, Di Stefano and Stanley Matthews.
2 Lakhdar Belloumi
The finest Algerian footballer of all time and one of the finest African players to ever grace the game, Lakhdar Belloumi was a joyous attacking midfielder, excellent on the ball and capable of splitting a defense with a single pass. Another victim of his countries harsh laws, Belloumi was denied the chance to leave Algeria until the age of 27, despite interest from Juventus and Barcelona.
Despite this, Juventus still tried to make the deal happen once Belloumi turned 27. With the deal almost done, the 1982 World Cup star broke his leg, and in turn, his dreams of playing at the highest level. He won 147 caps for Algeria (101 recognized by FIFA) and scored 28 goals from midfield.
1 Vasillis Hatzipanagis
The greatest player in history to be hamstrung by never appearing for a top team, or even really a decent team, is Vasillis Hatzipanagis. Born to Greek parents who had fled the country due to war, Hatzipanagis was brought up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. There he found himself, like so many players on this list, restricted to playing only within the Eastern Bloc. He made an immediate impression in the Soviet League, even as a teenager, with Pakhtakor Tashkent, being named the league's second best player, behind only the great Oleh Blokhin one season.
Hatzipangis represented the USSR at the 1976 Olympics before finally making a desperate attempt to leave Uzbekistan. He put his faith in a Moscow-based Armenian agent who secured him a route out of the Soviet Union and back to Greece, signing for Iraklis. It was a horrible contract though, and one which left Hatzipanagis with no say over his future and Iraklis with the ability to extend his contract without negotiations. Despite interest from AEK, Lazio, Porto, Dinamo Moscow, Stuttgart and Arsenal, Iraklis held firm, fearing a backlash from fans if they were to sell. To compound matters, FIFA refused to allow the midfielder to represent Greece having already played for the Soviet Union.