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The FIFA World Cup is the biggest trophy in football and lifting it is the pinnacle of any footballer’s career, and an instant pathway to footballing immortality – it’s a dream any player would hope to achieve while growing up.
But many times, uncontrollable factors, such as fortune, timing, and a supporting cast play a decisive role in World Cup success making some of the game’s finest players in history be denied the opportunity to lift the grandest of all football trophies in the world.
Some players represented nations that had no chance of winning the tournament, while some footballers have been agonizingly close to winning the trophy.
With the 2022 edition of the World Cup set to kick off in Qatar, a couple of players would once again try to win the prestigious trophy while it’s probably the final opportunity for the duo of Messi and Ronaldo to etch their names in football folklore.
NaijNaira takes a look back at those great players who never lifted the World Cup.
Top 10 Best Players To Never Win World Cup
10. Paolo Maldini – Italy
The Italian stalwart needs no introduction. In a career that spanned twenty-five seasons with tremendous hard work, the stallion of a defender was never part of Italy’s World Cup-winning teams on four different occasions.
The tackling mastermind and his Italian teammates never managed to lift the esteemed trophy in four attempts.
However, he may be quite satisfied with winning the FIFA Club World Cup in 2007 with Milan, plus the seven Serie A titles and five European Cups that came his way during a career-long love affair with the Rossoneri.
9. George Weah – Liberia
George is the 1995 Ballon d’Or winner, but if put on the spot and asked to pick one between winning the individual accolade and the FIFA World Cup, he would pick the latter and become the only captain from Africa to win the famous old trophy.
It’s a shame Weah and his countrymen never qualified for the finals after coming closest to qualifying for the Mundial in 2002 when a single point denied them qualification.
8. Zico – Brazil
In the 1980s, Socrates was the brain of the famed Brazil team; but Zico was the heartbeat. He played in the middle of the 24-year span between Pele’s final World Cup win and when Ronaldo emerged.
Zico was a scorer, playmaker, and magician who was also proficient in creating goals.
He, along with Sócrates, Falco, and Eder, among other great Brazilian soccer players with the same name, were considered tournament favorites but were knocked out in the second round by Italy in what is still regarded as one of the worst losses in Brazilian soccer history.
7. Roberto Baggio – Italy
Baggio came gallingly close to being the hero for the Italians during the final of the 1994 edition of the tournament against Brazil, but instead became the nemesis of his own country after missing the decisive spot-kick that should’ve sealed the trophy for the Azzurri.
Baggio however is the only Italian player to score in three World Cups – scoring nine goals in total. The Italian was on a third-place team in 1990, and the runner-up Italian team that lost to Brazil on penalty kicks in 1994.
Baggio won the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 1993, as well as two Serie A titles, and became the first Italian to score 300 goals in 50 years.
6. Eusebio – Portugal
The Mozambique-born Portuguese superstar was one of the most efficient strikers in the history of football. The frontman only managed one World Cup finals appearance but managed an impressive nine goals, four of which came in the quarter-finals.
The one-time Ballon d’Or winner and two-time runner-up scored a staggering 749 goals in 745 appearances for a range of European and North American teams and was the first-ever player to win the European Golden Boot.
He has gone down as Benfica’s greatest-ever player and to many old-school football fans, he is seen as Africa’s greatest-ever player despite playing his international football with Portugal.
5. Michel Platini – France
The former UEFA Numero Uno had a stellar playing career, winning three Ballon d’Or awards, and was a major catalyst at Juve. Platini led the Old Ladies to one UEFA Champions League glory, two Serie A titles, and one Italian Cup.
On the international stage, Platini notched forty-two goals in seventy appearances for Les Bleus. He also propelled France to claim the European Championship in 1984.
Sadly, the 3-time Ballon d’Or winner couldn’t lead the French national team to the FIFA World Cup glory after four attempts. The farthest he reached was the semifinals of the tournament in 1982 and a third-place finish in 1986.
4. Alfredo Di Stefano – Spain
If the Real Madrid of the past decade has belonged to Ronaldo, then the Los Blancos of the 1950s and 1960s are without doubt Di Stefano’s.
The Argentina-born Spaniard was the driving force behind five consecutive European Cup triumphs, yet he couldn’t bring the same success to any of the national teams he represented.
Both Spain and his country of birth were still developing as footballing nations, while a four-cap spell with Colombia was never going to yield World Cup immortality, not that he needed it given his ranking in Madrid.
Di Stefano led Real Madrid to five successive European cup victories and formed a lethal partnership with the Hungarian Ferenc Puskas in the Spanish capital.
3. Johan Cruyff – Netherlands
Cruyff was as monumental a player as he was later a manager. The Dutch wizard transformed modern football, leading the Netherlands to the World Cup final in 1974 – he was named Player of the Tournament – where Total Football was beaten by West Germany.
While predominantly a winger, the dutchman was able to play without fault almost anywhere on the park, something he later carried into, with ultimate success, his managerial career.
He is arguably the best player in European history – he won three European Cups and was awarded three Ballon d’Or awards. It’s a marvel how Cruyff, along with a very talented Dutch side, never won a World Cup.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal
While many have doubted Ronaldo’s all-round ability, nobody has ever criticized the strength of his finishing.
The Manchester United forward has participated in the iconic tournament on four separate occasions, namely in 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018. His record in the tournament stands at seven goals and two assists in 17 games.
Having won almost everything in his illustrious career – including the 2016 Euros and 2019 Nations League with Portugal – there is one glaring lacuna in his trophy cabinet which is for the FIFA World Cup, and at 37 years of age, it’s difficult to see him rectifying that even as the Qatar 2022 World Cup inches closer.
1. Lionel Messi – Argentina
Undoubtedly, the missing piece in Lionel Messi’s impeccable career is the World cup, a trophy he tantalizingly came close to clinching in 2014 only to lose after an extra-time goal by Germany’s Mario Goetze.
His biggest international success would come in 2021 as he, the eventual player of the tournament, guided La Albiceleste to the Copa America title having finished as runners-up on three different occasions.
Much like Ronaldo, fans of La Pulga are pinning their hopes on Argentina in the World Cup finals this December, and following their success in the Copa America as well as comfortably topping their group, many are hoping this could be the fairy-tale ending to Lionel Messi’s relatively lackluster international career.
This article was updated 3 months ago