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Top Tenner: World Cup Absentees

The World Cup has seen the finest talents football has had to offer, but a few greats have never made it to the biggest stage. Here are ten of the best players never to appear at the World Cup…

10. Ryan Giggs

There are basically three main reasons for a great player to miss out on the World Cup – there is some unfortunate circumstance involved, you were born in the wrong era or simply that the country you play for is historically just a bit rubbish.

Ryan Giggs fits into the second, but more the third, having been the finest winger of his generation not just in the Premier League, but probably in Europe. His attitude towards playing for his country was always a little questionable, with conveniently-timed niggles popping up when Wales played friendlies, but such was the paucity of alternative talent he probably wouldn’t have made it to the biggest stage even if he had played every game. We might well be writing similar about Gareth Bale in ten years time.

9. Valentino Mazzola

A representative of a whole team, Valentino Mazzola was perhaps the finest talent of his generation, an ‘all-round’ midfielder who was captain of the all-conquering Torino side of the 1940s. Il Grande Torino had won five successive Scudettos between 1943-1949, and shortly before claiming the fifth they flew to Lisbon to play Benfica in a friendly arranged by Mazzola.

On the return journey, thick fog around Turin caused their plane to fly straight into the side of the Superga hill, killing everyone on board. So dominant were Torino that for an Italy friendly against Hungary in 1947, they provided ten of the starting 11, including Mazzola, and had the accident not occurred they would surely have provided the bulk of the Italian team that travelled to Brazil in 1950.

Valetino’s son Sandro would go on to do what his father never had a chance to, travelling to the 1966, 1970 and 1974 World Cups, to add to the two European Cups he won with Inter.

8. Ian Rush

Perhaps the finest natural goalscorer to miss out on the World Cup, Rush was — like Giggs — hamstrung by birth, representing a nation that rarely seriously challenged for a tournament place.

The closest Rush came was when Wales came within a penalty of qualifying for the 1994 tournament, needing a win over Romania to make it through to the USA. The score was 1-1 when Gary Speed was felled and a penalty awarded, with the usually-reliable Paul Bodin on duty from 12 yards. Alas, Bodin’s kick smacked the crossbar, Romania took control of the game and eventually got a winner through Florin Raducioiu.

7. Gunnar Nordahl

In theory, Sweden should have been among the favourites at the 1950 World Cup. After all, they had just won the 1948 Olympics when that was more of an indicator of a side’s quality than it is now, and they had the devastating trio of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm, the three forwards known as ‘Gre-No-Li’ that had sliced and diced defences for fun in the yellow of Sweden.

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However, in an act of outrageous self-destruction, the Swedish FA decided they couldn’t take the three with them to Brazil because they had all joined AC Milan, and no foreign-registered players were allowed. The rules were relaxed by the time Sweden hosted the World Cup in 1958, but so was Nordahl, having retired shortly before the tournament, a mighty impressive 43 goals in 33 international appearances to his name.

6. Jim Baxter

In some ways, Jim Baxter had something better than appearing at the World Cup in his career. Baxter, the outrageously talented midfielder, made his name at Rangers before a move to England, and it was after leaving his homeland that he had perhaps his finest moment in a Scotland shirt.

Baxter was the star as Scotland beat world champions England 3-2 at Wembley in 1967, running rings around Charlton, Stiles, Peters et al and famously doing keepy-uppies while waiting for teammates to get in position. The closest Baxter came to a World Cup was in 1962, when Scotland finished level with Czechoslovakia, only to lose a playoff to the team that would eventually be beaten by Brazil in the final. But Baxter will always have Wembley.

Jim Baxter is mobbed by pitch-invading Scotland fans after the famous 1967 victory at Wembley
Jim Baxter is mobbed by pitch-invading Scotland fans after the famous 1967 victory at Wembley

5. Bernd Schuster

There’s a decent case to be made for Schuster being the most underrated footballer of all time, and his relative lack of international action might be the primary reason for that. Despite a brilliant club career in which he won league titles with both Barcelona and Real Madrid, Schuster’s often difficult relationship with authority spilled over into his international days, curtailing them severely.

Schuster was part of the West German side that won the European Championships in 1980, coming second in the player of the tournament rankings, but a knee injury prevented him from participating in the 1982 World Cup and by 1986 he had fairly emphatically burned his bridges.

Schuster retired from international football aged just 24, after a series of disagreements over playing in various friendlies, causing something of a scandal by refusing to play in a friendly after being denied permission to attend the birth of his son. Given Schuster was only 30 when West Germany won the World Cup in 1990, this was a fairly big opportunity missed.

4. Laszlo Kubala

International team hop-scotch wasn’t particularly uncommon in years gone by, and not always just for convenience or on a whim.

Kubala, born in Budapest, technically appeared for four countries, starting out with Czechoslovakia where he had allegedly moved to avoid national service in his homeland, before trying the same trick a couple of years later and returning to Hungary, for whom he played three times.

He then moved to Barcelona, and thus took Spanish citizenship, turning out for both them and a Catalan XI in his time in La Liga. However, despite scoring 11 goals in 19 games for Spain, he never played in the World Cup, missing out in 1962 due to injury.

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3. Eric Cantona

He’s not a man that one imagines contemplates ‘what ifs’ very much, but there are more than a few of them in Eric Cantona’s career. What if he hadn’t retired in 1997, for example — would he have helped Manchester United to the treble two years later?

Arguably an even bigger ‘what if’ surrounds his international career, which ended in 1995 after he was suspended for kicking Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons. Cantona was actually French captain at the time as Aime Jacquet looked towards Euro 96, but while he was welcomed back into the Manchester United side after his dues had been paid, he couldn’t break into the French team, with one Zinedine Zidane having taken over playmaking duties.

Would Cantona have held on for the 1998 World Cup in his homeland, had he been part of the French set-up? We can only wistfully imagine.

2. George Best

George Best, in truth, didn’t take international football terribly seriously, reasoning that his best efforts should probably be saved for a team that had a chance of winning something. Still, he very nearly did get a chance to display his talents on the world stage, as Northern Ireland only narrowly missed out on qualification for the 1966 World Cup, failing after only managing a draw against the relatively lowly Albanians, and weren’t a million miles away from making it in 1970 either.

When Northern Ireland eventually did qualify in 1982, Billy Bingham briefly considered calling a 36-year-old and frankly past-it Best up, but thought better of it in the end. “George Best was one of the most talented players of all time,” Franz Beckenbauer once said, “And probably the best footballer who never made it to a major world final.”

1. Alfredo di Stefano

Alfredo di Stefano wanted to play at the World Cup so much that he tried three countries in order to get there. Back in the 1940s and 50s, country-hopping was a little more common today, so few batted an eyelid when Di Stefano, who had already collected six caps for his native Argentina, represented Colombia after moving there to play for Millonarios.

Few, that is, apart from FIFA, who banned both Di Stefano and his new country from participating, while Argentina themselves didn’t even enter the 1950 or 1954 tournaments.

Not to be discouraged, Di Stefano switched countries again, turning out 31 times for Spain after his move to Real Madrid in 1953, but even then he missed out on the quadrennial jamboree. Spain rather improbably failed to qualify for the 1958 tournament, despite being drawn in a group with the rather less-than-fearsome Scotland and Switzerland, and while they did make it through in 1962, the 36-year-old Di Stefano was carrying an injury and didn’t play a minute, despite being named in the squad.

SOURCE: ESPN FC

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