There is no sport on the planet that can unite all races, colors, and creeds quite like soccer. In North America, fans are blessed to have sports like football, basketball, and baseball. There is no question about that. However, while these sports are popular around the world, soccer is the sport that consistently dominates in almost every single continent known to man.
It is estimated that more than half the population of the planet tuned in to watch the 2018 World Cup in Russia. If this doesn’t speak volumes for the ever-growing popularity of soccer, then nothing will. The tournaments biggest stars, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, would unquestionably be recognized in practically every single major city on Earth.
For players like Messi and Ronaldo – who have achieved absolutely everything there is to in domestic soccer – the World Cup is the final piece of the puzzle. The greats of days gone by will forever be judged on their performances in soccer’s greatest tournament, but at the end of the day, what really matters is having a World Cup win on their resume.
As almost every sports fan will know, sport can often be cruel and unfair. The World Cup has seen some of the cruelest and unfair scenarios play out in front of a global audience. From some of the greatest players in the world falling at the final hurdle to bona fide masters of the game not even making it as far as the tournament finals, join me as I take a look at the five iconic soccer stars never to have won a World Cup.
It’s probably best to grab some tissues for this one.
There have been some incredibly gifted and unmistakably talented players to have missed out on a World Cup medal over the years. Naturally, we can’t fit every single one into a list of 5. Before we begin the countdown of these five unfortunate stars, keep in mind that the criteria I used to compile this list are:
While some players will inevitably miss out, I feel confident that the unfortunate circumstances suffered by the five men below will resonate in even the hardest of hearts.
With that, let’s take a look at the first player on this list, Portugal’s legendary Eusebio.
Before the emergence of Cristiano Ronaldo, there was no doubt who the greatest ever Portuguese soccer star was: Eusebio. To this day, in spite of Ronaldo’s incredible impact on the world of soccer, there are many who believe the “Black Panther” to still be the greatest star to emerge from the small Iberian Republic. Yes, Eusebio played in a different era, but comparisons will always remain.
When we look at the Benfica legend’s statistics, there is certainly a case to argue that he was one of the greatest of all time. Eusebio finished his career with an exceptional 464 goals in 495 games. He was won a European Player of the Year, a World Cup Golden Boot, two European Golden Shoes, three European Cup Top Scorer, and two Portuguese Player of the Year awards in his illustrious career.
Aside from the records, Eusebio’s greatness will always be apparent by just how talented he was with a football at his feet. Throughout his era, during the 1960s and 1970s, the ball was a tough and heavy mass of leather. Players’ boots, on the other hand, were far from the classy, scientifically-engineered products they are today. Regardless, Eusebio appeared to float around the pitch gracefully with the ball seemingly stuck to his feet.
While Ronaldo’s greatest rival in the modern age is unquestionably the Argentine legend, Lionel Messi, Eusebio was considered a great at the same time when players like Pele, Di Stefano, Puskas, and Beckenbauer were wowing fans across the planet. Make no mistake, Eusebio will forever be considered as one of the true legends of the game, World Cup medal or no World Cup medal. Still, it would have been nice to see him lift the trophy.
It should probably come as no surprise that Portugal’s wait for an appearance at the FIFA World Cup would end while Eusebio was in the team. In 1966, Portugal qualified for their first ever World Cup in England. Their star player, the “Black Pearl” himself, ensured that the Portuguese would top the group ahead of Bulgaria, Hungary, and Brazil (who were missing Pele through injury). Eusebio’s three goals helped Portugal to a quarter-final appearance against the unfancied North Koreans.
When North Korea put three past the Portuguese without reply, the country must have feared the worst. Regardless, they had their own version of Superman to come to the rescue. Eusebio led his team to a charge that ended up as one of the greatest comebacks in World Cup history, scoring four goals in a row on route to a 5-3 win. The all-time great would see his team face the hosts, England, in the semi-finals, scoring once in a heartbreaking 2-1 defeat.
Make no mistake, if things would have gone Portugal’s way (including a controversial last-minute change in venue from Anfield to Wembley), Eusebio could have earned his first World Cup in his first attempt. He finished top scorer in the competition, but would never play in the tournament again.
There is no one in the history of “The Beautiful Game” that had the credentials of Johan Cruyff. An incredibly gifted player, the Dutchman was also an exemplary coach, man-manager, and trailblazer of the sport. There is little doubt that the effects Cruyff had on the game throughout his glittering career are still felt, and his death at the relatively young age of 68 in 2016 left the world of soccer feeling a lot emptier.
Despite a recent run of poor form, the Dutch international team is still considered among the heavyweights of soccer. The nation is synonymous with the slick, skillful, technical side of the sport, even if they have endured their worst era in many decades. A major reason for the Netherlands’ VIP presence in soccer is down to Cruyff. When the Amsterdam-born midfielder/forward began his career, his country had a more modest reputation in the sport.
Cruyff was 17 when he made his debut for Ajax and would score 16 goals in just 19 games en route to winning his first championship with his boyhood club. Another six championships would be collected in his career, before he moved to Spanish giants, Barcelona, in 1973. By this time, Cruyff had been playing for the national team for 7 years, having made a goalscoring debut against Hungary in 1966.
The legendary Dutchman was renowned for being his own person, becoming one of the first professional footballers in the international game to wear a number outside of the usual 1-11. He also refused to wear the three stripes of Adidas – the kit producer for the Netherlands – in favor of two, due to his individual sponsorship deal with their rival company, Puma.
A superstar in his own right, sometimes it is easy to forget just how impactful Cruyff was on the pitch rather than as a brand. When it comes to his credentials in the World Cup, Cruyff was within touching distance of winning the tournament in 1974, only to be beaten by West Germany (the hosts). The one appearance in the final was the closest he would ever get to lifting the trophy.
It was heartbreaking at the time to see the “Total Football” of the Netherlands beaten by the sturdy, defensive-minded tactics of the hosts. Cruyff, the three-time Balon d’Or winner, had exhibited some incredible skills that year, exhibiting the now famous “Cruyff Turn” and spearheading an attacking game that wowed audiences all around the world.
Cruyff would never feature in another World Cup. The Dutch legend retired from international soccer in October 1977, having helped his country to reach the finals in 1978 (where they would go on to finish as runners-up once more). Had Cruyff featured at Argentina 1978, there is a strong chance that he could have made the difference. Following a kidnapping attempt in Barcelona in 1977, Cruyff did not want to take the chance of playing in South America.
When soccer legend Pele refers to you as “the greatest player in the world,” you must be special. George Best, in the eyes of many more than Pele, was more than special: he was the best. One of the legendary darlings of England’s iconic Manchester United, the Irishman was one of a kind. With Hollywood-style good lucks, Best was the first ever transcendent footballer. He was often referred to as the “Fifth Beatle.”
Best was at the height of his powers in 1968 for the Manchester-based club. A technical master, the Belfast-born superstar possessed blistering pace, incredible vision, jaw-dropping dribbling skills, and a sharp eye for goal. He pretty much had it all, in abundance. That year, he won the Ballon d’Or, having guided United to the European Cup (the present-day UEFA Champion’s League).
For Best, everything began to progressively decline from here. Although he was worshipped by the Manchester United faithful – and adored by fans all across the world – his love of the party lifestyle would see him lose his spark. Best loved women and alcohol and both served as major distractions to his efforts on the pitch. By 1972, he had run afoul of management and his fellow players.
The mercurial Belfast-born superstar was one of the most gifted players in the history of soccer and will always be remembered for his glory days. Although his later career resembled that of a traveling mercenary, George Best’s impression on soccer will always remain. It is sad that this great talent never got to get his hands around a World Cup Trophy, given that it would have looked even more dazzling in his possession.
On the Island of Ireland, over 800 years of warfare with neighboring Britain resulted in the breakup of the country in the early 20th century. Partition was imposed, splitting six counties in the north of the country away from the other 26. Those six counties would become Northern Ireland, the country that Best would represent in his time as an international soccer player.
Unfortunately for Best, the small province did not qualify for a FIFA World Cup while he was active as a player. They had made the quarter-finals of the 1958 tournament in Sweden and would make the 1982 version in Spain, years after Best had stopped playing at the highest level. It is unfortunate for the world of soccer that one of its brightest talents did not get the opportunity to shine on the highest stage of world soccer.
Best would have surely contributed a few individual highlights if he had made it that far. Soccer just has a habit of depriving fans of moments that would have been enjoyed for years to come. On talent alone, Best is certainly one of the greatest players never to win a World Cup and the most incredible talent never to feature in one.
For the past decade, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo has wowed audiences around the world with his unbelievable array of talents. Having broken onto the scene as a thin, talented, yet inconsistent starlet of Manchester United, it wasn’t long before he was earning comparisons with his predecessor on this list, George Best. Not long after, Ronaldo would be heralded as the greatest player in the world… for a short time.
The emergence of Argentina’s Lionel Messi saw Ronaldo find himself in the midst of a battle for supremacy with Barcelona’s star man. The Portuguese left United with Premiership titles and a UEFA Champion’s League medal to join Real Madrid in Spain, Barcelona’s arch-rivals and their only competition in the Primera Liga. While the battle to clean up in on the domestic level was happening, Ronaldo was also leading his homeland in major tournaments.
As of 2018, Ronaldo has featured in eight major tournaments for Portugal, scoring in every one since he made his debut for the national team at the age of just 18. In his first tournament, Euro 2004, Ronaldo spearheaded the Portuguese attack that reached the final (only to lose out in shocking circumstances to unfancied Greece). He would win the UEFA European Cup with Portugal in 2016 and became the highest international goalscorer of all time.
Having won almost everything there is to win, including multiple domestic titles, several cups, and numerous UEFA Champions’s League titles, the one achievement that would cement Ronaldo as arguably the greatest player of all time is a FIFA World Cup medal. The closest the Madeiran ever got to the trophy was a fourth-placed finish in his first attempt in 2006.
For Ronaldo, the FIFA World Cup would have certainly made it hard for anyone to argue against him claiming the mantle as the best to ever lace up boots. His extraordinary abilities and achievements have seen him carve out one of the most truly remarkable careers in the sport, and he has worked effortlessly to help his country attain as much success as possible on the global stage.
In 2006, Portugal had a very strong team that was punctuated by Ronaldo’s sizzling talents. Having played very well throughout the tournament, the team would come agonizingly close to their first-ever appearance in the final, losing out to a Zinedine Zidane (Ronaldo’s future coach at Real Madrid) penalty. Iberian rivals and eventual winners, Spain, knocked Portugal out of the tournament in 2010.
In 2014, following a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of tournament winners, Germany, Portugal would be eliminated at the group stages only to see the United States progress at their expense. 2018 saw Ronaldo possibly play in his last ever World Cup in Russia. Portugal were eliminated in the first stage of the knockout rounds by Uruguay. Ronaldo made the tournament’s Dream Team, finishing with four goals.
While Ronaldo has everything else a player could ever dream of, in terms of accomplishments, commercial success, and fame, there is no doubt that he would have felt more complete with a World Cup winner’s medal. For the exceptionally gifted Portuguese, it was just not meant to be. Will he be there in 2022? It seems highly doubtful, but stranger things have happened…
If Ronaldo is a Greek God, then Lionel Messi is an alien gifted to the world of soccer. A standout talent from a very young age, Messi was also severely small in stature and was doubted to have the size necessary to make it in the professional game. FC Barcelona in Spain would catch wind of the young Argentine’s skills, however, taking him to Spain and agreeing to pay for therapy for his growth hormone deficiency.
Messi, a quiet and reserved kid, would work his way up through the ranks of the Barcelona youth academies until he hit the first team. His breakthrough in the Barcelona first team coincided with a golden era of talent that included homegrown players like Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, and Pedro. The Argentine fast became the star player of the team under the tutelage of the impressive Pep Guardiola.
All in all, Messi would clean up at the domestic and European level, winning an unprecedented number of titles, cups, and UEFA Champion’s League titles. His legendary rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo was a key feature of his career and arguably improved him as a player. He is widely considered to be the greatest player to have ever taken to a soccer pitch, and his accolades certainly speak volumes for this claim.
However, on the international stage, Messi has often run into criticism. The Rosario-native could not replicate the success he had at the domestic level while playing for La Albiceleste.
When Messi became the youngest Argentine to ever score in a FIFA World Cup, in 2006, expectations in his homeland for the future were understandably high. That year, Argentina reached the quarter-finals, losing out to rivals and hosts, Germany, on penalties. It was heartbreaking for Messi, but he still had youth on his side and would have surely been confident of having more chances in the years to come.
In 2010, Argentina was expected to do a lot better than their previous showing. The expectation was justified, considering players like Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano, and many more packed one of the most impressive squads in the tournament. Once again, they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Germany. This time, the 4-0 scoreline wasn’t as close, however.
Nonetheless, Messi was still young heading into 2014 in South Africa. Expectations were perhaps the highest they had been in quite some time for Argentina, considering Messi’s exploits and the fact that the team were the reigning Copa America champions. The team finished top of their group, scraped past Switzerland and Belgium, before overcoming the Netherlands in the semi-finals, by way of a penalty shootout. Suddenly, Messi found himself in a FIFA World Cup Final.
Ominously, the Argentines found themselves pitted against perhaps their greatest rivals on the world stage, Germany. The game was a tight affair, with both teams appearing tentative and reluctant to go for the win. The game ended 0-0 in regular time and moved on to extra-time. During the second period, Germany’s Mario Gotze found the net in the 113th minute, breaking Argentine hearts. Messi was devastated.
In Russia 2018, a tournament that could be Messi’s final ever appearance at a World Cup, Argentina were poor. A 1-1 draw with Iceland in their first game was followed by a 3-0 hammering at the hands of Croatia. Nonetheless, the team scraped past Nigeria to reach the knockout rounds, where they lost 4-3 to France. The team was lambasted at home and Messi once again came in for huge criticism.
Of all the players above, you probably have to give it to Messi, but just about. The Argentine’s talents certainly deserved at least one World Cup medal in his career. The fact that Argentina came so close to winning the tournament in 2014 certainly helps his case and will likely be the closest Messi ever gets to the trophy in his playing career. It was a case of so close, yet, so far.
However, if there is one criticism of Messi when it comes to performances in the World Cup, it is that he sometimes had a habit of looking a little anonymous. He was seldom the same player in the blue and white stripes of his homeland than he was for Barcelona. Conversely, Ronaldo showed us over the years that he could turn on the style for Portugal when it mattered, even if he did have a couple of underwhelming tournaments.
Of those on this list who deserved more, however, it was certainly George Best. The fact that a player of his caliber never even featured at a World Cup is heartbreaking, in itself. Eusebio and Cruyff, two of soccer’s brightest ever stars, only made one.
I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: sometimes life is just not fair.