We pick out some of the greatest footballers who never got a taste of the biggest sporting event on the planet.
The former Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool attacking midfielder won six league titles, five domestic cups, the UEFA Cup and the Champions League at club level, but he was never able to participate in the World Cup. Litmanen made his debut for the Finland senior side in 1989, by which time his country was already out of the running to reach Italia ’90.
The Finns only won two games in their bid to reach the 1994 edition in the United States, but they were just a single point away from reaching the play-offs four years later. In Litmanen’s final qualification campaign ahead of the 2010 finals, Finland finished four points adrift of second-placed Russia, who advanced to the play-offs.
Alfredo Di Stefano
Undoubtedly one of the greatest players to have ever walked the earth, Di Stefano represented three different national sides – his native Argentina, Spain and Colombia – without ever taking part in the World Cup.
Timing was his problem. Di Stefano was a Colombia international by the time the tournament resumed after the Second World War in 1950, but Los Cafeteros failed to make it to Brazil. The Real Madrid legend had switched allegiance before the 1958 competition, yet Spain fell short in qualifying that year and were unable to use Di Stefano in 1962 because of injury.
Widely regarded as one of the most talented British footballers to have ever played the game, Best won only 37 caps for Northern Ireland and did not get the chance to take part in a World Cup. The Green and Whites missed out on the 1966 tournament by a single point, while the Manchester United icon had retired from international football five years before his country’s appearance at the 1982 finals.
“George Best was one of the most talented players of all time and probably the best footballer who never made it to a major world final,” said Franz Beckenbauer.
Another Brit whose place in the Manchester United history books has long been assured, Giggs never competed at an international tournament – with the exception of the Olympic Games in 2012, when he played for Great Britain – during his illustrious career.
The winger’s Wales side missed out on a place at USA ’94 by just three points, but did not come close to qualifying in 1998, 2002 or 2006, with Giggs retiring from international duty a year after the latter tournament in Germany. Last month’s loss to the Republic of Ireland means Wales’ wait for another World Cup appearance will reach 64 years – the last time they appeared in the competition was in 1958.
Hailing from Liberia, it was always going to be an uphill struggle for the 1995 Ballon d’Or winner to take part in a World Cup. Weah was the undisputed star of the national team and was even known to help fund away trips, but even his extraordinary talent was not enough to drag the Lone Stars over the line.
The closest the striker came was around the turn of the millennium: Weah and Liberia finished just one point behind Nigeria in qualification for the 2002 World Cup, thus narrowly missing out on a place in Japan and South Korea.
One of the most influential players in Premier League history, Cantona scored 20 goals in 45 appearances for France but did not appear in a World Cup as Les Bleus crashed and burned on the path to Italia ’90 and USA ’94.
The most painful failure came in the campaign to reach the latter competition, when France conceded a last-minute winner to Bulgaria in a game they only needed a point from to qualify. By the time of the 1998 World Cup on home soil, meanwhile, Cantona had hung up his boots.
Unlike the names above, Schuster was not from a country who failed to qualify for World Cups during his career; in fact, between the midfielder’s first and last appearances as a professional, his native Germany reached three finals in 1982, 1986 and 1990.
Schuster was certainly good enough to have been part of die Mannschaft’s travelling party – he did play for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid after all – but he retired from the international game at just 24 due to frequent disagreements with the German Football Association.
The father of Premier League forwards Andre and Jordan Ayew, Abedi Pele remains one of the greatest African players in the history of the game. Yet despite his lofty standing, the Ghanaian continually fell short in his attempts to reach the World Cup.
It is worth pointing out that qualification was much more difficult for African nations in previous decades, with just two places up for grabs in 1982, 1986 and 1990. The Black Stars missed out on all three of those tournaments, and later failed to secure a spot in the 1994 and 1998 editions.
Kubala was scoring goals for fun for Barcelona during Hungary’s heyday in the 1950s, yet the striker – who played six games for Czechoslovakia early in his career – never represented the country of his birth at a World Cup. That’s because he switched his international allegiance to Spain in 1953, just a year before the Hungarians reached the final of the 1954 tournament in Switzerland.
Kubala looked set to finally break his World Cup duck in 1962, but he failed to play a single minute for Spain in Chile due to injury.
Mazzola was the captain and star man of the great Torino team who won five Serie A titles in the 1940s. But with the World Cup on hold throughout that decade due to the Second World War, the attacking midfielder was never able to play for Italy in the sport’s biggest international tournament.
Mazzola was one of the victims of the Superga air disaster, a tragedy which killed 18 Torino players in 1949. His life was cut short at the tender age of 30.
By Greg Lea
Greg Lea is a freelance football writer for FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and various others. Follow his Twitter account @GregLeaFootball for anything and everything related to soccer and more.