Messi, Di Stefano and the rest: Players who did (do) not need World Cup glory to be remembered
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It has been generally assumed that for a player to make his mark in Football History, he should have excelled in the Finals of an International Tournament (World Cup, European Championship, etc).
However, in the History of the game there have been excellent and even legendary players who for various reasons did not perform well in Tournaments or did not participate at all.
In the current era, experts have for many years suggested that Lionel Messi must not only win the World Cup, but also dominate it in a significant fashion, to be considered as one of the greatest ever players of the game.
So far he has participated in three World Cups and two Copa Americas without winning in any. He did win the Gold Medal with the Argentinean Olympic squad in 2008, however, that Tournament is not regarded as a Major Tournament.
He was awarded the ‘Player of the World Cup’ award in the last World Cup, but many observers and even Diego Maradona himself were baffled by the decision.
Despite these International setbacks, his place in the History books seems secure due to his exploits with his club Barcelona.
Photo From: Placar, Issue 1318, May 2008(Lionel Messi)
So, is it possible to be considered a Legend of the game with a glittering club career but without an impressive International one?
Certainly there have been many examples. In fact one can go as far back as the 1930s to see glaring examples of some of the World’s best that did not participate in any World Cups.
The British Nations’ exit from FIFA membership deprived them of participation for all the World Cups of that decade.
As a result, English Internationals such as Everton’s goal scoring machine Dixie Dean and the likes of Wolverhampton’s Stan Cullis were deprived of World Cup glory.
More importantly members of Arsenal’s glorious 1930s squad were also ruled out, these included Edris Hapgood, Ted Drake, Cliff Bastin, not to mention Scottish International Alex James.
Photo From: England, Player by player, Author: Graham Betts(Dixie Dean)
Alex James’ ‘Wembley Wizard’ teammate, Hughie Gallacher of Newcastle was likewise a casualty of the Home Nations’ policy of FIFA exclusion.
Photo From: Scotland, The Team, Author: Andrew Ward(Hughie Gallacher)
Photo From: England, Player by player, Author: Graham Betts(Edris Hapgood)
George Best, 1960s Northern Ireland International, was probably one of the most talented British Player of his Generation. However, his bad luck was playing for a Nation with a virtually non-existent International pedigree. He will always be remembered for his achievements with Manchester United.
Photo From: Placar, Issue 1, March 20, 1970(George Best)
The modern British equivalent to this is the Welshman Ryan Giggs who despite serving Manchester United for over two decades was never even able to qualify for the Finals of any Major Tournament (much like his older contemporaries, Ian Rush and Mark Hughes).
Time will tell if Gareth Bale is destined to live a similar fate.
Photo From: The Game, August 1995(Ryan Giggs)
Republic of Ireland midfielder Liam Brady was one of the rare British players of the 1970s and 80s to be successful abroad. He served Arsenal and then had successful spells in Italy with Juventus, Sampdoria and Internazionale Milano.
However, in the prime of his career, the Irish National Team itself was not strong enough to qualify for Tournaments. Their ascension under Jackie Charlton occurred during Brady’s decline and eventual retirement.
Scottish Legend Kenny Dalglish never shone in the World Cup, despite playing in three. Celtic Glasgow and Liverpool were beneficiaries of his best displays, with League Titles and European Cups as rewards.
Some of England’s best players from the 1970s did not even play in any World Cup or had very limited time due to England’s non-qualification for the World Cups of 1974 and 1978.
England Superstar Kevin Keegan and West Ham United stalwart Trevor Brooking’s entire World Cup experience consists of 27 minutes during the 1982 World Cup during England’s last match there.
It is almost unbelievable when one thinks that Kevin Keegan won ‘France Football’ ’s Ballon D’Or Award in 1978 without even participating in that Year’s World Cup. The only such occurrence in the Award’s history.
He owed his election due to his impressive displays for his club SV Hamburg.
Photo From: Mondial, old series, issue 26, January 1979(Kevin Keegan)
His predecessor as Ballon D’Or winner in 1977, Denmark’s Allan Simonsen also owed his status due to his exploits with his West German club Borussia Moenchengladbach, since for most of his playing career Denmark were not a force Internationally. As a veteran he appeared once as a substitute during the 1986 World Cup as a sentimental gesture by his manager Sepp Piontek.
1960s and 70s Polish striker Wlodzimierz Lubanski was considered the most talented player of his nation and participated in Poland’s 1972 Olympics winning campaign. However, a very bad injury in a World Cup Qualifier vs. England in June 1973, sidelined him for two years and deprived him of the 1974 World Cup where an impressive Polish squad finished Third.
He did make the 1978 World Cup squad, however, by then he was in the veteran stage of his career and had an uneventful Tournament.
Mali’s Salif Keita was a trailblazer for African players making it in Europe, when he starred for French Club Saint Etienne in the 1960s. Unfortunately for him, the odds were always going to be against him in an era when Africa was only allocated a single representative in the World Cup.
Photo From: France Footbal , November 25, 1969
Liberian George Weah is another example of a great player playing for a nation not strong enough to qualify for a Major Tournament. He starred in the French league with AS Monaco and Paris St. Germain before becoming a star in the Italian Serie A with AC Milan.
1980s and 90s Ghana’s talented duo of Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah were perhaps unlucky to be born a bit too soon and missed to be a part of the successive generation of more talented Ghanaians who managed to qualify for World Cups with greater ease.
Photo From: France Football, Issue 2492, January 11, 1994(Abedi Pele)
Alfredo Di Stefano will always be remembered for Real Madrid’s domination of the 1950s. His only World Cup experience was as an ageing player on Spain’s 1962 World Cup squad, where injury prevented him from playing in a single match. He is often regarded as THE greatest player of all time only eclipsed by Pele and Maradona, yet he never played in the World Cup.
Photo From: World Soccer, June 2005(Alfredo Di Stefano)
His contemporary, the Hungarian-born Ladisalo Kubala of rivals Barcelona never played in a World Cup. Due to political reasons, he was forced to flee his native Hungary; otherwise he surely would have been a member of the glorious ‘Mighty Magyars’ squad of 1954. Afterwards as a naturalized Spaniard, just like Di Stefano, club excellence eclipsed any national team performance and Spain as a national team was simply not a force to be reckoned with despite their presence.
Photo From: Football Magazine, August 1961(Ladislao Kubala)
1940s and 50s Swedish striker Gunnar Nordahl missed World Cup participation mostly due to World War II. After starring in the 1948 Olympics, he was snapped up by AC Milan, which effectively ended his International career, in an era when foreign players were rarely released by their clubs.
His avenue in earning honors was in Italian Serie A football, where he scored over 200 goals for AC Milan.
French Stars Eric Cantona, Jean-Pierre Papin and David Ginola were part of France’s Lost Generation that came on the scene following Michel Platini’s retirement.
While a youthful Papin appeared briefly in the 1986 World Cup, Cantona and Ginola never played in a World Cup.
Talented West German midfielder Bernd Schuster also never appeared in a World Cup, although in his case his omission was self-inflicted as he was always at odds with the Management and hierarchy of German Football.
He preferred to concentrate on his club career and spent over a decade in Spain and played for all three big clubs (Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid). His class and precision passing (not to mention, his free kicks) would have been a welcome addition to West Germany’s squads of 1982 and 1986.
Generally regarded as one of the most talented Italian players of his generation, Gianfranco Zola’s World Cup experience amounted to less than 15 minutes.
He was controversially sent off in his only appearance during the 1994 World Cup vs. Nigeria, shortly after coming on as a substitute. This is a player who had no bigger fan than Maradona himself during his time at Napoli and was even more impressive during his spell at Parma and Chelsea.
One can also include Italy and Sampdoria teammates Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini, as players who had glittering club careers, without much success in the World Cup (Mancini did not even play a single minute in his only World Cup, at home in 1990).
Paulo Futre, who was Portugal’s biggest star post-Eusebio era (before the emergence of Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo), also appeared briefly during the 1986 World Cup. He is mostly remembered for his club success with Porto and specially Atletico Madrid.
Real Madrid Superstar Raul was routinely criticized for not delivering in the International stage despite playing in many World Cups and European Championships. At club level, he could do no wrong, breaking into the Real Madrid first team as a teenager and winning three Champions Leagues along the way.
1980s Spartak Moscow midfielder Fyodor Cherenkov is considered as one of the greatest talents of Soviet Football never to appear in a Major Tournament. A victim of Dinamo Kiev’s domination on the field as well as presence of their Manager (Valeri Lobanovsky) on the bench who seemed to rely heavily on his own players. USSR legend Oleg Blokhin made the USSR World Cup squads of 1982 and 1986; however, those were near the tail end of his career and were largely unimpressive. One can only wonder if he would have made an impression, if USSR had qualified for the World Cup during his heyday in the 1970s when he was starring with Dinamo Kiev.
Photo From: World Soccer, March 1999(Oleg Blokhin)
It is safe to say that Messi’s place in the History books is secure, even if he never wins any International titles, but this tag of Club Legend but International no-show will be part of his career narrative.