World Cup: Best players never to play in it or never to win a title

David Beckham
England’s David Beckham celebrates after scoring the opening goal during a round of 16 World Cup match against Ecuador on June 25, 2006.
(Matt Dunham / Associated Press)

Even great players aren’t guaranteed a chance to play in a World Cup. And the vast majority of those who make it to the tournament never get to hoist the trophy. Here are our choices for the 10 best players never to play in a World Cup, followed by the top 10 players never to win a title.

Never to reach the tournament


World Cup: A listing of soccer players who had never reached a World Cup final or won the championship in the May 18 Sports section contained two errors. It reported that Arsenio Enrico of Paraguay was 15 when Uruguay finished ninth in the 1930 tournament. It was his country, Paraguay, that finished ninth in that tournament. The listing also reported that David Beckham played a record 115 games for the English national team. Peter Shilton holds England’s record for games played with 125.

1. Alfredo Di Stefano (Spain). Born in Argentina, Di Stefano spent most of his career in Spain, scoring 23 goals in 31 games with the national team. He helped Spain qualify for the 1962 World Cup but an injury prevented him from playing and he retired shortly afterward.

2. George Weah (Liberia). The only African to be selected FIFA player of the year, Weah was also voted the top African player of the 20th century. He proved his worth with many teams, including Monaco, PSG, AC Milan and Chelsea, and though he played in 60 games for Liberia over two decades, the country never advanced beyond the qualifying rounds.

3. Ian Rush (Wales). Liverpool’s all-time scoring leader with 346 goals, Rush debuted on the Welsh national team as a teenager in 1980. But during his career, Wales never qualified for a major tournament. In fact, the Welsh have played in only one World Cup, in 1958.

4. Jari Olavi Litmanen (Finland). The first-choice captain of the Finnish national team, Litmanen’s career ran from 1989 to 2010, making him the only male to play in an international game in four decades. He set national records with 137 caps and 32 goals to earn recognitions as Finland’s greatest player. But Litmanen never got to display those talents on soccer’s biggest stage since Finland has never qualified for a World Cup.

5. George Best (Northern Ireland). Best played for 19 clubs, including Manchester United and the Los Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League. He was capped 37 times for Northern Ireland and was briefly considered for a spot on the 1982 World Cup team — the only time the country qualified during Best’s career — but at 36 he was well past his prime.

6. Ryan Giggs (Wales). As with Rush, Giggs’ World Cup ambitions ended at birth in Cardiff. He made an English Premier League record 632 appearances for Manchester United, finishing as the team’s player-coach. He was captain of the British team in the 2012 London Olympics.

7. Eric Cantona (France). Cantona played a major role in the revival of Manchester United under Coach Alex Ferguson in the 1990s. And though he played eight years on the French national team, they did not qualify for the 1990 and 1994 tournaments and Cantona soon lost his place on the squad to Zinedine Zidane.

8. Arsenio Erico (Paraguay). The all-time leading scorer in Argentina’s first division, Erico, who played from 1930 to 1949, lost two World Cup opportunities to World War II and two others when Paraguay did not enter. He was 15 when Uruguay finished ninth in the 1930 tournament.

9. Laszlo Kubala (Hungary, et al). Born in Hungary in 1927, Kubala took advantage of the lax rules at the time to play for Czechoslovakia, Spain and even Catalonia in addition to his native country during a 21-year career delayed by World War II. But he had bad luck in picking teams, quitting the Czech and Hungarian teams before they qualified for three consecutive World Cups, then making it to the tournament with Spain in 1962 only to be sidelined because of injury.

10. Valentino Mazzola (Italy). Considered one of the best players of all-time and one of the first modern all-around players, the Italian captain’s career was cut short when he was killed in the Superga disaster, named after the hill near Turin, Italy, where the plane carrying the Torino team crashed in 1949, killing 31. Mazzola was 30. Italy reached the World Cup a year later.

Never to win a title

1. Eusebio (Portugal). Eusebio scored 733 goals in 745 games, including 41 goals for Portugal, one on a penalty shot in the 1966 World Cup semifinal loss to eventual-champion England. Eusebio, who scored a tournament-high nine goals in 1966, broke down at the final whistle of that defeat and in Portugal the game is known as the game of tears.

2. Johan Cruyff (Netherlands). Voted Europe’s top player of the 20th Century and second only to Pele for world player of the century, Cruyff scored 33 goals in 48 games for Holland, which never lost a game in which he scored. And though he was selected the player of the tournament in the 1974 World Cup, he didn’t scored in the final, which West Germany won in an upset, 2-1. After leading the Netherlands through qualifying for the 1978 World Cup, Cruyff retired before that tournament and the Dutch went on to finish second again.

3. Ferenc Puskas (Hungary). Puskas, who scored 84 times in 85 caps, was the top player of the 1954 tournament. But the Hungary, which also featured high-scoring forward Sandor Kocsis and were unbeaten over five years and 32 games entering the tournament, were upset by West Germany in a final played in horrendous conditions. Puskas played the final with a hairline fracture of an ankle, yet still scored a goal and had what would have been the tying goal in the final minutes but it was waved off by an offside call.

4. Sir Stanley Matthews (England). The only player to be knighted before retiring, Matthews played in England’s first division until age 50 and played his last competitive game when he was 70. World War II wiped out the World Cup during Matthews’ prime, although he did play in the tournament in 1950 and 1954, helping England to the quarterfinals in the latter case.

5. Lev Yashin (Soviet Union). “The Black Spider” is considered by many to have been the greatest goalkeeper in history. His career with Moscow Dynamo and the Soviet national team spanned the Cold War and included four World Cups. The Soviets reached the quarterfinals three times and the semifinals once but never got further.

6. Zico (Brazil). The “White Pele” is the fourth-highest scorer in Brazilian history. But his decade with the national team coincided with the country’s longest title drought, so though Zico played in three World Cups he got to the semifinals only once.

7. Lionel Messi (Argentina). At 26, Messi’s career is far from done. Yet, he has already played more than 275 games for Barcelona, scoring 243 goals. The four-time world player of the year hasn’t had the same success with his national team though. In two World Cups, he has failed to get Argentina past the quarterfinals, scoring one goal in the two tournaments combined.

8. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal). Only 29, the reigning world player of the year has 110 international caps for his homeland. And he has played well on the sport’s biggest stage, scoring in his second game in the 2006 World Cup and earning man-of-the-match awards in all three of Portugal’s group-play games in 2010. But Portugal got as far as the semifinals once. Ronaldo is likely to get at least two more World Cup chances before he’s done.

9. Hugo Sanchez (Mexico). Arguably Mexico’s most accomplished player, Sanchez averaged a goal every two games for the national team and won four consecutive Spanish scoring titles with Real Madrid. And though Mexico did not qualify for the 1982 World Cup and was banned in 1990 when Sanchez was in his prime, he did play in the tournament three times, helping his team to the quarterfinals in 1986.

10. David Beckham (England). Beckham played a record 115 games for the national team he also captained. And though he played in three World Cups, England fell in the round of 16 the first time and in the quarterfinals in its next two tries.