When Argentine World Cup champion Rene Houseman died from cancer in March, it was a reminder that membership in one of sport’s most exclusive clubs is withering. Fewer than 400 people alive today have played in a World Cup final, an honor that often relies more on luck and timing than on skill. One man’s list of 10 superstars who made it to the World Cup but never to the final:
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal). The reigning world player of the year, Ronaldo led Portugal to a European Championship two years ago. But in three trips to the World Cup he has gotten past the Round of 16 just once, reaching the semifinals in 2006. Portugal’s all-time leader in goals (81) is likely making his last run at the final since he’ll be 37 when the next World Cup kicks off in 2022.
2. Eusebio (Portugal). Born in the then-Portuguese colony of Mozambique, Eusebio da Silva Ferreira was lifted out of poverty in Africa when he signed with Benfica as a teenager, going on to score 473 goals in 440 competitive games for the Portuguese club. The national team qualified for just one World Cup during his career and Eusebio made the most of his chance, scoring a tournament-high nine goals in the 1966 tournament to get Portugal to the semifinals.
3. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden): Arguably one of the three best players of his generation and inarguably the most accomplished player to join MLS, the Galaxy striker enjoyed little success with the Swedish national team. Sweden qualified for the World Cup just twice with Ibrahimovic — in 2002 and 2006 — and was eliminated in the Round of 16 each time, with Ibrahimovic going goalless.
5. Zico (Brazil). The “White Pele” is the fourth-highest scorer in Brazilian history, with 48 goals in 71 international games. But his decade with the national team coincided with the country’s longest title drought. Zico played in three World Cups but got to the semifinals only once.
6. 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.
6. Hugo Sanchez (Mexico). Arguably Mexico’s most accomplished player, Sanchez averaged a goal every two games for the national team and won five Spanish scoring titles. Mexico did not qualify for the 1982 World Cup and was banned in 1990 when Sanchez was at his best. But he did play in the tournament three times, helping his team to the quarterfinals in 1986.
9. Marco van Basten (Netherlands) : Van Basten played his last game at 28, his career cut short by an ankle injury. But he still ranked sixth in the FIFA Player of the Century poll in 1998. His five goals, a tournament best, helped the Dutch win the 1988 European Championships. In his only World Cup two years later he went scoreless and the Netherlands went winless.
10. David Beckham (England). Beckham played 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.