With hundreds of millions of TV viewers in every corner of the globe, an appearance at the FIFA World Cup is undoubtedly seen as the pinnacle of any footballer’s career. It is estimated that over one billion people tuned into at least some of the 2018 World Cup Final, capturing the average viewer with its charm and heritage.
Yet for a competition steeped in greatness, several of the world’s foremost footballing greats have fallen through the cracks and missed out on the chance to represent their country at the esteemed tournament. These are the ten most distinguished players never to appear at the World Cup.
Eric Cantona – France
Manchester’s ‘King Eric’ may have been born in the south of France, but he was truly made in the north-western English city. A cult hero at Manchester United, Eric Cantona sprinkled a considerable dose of his magic on the French national team between 1987 and 1995 – yet France missed out on two consecutive World Cups which denied the forward the opportunity to play at football’s grandest stage.
As Cantona rose to prominence in English football with Leeds United and later Manchester United, his performance level rarely dipped for Les Bleus, scoring 20 times in 45 caps. The footballer-turned-actor argued that he suffered from the mismanagement of his national team gaffers in a dark period for France.
However, the gifted Cantona later represented his country at the Beach Soccer World Cup, winning the tournament in 2005 in sunny Rio de Janeiro.
George Weah – Liberia
The mighty George Weah, a Ballon d’Or winner in 1995, is perhaps the most talented footballer never to play at the World Cup Finals. Football commentators and journalists felt starved of his brilliance as one of the best players of a generation without a single World Cup appearance, but not for want of trying. A respected figure on and off the pitch, Weah single-handedly strived to deliver World Cup qualification for lowly Liberia with 18 goals in 75 caps and support in coaching and financial matters.
The prolific striker twice reached the African Cup of Nations with Liberia, but his footballing exploits were largely limited to a club career which included first-class spells with Monaco, PSG and AC Milan.
Bernd Schuster – Germany
As one of football’s greatest nations in international competition, very few of Germany’s most renowned players have been omitted from World Cup squads. The outspoken but skilled Bernd Schuster is the highest profile example of this rarity – wearing the West Germany shirt on 21 occasions without appearing at a World Cup.
As a goalscoring midfielder with Barcelona and Real Madrid, Schuster was surely destined for international success, but the 1980 European Championship triumph did little to ease tensions between the player and those above him. After starring at that tournament, Schuster retired from international duty at the age of 24 citing disagreements with managers and teammates amid a frenzy of media attention over the Augsburg-born player’s commitment to West Germany.
Ryan Giggs – Wales
Whilst recognisable to every football fan worldwide due to his 24-year association with Manchester United, Ryan Giggs never played in front of the ultimate global audience at a World Cup. The flying Welsh winger was a menace for Premier League defences, but his international timing was nothing short of unfortunate. Although Giggs netted 12 times for Wales, his efforts alone were not enough to secure qualification to a single major tournament.
Consequentially, Giggs’ impact on the international stage was trivial and he called time on his Wales career seven years prior to his eventual retirement from club football.
Alfredo Di Stéfano – Argentina, Colombia & Spain
The great Alfredo Di Stéfano’s international record is truly unique. Indeed, it is a tale which some football purists may refute due to its controversy. Rather than commit to just one international side, Di Stéfano appeared up front for three of the sport’s best performing nations in Argentina, Colombia and Spain, yet never played World Cup football in his entire career.
The small, goal-hungry centre forward was banned from representing Argentina again after turning out for a rather unofficial Colombia XI in 1949 whilst writing history with club side Millonarios. The uncertified appearances cast serious doubt over Di Stéfano’s international future, but FIFA eventually allowed the then-Real Madrid striker and adopted Spanish citizen to play for the Spanish national side from 1957 onwards as Di Stéfano narrowly missed out on the World Cup twice due to qualification woes and then injury issues with his third international team.
Abedi Pele – Ghana
Ghanaian idol Abedi Pele was one of several African players to build a greater recognition of the continent’s supreme footballing ability in the late 20th century. Playing in the attacking midfield position with exceptional ball control and elegance, Abedi Pele’s expected rise to World Cup fame was sorely missed.
In spite of Ghana’s agonizing World Cup near misses, the nation played with style and quality in African Cup of Nations tournaments, headlined by Abedi Pele. The country’s former star man is a two-time winner of the French top flight with Marseille, as well as featuring in the famous side which won the Champions League in 1993.
George Best – Northern Ireland
Hailed as the most talented Northern Irish footballer of all time, George Best remains a god-like figure in his homeland. His playing style simply drew an audience with world class ability, but after a 13-year international career the World Cup had eluded George Best. The Northern Irishman played the game with joy, revelling in the opportunity to embarrass his opponents from either the wing or attacking midfield positions.
37 Northern Ireland caps brought Best 9 goals for his country, including memorable strikes against Scotland and England, but in truth it was his unstoppable form with Manchester United which led to the worshipping of Best as one of the greatest with a ball at his feet, in spite of his absence from World Cup stardom.
Valentino Mazzola – Italy
In 1949, Torino won a fifth consecutive Serie A title. Regarded as one of the greatest Italian sides ever, Valentino Mazzola had spearheaded the attacking threat for club and country as captain and is credited as the most important part of the famous “Grande Torino” team. But the 1948-49 campaign was to be the last for Mazzola and his teammates, who sadly died in a plane crash upon the team’s return from a match in Lisbon.
The world was thus denied the chance to enjoy the legendary Mazzola at a World Cup, having earned a place in Italy’s starting XI in the 1940s as one of the most exciting European players of the time.
David Ginola – France
Once said to be the best player in the world as per Johan Cruyff, David Ginola’s international impact was however extremely limited. Known to English fans for his thrilling football skills with Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur in the 1990s, Ginola went the extra mile to demonstrate his classy style with exceptional goals and awareness on the pitch.
His flair and artistry was certainly at home in England, having been heavily criticised in France for his part in France’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. A single wayward cross which led to a decisive Bulgaria goal in qualification severely damaged his international career, appearing just 17 times for Les Bleus in total and never returning to the squad for a second shot at playing in the World Cup.
Ian Rush – Wales
Similarly to Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush would have benefitted from the current crop of collective Welsh talent. In spite of his expertise in front of goal as Liverpool’s all-time record scorer, Rush retired from international duty in 1996 without a qualification to the World Cup. For a striker who dominated the goalscoring charts in British football for much of the late 20th century, it was a huge missed opportunity to add to a total of 28 goals for Wales.
As the Welsh team’s talisman, Rush did score historic goals in victories over Italy and Germany which perhaps demonstrated his readiness for the sport’s biggest stage. The centre forward featured in Wales sides for 16 years with 73 caps and is fondly remembered for his international antics in spite of the team’s failure to make a major tournament.