Seven legendary players that starred at club level but never played at a World Cup: Cantona, Di Stefano…

Seven legendary players that starred at club level but never played at a World Cup: Cantona, Di Stefano…

Updated: 1 month, 6 days, 9 hours, 43 minutes, 0 seconds ago

Eric Cantona celebrates after scoring for Manchester United. December 1997. Credit: Alamy

From Diego Maradona and Pele to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, a host of legendary players have graced the World Cup over the years. 

But representing your country at the World Cup is an experience and privilege that some iconic players can only dream about.

Despite showcasing their skills at club level, several players never had the chance to mirror their exploits on the biggest stage of all.

We’ve taken a look at seven legendary players that didn’t play at a World Cup, including three Manchester United icons. 

George Best

One of three Ballon d’Or winners on this list, Best received the award after helping Manchester United win the European Cup in 1968.

He’s widely regarded as one of the most naturally gifted players of all time but was unable to showcase his talent on the biggest stage as Northern Ireland didn’t reach any World Cup during the 1960s and 70s. 

They qualify for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, but Best was 36 years old at the time and manager Billy Bingham decided against picking him.

“I was really fit at the time, playing weekly for an American team while also playing racquetball for up to three hours a day,” Best told FourFourTwo.

“The problem was my American team were really awful, and Billy Bingham came to watch me in a tour game at Hibs and we got slaughtered. He was under a bit of pressure to pick me and I suppose he could justify leaving me out as what he had seen wasn’t very impressive.

“I wouldn’t have expected to play every game, but I wished he had just taken me as a member of the squad and thrown me on for 15 minutes, only so I could have played in the World Cup.”

Alfredo Di Stefano

Despite playing for Argentina, Colombia and Spain in his career, Di Stefano never played at a World Cup.

The Real Madrid legend, who won two Ballon d’Ors, was born in Buenos Aires and initially played for Argentina but they refused to participate in the 1950 and 1954 World Cups.

FIFA also banned Di Stefano from playing for Argentina on account of him turning out for Colombia in four unofficial friendly games.

After acquiring Spanish citizenship in 1956, he scored two goals in four games during the qualifying campaign but Spain failed to reach the 1958 World Cup after losing to Scotland and drawing to Switzerland.

The forward helped Spain qualify for the 1962 World Cup in Chile, only for a muscle injury to keep him on the sidelines. Spain didn’t make it out of the group stage and Di Stefano then announced his retirement from international football.

“I felt a twinge in my back during a warm-up game against a German side in San Sebastian,” he later recalled. “Helenio Herrera, who liked to train us hard, did not see fit to play me anymore. I practically begged, saying if he put me in, I would be up to it, but he wouldn’t hear of it.”

George Weah

The only African footballer to have won the Ballon d’Or, Weah received the award in 1995 due to his performances for both Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan. 

He also won two Serie A titles, three Coupe de France titles, two Liberian Premier League titles, Ligue 1, a Coupe de la Ligue and an FA Cup during his club career.

The striker didn’t have the same level of success on the international scene as he represented Liberia, who are a minnow in the football world and have never had a star-studded squad.

While Weah scored 18 goals for his country and managed to drag the Lone Stars to two Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, World Cup qualification was just out of reach.

Liberia nearly went to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan but fell one point shy of qualification and they are still yet to play in football’s biggest tournament.

Ryan Giggs

The most decorated player in British football history, Giggs amassed 34 trophies during his time at Manchester United, including 13 Premier League titles, four FA Cups and two Champions Leagues.

But the one thing missing on his glittering CV was qualification for a major international tournament with Wales.

Despite playing in four World Cup qualifying campaigns during an international career that spanned 16 years, the winger was unable to take his country to a major finals.

Giggs represented England at schoolboy level and even captained the team before making his senior debut for Wales in 1991, but he has no regrets. 

“I’d rather go through my career without qualifying for a major championship than play for a country where I wasn’t born or which my parents didn’t have anything to do with,” he said in 2002. 

He was appointed Wales manager in 2018 and hoped to lead the country at the 2022 World Cup but has now stepped down from the role. 

Ian Rush

Another legendary Welshman, Rush won 20 trophies and netted 346 goals in 660 appearances during his two spells at Liverpool.

The striker also scored 28 goals in 73 appearances for Wales to become their all-time top goalscorer, a record that stood for many years until Gareth Bale came along.

Despite Rush’s best efforts, Wales failed to qualify for a major tournament during his international career. They did come close a couple of times but defeats against Scotland and Romania saw them miss out on the 1986 and 1994 World Cup finals. 

“It’s my only regret in football,” he told Wales Online. “We never qualified for a major tournament, but that side had some incredible players. Neville Southall, Kevin Ratcliffe, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs, Dean Saunders, they were all top players and yet we always failed to get there.

“I think back then, only the top team qualified, but with how it works now, I think we would have qualified three times or something like that because we finished second.

“For some reason, we kept drawing Germany or Holland. It made it worse for us because we beat Germany one year, but then we’d go and draw with Finland or Iceland or someone like that and maybe let ourselves down a bit.”

Eric Cantona

While Cantona is revered in England following his success with Manchester United, he endured a turbulent relationship within the France set-up.

After discovering that he had not been selected for a friendly against Czechoslovakia in 1988, Cantona called manager Henri Michel “a bag of shit” and was subsequently banned from the French national team for a year. 

France’s failure to qualify for the 1990 World Cup saw Michel replaced by Michel Platini, who brought the striker back into to the set-up. 

Ahead of the 1994 World Cup, Les Blues needed a draw against Bulgaria in their final qualifier to secure their place in the tournament. Cantona gave France the lead at the Parc des Princes but a brace from Emil Kostadinov sent Bulgaria through. 

The striker was later stripped of the France captaincy after being handed a nine-month suspension from football for kicking a Crystal Palace fan in January 1995. During his time on the sidelines, France moved on and he was usurped by Zinedine Zidane.

Cantona retired from football at the age of 30 in 1997 and watched on as France won the 1998 World Cup on home soil.

Bernd Schuster

Schuster’s international career got off to a brilliant start when the then 20-year-old starred in West Germany’s successful 1980 European Championship campaign. His performances at the tournament also helped him win the European Silver Ball.

But he had a poor relationship with manager Jupp Derwall and was temporarily exiled from the squad after refusing to go to a post-match party in May 1981. 

“I once left Barcelona without permission because I wanted to play in a friendly against Brazil,” he said. “The club didn’t let me travel because we had a match against Rayo the following day, but I just couldn’t miss that game.

“They finally accepted my idea of playing just 45 minutes. There was a party after the match, but I didn’t go because I had to wake up early. That’s when everything gets confusing.

“That night I was told I would never get called up because I didn’t go to the party. I spoke to Udo Lattek so that he would fix everything, but the phone operator confused the last name of the coach with that of a friend of mine.”

He was brought back into the fold in November 1982 but retired from the national team at the age of 24 due to his repeated disagreements with the German Football Association.

Franz Beckenbauer unsuccessfully tried to bring him out of international retirement ahead of the 1986 World Cup. Schuster reportedly had a change of heart and wanted to play in the 1994 World Cup but manager Berti Vogts turned him down. 

The midfielder still had a brilliant career at club level and played for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, winning three La Liga titles and six Copa del Reys.

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