The World Cup remains the biggest competition in sport. With the stage set for some of the greatest players to reveal their acts, the tournament has a habit of being both kind and cruel. In 19 tournaments, only 8 teams have managed to claim the greatest prize in football. Some have been fortunate to win one, others even more fortunate to win more than one but there are also those who haven’t won it at all. Some of the game’s greatest players have graced us with their exceptional performances but left empty handed. Here are the top five greatest players to never win the World Cup:
The standout player in this list. Without doubt the greatest European at all time, Cruyff epitomises the term ‘Total Football’ having been part of the Renus Michels class of 1974 before later going on to lay the same blueprint as Barcelona manager inspiring a certain Pep Guardiola in the process. Having scored 33 goals in 48 games for the Netherlands, Cruyff seemed destined to guide his team to World Cup glory in 1974. Having never lost a game in which Cruyff scored, the Netherlands were firm favourites to land their first World Cup against West Germany. However, the Germans caused an upset with a 2-1 win and managing to shut out Cruyff in the process. Cruyff managed to guide his team through qualifying for the 1978 World Cup in a bid to avenge the 1974 defeat but retired prior to the tournament as the Netherlands once again lost out in the final to Argentina. Having won everything in the club game as both player and manager, the World Cup for Cruyff will always be a case of what might have been.
The 1966 World Cup will be forever linked with an England victory thanks to a Geoff Hurst hat-trick but it should not be forgotten how good Eusebio was in 1966. Coming into the tournament Eusebio was the reigning Ballon d’Or winner and certainly lived up to his reputation scoring an impressive 9 goals to finish as top scorer. His tears at the end of Portugal’s semi-final defeat to England has been called ‘the game of tears’ back in Portugal.
Plying his trade alongside Di Stefano at Madrid, Ferenc Puskas made his name as one of the greatest goalscorers to play the game. Puskas’ international record for Hungary isn’t too bad either with 84 goals in 85 matches. He was the heartbeat of Hungary’s 1954 team going into the tournament. Having suffered an injury midway through, Puskas returned for the final against Germany ina game where many expected Hungary to prevail. It wasn’t to be as Germany produced a huge upset to win 3-2 to win in horrendous conditions.
For all the praise the 1970 team received, it is often forgotten just how incredible a team Brazil’s 1982 team were to watch. There is an argument that they were a better side to watch than the class of 1970 with their carefree one touch passing and movement. At the heart of that team was Zico. Playing in the heart of midfield, he embarked on a run of 8 goals in which he scored a played a part in. Brazil were knocked out by eventual champions Italy that year which, for football, was truly a sad sight given the talents within that Brazil side. Unfortunately for Zico, 1986 was equally disappointing. Struggling with injury prior to the tournament, he made his appearance off the bench against France only to miss a penalty in normal time as France prevailed in a penalty shoot-out.
Having played in three World Cups, few Italians played the game as beautifully as Baggio. Having arrived on the scene at Italia ’90, he was largely used as a substitute. However, that didn’t stop Baggio from showing the world his talents. With two goals to his name, his dribbling, passing and vision made him one of the stars of that tournament. He also scored goal of the tournament following a mazy dribble, one-two and finish against Czechoslovakia. Fast forward 4 years and Baggio is the cornerstone of the national team. After a slow start to the tournament for both Italy and Baggio himself, he came alive in the knockout stages. He bagged a brace against Nigeria to set up a quarter-final encounter with Spain where he scored the winner with 3 minutes remaining. Having scored both goals in the semi against Bulgaria too, it seemed destined Baggio would inspire Italy all the way as they faced Brazil in the final. However, a pulled hamstring against Bulgaria meant Baggio was not fully fit in that final which would be decided on penalties. In what is undoubtedly one of the most upsetting scenes from a World Cup, Baggio put his penalty over the bar which handed Brazil their fourth title. A heartbreaking end to one of the greatest tournament performances you will see.
Other players to remember: Paolo Maldini, Michel Platini, Lev Yashin, Stanley Matthews.