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March 31, 2010

First XI: Lost to the World Cup

By Robin Hackett
(Archive)

Having selected the First XI World Cup legends, it's worth remembering those players who - for one reason or another - never had the chance to play on the game's greatest stage.

From countries failing to qualify to personal disputes to political motivations, we look at the First XI great players who never managed to play at the World Cup.

Dixie Dean
GettyImagesDixie Dean, said to have headed a goal from the halfway line, shows his prowess against Ireland
Dixie Dean (England) With his career beginning in 1923 and ending in 1939, Dean was perhaps the most talented victim of England's refusal to take part in the first three World Cups. At international level, he scored 18 in 16 appearances. For Everton, he scored 383 in 433, including 60 in a single season. He was described as "the greatest centre forward there will ever be" by the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. "He belongs in the company of the supremely great," he added, "like Beethoven, Shakespeare and Rembrandt."

Valentino Mazzola (Italy) At just 30 years old, Mazzola was killed in the 1949 Superga air disaster, which killed everyone on board including the vast majority of the Torino squad. Mazzola was a talented forward, an Italy captain, and viewed as the game's first 'complete' player: team-mate Mario Rigamonti, also among the victims of the disaster, said that Mazzola "alone is half the squad". His most memorable game for his country came in a 4-4 draw with Switzerland in 1945 when he created all four goals, but he was never able to show that talent on the world stage due to the cessation of the World Cup between 1938 and 1950.

Harry Gregg, Alfredo di Stefano
GettyImagesReal Madrid's Alfredo di Stefano backheels past Manchester United 'keeper Harry Gregg in 1959

Alfredo di Stefano (Argentina, Colombia and Spain) "I don't know if I had been a better player than Pele," Diego Maradona once said, "but I can say without any doubt that Di Stefano was better than Pele." Yet, despite playing for three different countries, 'the blond arrow' never appeared at a World Cup for a variety of unfortunate reasons. Argentina refused to participate in 1950 and 1954, while FIFA barred him from playing for Colombia in '54 as he had previously represented Argentina. From 1954, he represented Spain, but the country failed to qualify for the '58 tournament and injury ruled Di Stefano out four years later. He is best remembered for his time at Real Madrid, where he scored an incredible 49 goals in 58 matches in the European Cup to help the side to five successive trophies.

Laszlo Kubala (Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Spain) A legendary player for Barcelona with 131 goals in 186 appearances, political problems prevented this Budapest-born forward from appearing at a World Cup. He made a handful of appearances for Czechoslovakia in 1946 and 1947 while playing for Slovan Bratislava, but - apparently to avoid military service in his adopted country - returned to Budapest with Vasas in 1948. As a result, he made three appearances for his homeland that year. Yet he left Hungary in 1949 when the country became a communist state and adopted Spanish nationality, denying him the chance to play with Hungary's 'Magical Magyars' of the 50s and, with it, the chance to play at a major international tournament. Spain did not qualify in 1954 or 1958, refused to take part in the 1960 European Championships and, like Di Stefano, Kubala picked up an injury that ruled him out of Spain's 1962 World Cup campaign.

Duncan Edwards (England) Killed at the age of 21 during the Munich air crash, Bobby Charlton described Edwards' death as "the biggest single tragedy ever to happen to Manchester United and English football". Essentially a defensive midfielder, Edwards nonetheless scored five goals in his 18 England appearances, and one-time Manchester United manager and fellow wing-half Tommy Docherty labelled him "much better" than Best, Pele and Maradona.

George Best
GettyImagesGeorge Best famously once nutmegged Johan Cruyff in a 1976 World Cup qualifier

George Best (Northern Ireland) "Pele called me the greatest footballer in the world," Best once said. "That is the ultimate salute to my life." Born in Belfast in 1946, George Best was too young to play in Northern Ireland's first World Cup in 1958 and, by the time they reached their second in 1982, he was 36 and in steep decline from alcohol abuse. Nonetheless, he became a European Cup winner and legendary figure with Manchester United before helping to promote the game in the US in the 70s and 80s. He died in 2005 at the age of 59 from the complications brought on by his drink problem.

Bernd Schuster (West Germany) The former Real Madrid boss was no stranger to controversy during his impressive career as a midfielder. Named runner-up for the Ballon d'Or in 1980 and third in 1981 and 1985, he spent eight years at Barcelona during the 80s before moving on to arch rivals Real Madrid in 1988. He was part of West Germany's European Championship-winning side of 1980, a playmaker to rival the best of the era, but he had a tendency to attract more attention through his off-field antics. He had disputes with both coaches and fellow players, spent an entire season in the reserves at Barca due to his attitude and recently admitted that "a series of misunderstandings" saw his international career end in 1984 (he said at the time that the national team "means nothing for me"). However, it was an injury suffered while playing for Barca against Athletic Bilbao in December 1981 that robbed him of the chance to play in the 1982 tournament: the 'Butcher of Bilbao', Andoni Goikoetxea, broke his knee and ruled him out for the season.

Abedi Pele (Ghana) The African Player of the Year three times in succession in the early 90s, Pele won the African Nations Cup in 1982 and the Champions League with Marseille in 1993, but Ghana did not qualify for the World Cup during his career. The forward, though, remains philosophical about having missed out on the chance to compete on the world stage, telling FIFA in 2006: "I won lots of titles and trophies and I was named among the best 100 players in the history of football, so how could I be dissatisfied?"

Eric Cantona (France) An all-time legend at Manchester United, Cantona was nonetheless a controversial figure throughout his career and his temperament ultimately cost him his World Cup chance. A year after making his France debut in 1987, he called then-France coach Henri Michel "a bag of s***" on TV and was handed an indefinite ban. The ban did not last long, however: France failed to reach Italia '90, Michel was dismissed and Michel Platini restored Cantona to the side. He featured in the disappointing Euro '92 campaign but failed to score, and was part of the side that missed out on USA '94 qualification in dramatic fashion. When assistant coach Aime Jacquet replaced Gerard Houllier following that disappointment, Cantona was made captain for the Euro '96 qualifiers. In January 1995, though, he famously attacked a Crystal Palace supporter while leaving the pitch, which resulted in an eight-month worldwide ban and the loss of the captaincy. He would never represent his country again.

George Weah
GettyImagesLiberia have never managed to qualify for the World Cup

George Weah (Liberia) The only FIFA World Player of the Year not to have played at the World Cup, Weah was one of the most feared strikers in the game during the 1990s. His combined record during his time with Monaco, Paris St Germain, AC Milan and Chelsea saw him average over one goal every two games, and he was named the African Player of the Century in an International Federation of Football History and Statistics poll of journalists. His presence helped Liberia to qualify for their first major international tournament - the African Nations Cup - in 1996 and he was part of the side that reached the tournament again in 2002, but they failed to qualify for that year's World Cup, missing out by just one point in qualification. "Maybe it was never meant to be," he later said.

Ryan Giggs (Wales) As a youngster, Cardiff-born Giggs played for England Schoolboys, and the long-standing rumour was that he could have played for England at senior level had he not chosen to represent the country of his birth. That rumour was untrue: Giggs has never been eligible for England and, as he said in response to the suggestions, "I'm Welsh through and through". At the age of 36 and having said he would now only return to international football in the case of emergency, the two-time Champions League winner has all but lost any hope of ever playing in a major international tournament.