Great footballers you never saw at the World Cup

Published: September 7, 2010
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Alfredo Di Stefano considered to be even better than Pele by Diego Maradona

There is a line of thinking in certain quarters of the football world that considers World Cup glory to be the pinnacle of achievement in the beautiful game. According to this hypothesis, you can only be a true great if you achieve great things in international football – particularly at the World Cup.

But what of individuals who never played because their teams were too weak to qualify for these tournaments? Or did not have the national sanction of their countries to do so in spite of being the leading lights of a club football? I would like to explore the careers of those who were widely thought of as being the greatest of their times yet never got the chance to represent their country at the highest level of international football. My top five in this list are:

Alfredo Di Stefano

Di Stefano was born in Argentina, the son of Italian immigrants from Capri. Although he started his career with River Plate, a footballers’ strike in Argentina in 1949, prompted Di Stefano to continue his club career in Colombia for one of the richest clubs in the world at the time, aptly named Millonarios. Di Stefano later transferred to Real Madrid under controversial circumstances where it was alleged that he had been signed by Barcelona but was later overturned under alleged pressure from the Franco-led rightist government, for whom Real Madrid was a sporting flagship. It is important to understand the underlying politics because Franco had won the Spanish civil war and was anxious to stamp the domination of his neo-fascist philosophy on the rest of Spain. This extended to the field of play where Real Madrid’s arch-rivals were the Catalan club Barcelona who were diametrically opposed to the neo-fascistic ideals of Franco and his government.

Di Stefano was to be a vital cog in the Real Madrid juggernaut, as he along with the likes of Gento and Puskas won 5 European Cups by 1961. Di Stefano scored 216 goals in 282 club games for Real Madrid and was voted the European Footballer of the year in 1957 and 1959. His time in international football was much less successful; he played for Argentina, Colombia and Spain during his career but was unfortunate to have never played a World Cup. He was unable to play in the 1950 World Cup because of Argentina’s refusal to enter the competition while in 1954, FIFA declared him ineligible because he had turned out for Colombia in the intervening period. In 1962, having helped Spain to qualify for the World Cup, ‘saeta rubia’ or the blond arrow, as Di Stefano was known, was unable to participate due to a muscular injury.

In all, he scored 23 goals for Spain in 31 international games and 6 goals for Argentina in as many games. He must have been some player for an ego the size of Diego Maradona to declare him the best player ever – whether he said this in spite of Pele or not is something that I will leave the reader to judge.

George Best

Variously nicknamed ‘The Belfast Boy’, ‘O Quinto Beatle’ (the fifth Beatle) and Georgie amongst others, George Best was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Initially rejected by his local club Glentoran as being ‘too small and light’, he was signed as a youth by Manchester United under the leadership of visionary manager Sir Matt Busby where he blossomed as a 17-year old in the 1963 season and winning his first league title with United the following year. His success continued unabated, particularly with his performances in the European Cup in 1966 where he scored 2 goals in the semi-final against Benfica.

Arguably, his greatest year was 1968 when he won the European Cup with Manchester United, beating the all-conquering Benfica side led by Eusebio and subsequently winning the European Footballer of the year award. Best was a larger-than-life character with some entertaining stories about his private life doing the rounds – some true some apocryphal.

His drinking, gambling and womanizing eventually got out of hand, particularly when the paternal influence of Busby was absent and he drifted out of United at the 27 in 1974. He later played for a number of different clubs for short spells never really capturing his form of old. Although he scored 137 goals for Manchester United, his greatness stemmed from his ability to thrill the crowd with atrocious skills and his exquisite dribbling and ball control as a winger.

His international career with Northern Ireland spanned 37 games scoring 9 goals but he never managed to lead them to the World Cup. For a long time, he was held up as a prime example of an outrageous talent not fulfilling its promise completely but for Manchester United supporters it was simply, ‘Maradona good, Pele better, George Best’!

Ryan Giggs

I am aware that this is starting to look like a bit of a Manchester United love-in, but no matter, this guy is worth it. For close to 20 seasons now, United supporters have been singing ‘Giggs will tear you apart again’, to the tune of Joy Division’s ‘Love will tear you apart again’, and for good reason. Ever since he made his debut in the 1991 season, Giggs has been tearing defences apart on the wing with aplomb, using his pace, extremely precise close control and dribbling abilities to remind the Old Trafford faithful of a by-gone great who is number two in this list.

Whether it is the younger Giggs who danced past the whole Arsenal defence to score a wonder goal in the 1999 FA cup final or the older version who played a telling pass to win a closely-fought local derby, Ryan Giggs has been able to combine devastating talent with consistency and discipline at the club level.

Such success has unfortunately been lacking at the international level for Giggs whose national team, Wales has been unable to qualify for any major tournaments during the course of his career. His highly decorated career at United has resulted in over 150 goals to date and more than 800 appearances. The Welsh wizard has run long and hard – long may the magic continue

George Weah

Weah was notable as the first global African superstar of football – yes Roger Milla was indulged in post-1986 and 1990 but it was appreciation of a more patronizing nature. George Weah on the other hand, showed that the modern African footballer had arrived and belonged at the highest levels of club football. He won the European Footballer of the year award in 1995 while at AC Milan and the FIFA World Player of year award. Strong, fast, skilful and endowed with a cool finish, Weah was Drogba before Drogba had even heard of European football.

Interestingly, his career in Europe started at AS Monaco under the tutelage of current Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. He scored 47 goals at AS Monaco, 32 at Paris Saint Germain, and a five year spell at AC Milan saw him score 46 times in 114 appearances. Weah also was the top-scorer in the 1994-95 UEFA Champions League competition while at Paris Saint Germain (PSG).

His success at club level did not translate to the international game which was partly down to the decadent set-up of the Liberian football federation and constant strife within the country. At one point, Weah was also financing the ‘Lone Stars’ as is the moniker for the Liberian national football team, but he never succeeded in leading them to an international tournament. Post-football, he has run for a presidential election in his native Liberia and lost, although he still remains active in Liberian politics.

Matt Le Tissier

Le Tissier or ‘le Tiss’, as he was known was a rare creature in modern-day football in that he was a one-club man and that too for a relatively small club such as Southampton snubbing moves to bigger clubs such as Chelsea. In his 16 year career with the South Coast club, he scored 162 goals in close to 450 games. So prodigious was he at taking penalties that he scored 48 out of the 49 penalties he took in his career. Given his exceptional technical skills, Le Tissier, also nick-named ‘Le God’ by Southampton fans, was somewhat lax in his approach towards modern training methodologies which, in the case of English football ended up training athletes to be footballers rather than the other way around.

Never trusted at the top level by successive English managers who would rather have the gritty, solid midfielders rather than the sophisticated talents of Chris Waddle and Matt Le Tissier, he was only provided 8 opportunities to represent his country and he never scored for England. It is a tragedy that the first midfielder to score 100 Premiership goals was never really appreciated at the international level. A few ‘le Tiss’ compilations around the web will tell just how good this man was.

waqqas.iftikhar

Waqqas Iftikhar

An economist who works in a foreign bank in Karachi. He writes about sports.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.