Missing gems in the crown

Stan Rayan lists some of the finest footballers who never got to play on the game's biggest stage.

The media was in a tizzy late last year trying to settle this eternal debate: who is the greatest footballer ever.

Diego Maradona, who had topped a FIFA internet poll as the world's greatest footballer a decade ago, had sparked off a fresh round last August claiming that the 2000 verdict should settle the issue. And that Pele was the second best. But for Pele, the best ever, was a different player.

“People talk about the best being Pele or Diego Maradona, but for me the best player ever was Alfredo Di Stefano,” he said.

Bobby Charlton, the great Englishman who won almost everything football had to offer including the World Cup in 1966, was very impressed when he watched from the stands the Argentina-born Di Stefano playing for Real Madrid against Manchester United in 1957.

“Who is this man?” asked Charlton. “He takes the ball from the goalkeeper; he tells the full-backs what to do; wherever he is on the field he is in position to take the ball; you can see his influence on everything that is happening... I had never seen such a complete footballer. It was as though he had set up his own command centre at the heart of the game. He was as strong as he was subtle. The combination of qualities was mesmerising.”

Enrique Macaya Marquez, a leading South American football writer and commentator who has covered a number of World Cups, has this to say about Di Stefano, the two-time European Footballer of the Year who was the inspiration behind Real Madrid's five successive European Cups. “He dominated the game. He played all over the pitch, he had no zones, no position. He had a rare ability to make other footballers better.”

Sadly, Di Stefano, despite being football's finest gem, had never played in a World Cup despite having played international football for both Argentina and Spain. And bizarrely too. Born in Buenos Aires on July 4, 1926, the Real Madrid legend who was popular as the ‘Blond Arrow' played for Argentina, but it didn't play in the 1950 World Cup. He then became a Colombian international, and never made a World Cup. He became a Spanish National in 1956, but Spain didn't qualify for the 1958 World Cup. Finally he led Spain to the 1962 Finals, but he got injured before the tournament and couldn't play.

Di Stefano missed the World Cup despite jumping from country to country but there have been many stars who could not get to football's biggest stage because their country wasn't good enough. A few others missed it because of problems with their team management while for some it was because death carried them away during their prime time.

George Best, considered by many as one of the greatest player of all time, was another legend never to make the World Cup.

Best, who lit up English football while playing for Manchester United, played for Northern Ireland which never qualified for the World Cup during his best years. Goes to prove that you cannot qualify for a World Cup even with the world's best player.

Liberian George Weah, the World Footballer of the Year 1995 and European and African Player of the Year a few times, was another star who could not play in the World Cup because his country could not make the grade.

Weah who mesmerised Europe, enjoyed his best years in France with Monaco and Paris St. Germain, and in Italy with AC Milan between 1988 and 2000.

Ghana's Abedi Pele, the three-time African Footballer of the Year who had success in Germany, Italy and France and who brought African football to the limelight in a big way, was another star who couldn't make it to the big stage because his country could not qualify for the Cup. Also coming in this category are Ireland's Johnny Giles and Wales' Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs.

England's Duncan Edwards, acknowledged by many as one of the greatest players of his generation, was another big star who couldn't play in the World Cup.

He was tragically killed in a Munich plane crash in 1958. Edwards was just 21. Bobby Charlton called him the best player he ever played with.

Frenchman Eric Cantona, a Manchester United star of the 1990s, missed the World Cup bus for entirely different reasons. He was first capped in the late 1980s but wasn't selected to the French team after falling out with the management before the 1990 World Cup. He was apart of the side that failed to make the 1994 World Cup and retired in 1997, a year before France won the World Cup.

Well, you've not only got to be good enough, you've got to be lucky too to be in the World Cup.