Missing out!

History is replete with the sad tales of football superstars, who never made it to the blue riband championship, the World Cup. Ayon Sengupta catalogues some of them.

While the world talks about the endearing chemistry between Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine) and Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund) in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 cult classic, Casablanca, it finds little time to pause and appreciate the work of Claude Rains, pitch-perfect in his portrayal of the scheming, womanising prefect of Casablanca Captain Louis Renault. Rains’ immaculate delivery, accentuated with moments of mirth, makes Captain Renault funny yet the most despicable of characters.

Chroniclers are indeed guilty of exaggeration. Every now and then, these raconteurs over-emphasise the impact of one, focusing only on the hero, while completely negating the influence of the roles played by his/her powerful support cast.

The writers of football narratives, too, commit the same mistake. The lot — still debating about Diego Maradona’s two wonder goals in Mexico 1986 — has spent little time to account Jorge Burruchaga’s bull run on way to scoring Argentina’s winning goal in the 84th minute of the final. Needless to say, history is replete with such omissions.

We, while glorifying the richness of a performance, habitually neglect the collective. Football, essentially a team sport, can’t be played by one man.

So, players, particularly the exceptionally brilliant ones, frequently suffer for the poor quality of their supporting cast. This lack of reasonable depth in many national squads has often robbed highly talented individuals of the chance to showcase their skills on the grand stage of the World Cup.

African stalwarts Abedi Ayew and George Weah sadly were bitten by this very bug.

Ayew, voted the African Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, won two League 1 and one Champions League crown with French club Olympique Marseille in the early 90s, but failed to inspire a mediocre Ghana side to qualify for the quadrennial Mundial.

Liberia’s George Weah, a Ballon d’Or winner, — the lone star of the ‘Lone Stars’ (the Liberian flag is based on the star and stripes of the US but with a single star, emphasising the country’s foundation by the freed American slaves) — came close twice but failed to pass the last hurdle to mark an appearance in the Finals. After falling apart in the second group stage of the African qualifiers of 1990, Ghana was one point short in the 2002 campaign, when Weah funded and even coached Liberia, trying everything possible to fulfil a longstanding ambition.

The two, however, have many other illustrious, but disappointed stars, for company.

The recently-retired Ryan Giggs of Wales, winner of 13 League titles and two UEFA Champions League trophies for Manchester United, also never played in a World Cup. Ian Rush, Dean Saunders, Mark Hughes, Craig Bellamy — household names across the globe for their exploits in England — hailing from European footballing minnow Wales, suffered from the same discomfiture.

The runaway legend of the English club game, as much for his football skills as his overwhelming personality, George Best, too, never made it to the FIFA Finals. Best, the star of Billy Bingham’s 1970 squad, was out injured for the decisive final qualifying game, away against USSR. Without him, Northern Ireland duly lost 2-0, forcing the manager to come down heavily on Best’s club Manchester United, for breaking an agreement and fielding the player in inconsequential domestic fixtures.

Twelve years later, Bingham briefly considered recalling a 36-year-old Best for the Spanish World Cup, but problems of lifestyle and alcoholism put paid to that plan.

Eric Cantona, another Manchester United great and an equally volatile character, was one more unfortunate soul, as France failed to qualify for the 1990 and ’94 editions.

Other reasons too, often an individual folly, have stopped players from competing at the World Cup. As a 20-year-old, Bernd Schuster was brought into the West Germany squad by Jupp Derwall for EURO 1980 and the Colonge prodigy made the most of the opportunity.

Playing in two of the team’s four games, Schuster had three assists, including one in the 2-1 final win over Belgium and was the adjudged the second best player of the tournament. The moustachioed Schuster, capricious by nature, however, had several skirmishes with coach Derwall and the German federation, retiring prematurely from international football, just four years later.

Alfredo Di Stefano and Laszlo Kubala, stars of Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively in the 1950s, missed out on the World Cup because of personal misadventures, as well as the highhandedness of national and international football organisations.

Di Stefano, certified “the best I ever saw,” by Sir Bobby Charlton was handicapped by the Argentine FA’s decision to stay away from the 1950 competition in Brazil. Four years later, Di Stefano, now playing in the cash-rich Colombian league with Millonarios and internationally for Colombia, was banned from playing for the national side for breaking FIFA’s domicile rules.

A star with Real Madrid since his 1953 move, the Argentine next tried turning up for his adopted homeland Spain, but shockingly La Roja failed to qualify for the 1958 championship in Sweden. At 36, he travelled with the Spain squad for the 1962 Chile World Cup, but a recurrent injury forced him to miss all the group games as Spain was knocked out.

Kubala, who twice switched between Hungary (his country of birth) and Czechoslovakia to avoid conscription, decided to turn up for Spain, after landing in Barcelona and signing for the club. But, the player, whose original destination was Madrid and Real, allegedly boarded the wrong train after a night of drunken merriment. Kubala scored 131 goals for Barcelona, but had limited success with Spain, scoring only 11 goals in 19 games.

Valentino Mazzola (Torino and Italy) and Duncan Edwards (Manchester United and England) up and coming stars in the end years of the 1940s and 50s were the most unfortunate of the lot, tragically dying in the Superga (1949) and Munich (1958) air disasters, way ahead of their prime.

So, surely, as the cliché goes, the world needs to conspire to take a player to the World Cup. Regrettably, for many more stars the planetary alignments never came right and their careers ended without the fulfilling satisfaction of playing in the Mundial.

Stars such as Gareth Bale, David Alaba, and Arda Turan, who are missing out on Brazil 2014, will need all the luck and support to turn their fortunes four years later. A one-man act can never take a team to the World Cup.