Lifting the FIFA World Cup would be the pinnacle of any footballer’s career, it’s what each and everyone of them dream of when growing up.
Unfortunately, some of the finest players in the history of the beautiful game were denied the opportunity to do so. Some represented nations that had no chance of winning the tournament, others came within touching distance of the trophy and a few were even ruled themselves out of overlooked during selection.
Here’s a look at the 50 best footballers who never won the World Cup.
50. Roger Milla
The Cameroonian hitman’s first appearance on the world stage came in 1982, when his nation were cruelly eliminated in the groups despite avoiding defeat, having drawn their three matches.
At the age of 38, Milla was coaxed out of international retirement for the 1990 edition of the competition, becoming an unexpected hero with four goals and producing a fabulous performance against England in the quarter finals to nearly seal his side’s progression.
Remarkably, that was not the end for the veteran, who returned four years later in the United States, though this time there was just one score for him to celebrate in his unique fashion.
49. Hidetoshi Nakata
Widely considered the greatest Asian footballer in history, Nakata took part in two World Cups, the second of which was partly held in his native Japan.
Though he never got beyond the round-of-16, the silky midfielder will always have a goal against Tunisia in 2002 to cherish, Nakata guiding a header through the goalkeeper’s legs in front of a jubilant home crowd.
48. Gheorghe Hagi
Having represented both Barcelona and Real Madrid in his stellar career, Hagi was clearly a talented winger. However, his Romanian teammates were evidently a class below and never likely to threaten those at the top of the sport.
Nevertheless, he was in splendid form at all three World Cup tournaments in the 1990s, acting as the driving force in ’94 as the Tricolorii reached their only quarter final to date.
47. Michael Ballack
Ballack must have really upset the footballing gods. In 2002, his Bayer Leverkusen side lost both a Champions League and DFB-Pokal final, while also finishing second in the Bundesliga, but Ballack’s anguish would reach new levels later that summer.
Running the show for Germany, he was integral in their run to the showpiece event in Yokohama, yet was a mere bystander against Brazil as Ronaldo hit a second-half double to secure a 2-0 victory and a fifth champions trophy for the South Americans.
Somehow – if you can believe it – things got worse. The Germans hosted the 2006 edition and met Italy in the last-four, but came unstuck in the dying embers of extra-time to leave a nation in dispair.
Four years on, a late-season injury with Chelsea ended his hopes of competing in South Africa. Cruel, very cruel indeed.
46. Luis Suarez
Love him or (probably) hate him, Suarez is a terrifying prospect for any defence. He’s also a frighteningly good shot-stopper, as he proved against Ghana in 2010.
The former Liverpool maverick batted away a goal-bound effort from Dominic Adiyiah in the last-minute of Uruguay’s clash with the Africans in the quarters and received a red card for his actions, but was jumping for joy when Asamoah Gyan blazed over the resulting penalty.
Fortunately, justice was done when the Dutch dumped La Celeste out in the next round. However, we hadn’t seen the last of Suarez-related controversy, the 32-year-old being handed a four-month ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini in 2014.
Still, his tally of seven World Cup goals isn’t too shabby…
45. Michael Laudrup
More like a dancer than a football player, Laudrup was mesmerising to watch. The Dane’s World Cup appearances came 12 years apart in 1986 and 1998, the forward captaining his country in the latter.
Never likely to mount a serious challenge for the Jules Rimet Trophy, Denmark’s most memorable moment in any competition remains Laudrup’s awe-inspiring dribble through the entirety of Uruguay’s team – including the ‘keeper – culminating with a tap-in.
44. David Beckham
Flashy and stylish, Beckham’s ability and impact on matches is often overstated. Nevertheless, he was a solid weapon for England, with ‘Golden Balls’ spending most of his time at World Cups battling Argentina.
The winger’s decisive dismissal versus the South Americans in 1998 was a huge contributing factor to the Three Lions’ penalty shootout exit, before he hit the only goal (fittingly from the spot) in their pool stage encounter the following tournament to send Hernan Crespo and co. packing.
43. Billy Bremner
If you’re laughing at the fact that a Scot has made it onto this list, just remember that the ‘Auld Enemy’ qualified for more World Cups in the 1970s and 1980s than England.
Bremner participated in just one of the five successive championships they reached in the late 20th century, the midfield enforcer providing steel and grit in the centre of the park, while also making an exceptional leader for both his country and the once-great Leeds United.
42. Samuel Eto’o
He may be 38 years-of-age, but Eto’o is still plying his trade for Qatar SC. He’s earned the right to ease into retirement after a stellar career, in which he collected three La Liga titles, two Champions League winner’s medals and a couple of African Cup of Nations victories.
Placing fifth in the 2009 Ballon d’Or demonstrates what a lethal finisher he was, but it was never going to be enough to get Cameroon far, and so it proved. They failed to make it out of the groups in all four finals he played in; imagine what could have transpired if he had Milla for a strike partner.
41. Luka Modric
Modric collected the Golden Ball and Ballon d’Or in 2018 following a marvellous showing in Russia, but it will do little to ease the pain of a 4-2 defeat to France in the final.
Now 33, the playmaker has likely had his last hurrah on the biggest stage, though he will go down as one of the finest players of his generation, artfully controlling matches and looking elegant as he does so.
40. Hristo Stoichkov
Regularly lauded as the greatest Bulgarian footballer of all time, Stoichkov was a phenomenal forward, racking up 37 goals in 83 appearances for a decidedly underpowered nation.
It was the striker who fired Bulgaria to the semi finals of USA ’94, earning himself the Golden Boot award and bagging the leveller in the 2-1 defeat of reigning champions Germany in the quarters.
That still stands as their best performance at a World Cup, an achievement that would have been impossible without the talismanic Stoichkov.
Raul was simply born a few years too early. Amassing 100 caps and 44 goals, the Real man last turned out for Spain in 2006, when the Iberians were on the cusp of greatness.
In the six years that followed, his countrymen would lift one World Cup and two European Championships – ouch.
38. Didier Drogba
If Raul was an intelligent poacher up front, Drogba was a bulldozing monster. As with so many of those on this list, he was far superior to his international colleagues, who couldn’t provide the platform for the Chelsea stalwart to show his true capabilities.
He had a handful of top-quality teammates with the Ivory Coast, but that cannot compensate for a squad lacking a killer edge, a flaw that saw them thrice eliminated in the pools during Drogba’s era.
37. Kenny Dalglish
Like Bremner, Scotland frontman Dalglish was a standout for a side that achieved far more than their successors. But, he was also unable to take them into the latter stages of a World Cup.
In all the three he took part in, the Tartan Terriers fell in the first round, though the Liverpool legend did net in a famous 3-2 victory over eventual runners-up the Netherlands in 1978.
36. Yaya Toure
A powerhouse in Manchester City’s engine room for the best part of a decade and a Champions League winner with Barcelona, Toure is no stranger to glory. Of course, he was unable to attain it on the biggest stage of all, suffering from the same issues that plagued Drogba at international level.
35. Just Fontaine
French favourite Fontaine gave a decent account of himself at Sweden ’58, scoring four against West Germany, a hat-trick versus Paraguay and six more goals to take his total to 13. To put that in context, record-holder Miroslav Klose hit 16 across 12 years.
Had the striker appeared at another championship, perhaps his nation would have been celebrating their first major trophy sooner.
34. George Weah
What is of more value: a World Cup triumph or the Ballon d’Or? It’s a close call. How about being the only footballer from your continent to win the latter, is that more impressive than lifting the famous old trophy?
Weah would probably say yes to the final question, with the Liberian currently the sole African to be named as the best player on the planet. It’s a terrible shame he never made an appearance at a finals, he and his compatriots coming closest to qualifying in 2002 when a single point denied them.
33. Laszlo Kubala
If you’re voted as the greatest Barcelona player of the 20th century, you’re probably pretty good at kicking a ball. Kubala definitely was, earning that splendid accolade in 1999.
His direct dribbling, unerring finishing ability and masterful dead-ball technique helped three different national teams battle for supremacy. Regrettably, none of Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Spain could profit from having this traveller in their lineup.
32. Ryan Giggs
13 Premier League titles but zero World Cup appearances; Giggs was unlucky to play for a Wales outfit that were shoddy at best, though that is something that his success at Manchester United made up for.
The evergreen winger called time on his international career seven years before he retired from playing entirely, though he could still reach those elusive finals as a coach after taking on the Welsh job.
31. Ruud Gullit
Another Ballon d’Or winner, another who failed to shine when it mattered most. Gullit was a key component in a trailblazing Dutch team, yet failed to perform in his only championship in 1990 as the Netherlands crashed out in the round-of-16.
Wilting under the pressure of expectation, the Europeans had missed out on the previous two tournaments, whilst their thrilling frontman Gullit walked out of training weeks before the 1994 World Cup and never returning.
30. Steven Gerrard
Gerrard was the complete midfielder and one of the star men in the ‘Golden Generation of England players that flattered to deceive on too many occasions. The less said about that, the better.
There were two truly magnificent moments for the Reds skipper at major tournaments; a breathtaking rocket against Trinidad & Tobago in 2006 and poking in the Three Lions’ opening goal of the tournament in 2010 versus the USA.
Just try to forget that ITV HD showed a car advert instead of Gerrard’s goal against the Americans, the only moment of joy for the English in a dire showing.
29. Peter Schmeichel
Arguably the finest goalkeeper in Premier League history, the Dane was a giant of the game during his long, distinguished career. The problem for Denmark was that beyond the excellent duo of Schmeichel and Laudrup, they were a distinctly average side.
28. Roberto Baggio
What does everyone remember the mercurial Baggio for? That penalty in the 1994 final shootout with Brazil. Some say the ball is yet to land, still flying high somewhere over California.
It’s an unjust fate to befall the Italian, who was handed the Ballon d’Or mere months before the showdown in the USA.
27. Clarence Seedorf
Seedorf oozes class in everything he does, regardless of whether he is on the pitch or off of it. However, he is the same as every great Dutch player in history, as the football-crazed nation’s wait for a maiden World Cup continues.
26. Paul Gascoigne
Gazza had his demons, but they were unable to stop an incredible player from reaching the heights of the game. He was unstoppable at times, making the spectacular look effortless.
Still, his off-field issues limited the midfielder to just one championship, though it was one of England’s greatest. Italia ’90, Gascoigne’s tears, semi final heartbreak; we’ll never forget that summer.
25. Lev Yashin
In some corners of the globe, Yashin is revered as the best goalkeeper ever. He was athletic, sharp and intimidating, qualities that took the USSR to the last four of the 1966 World Cup.
Unfortunately, his reputation is slightly damaged by an uncharacteristically-poor performance in Chile four years prior, French newspaper L’Equipe predicting the end of Yashin’s career following an erroneous display against Colombia in a 4-4 draw.
24. Sergio Aguero
Generations of Argentine football fanatics have grown up without witnessing their mighty national side crowned as world champions once again. Aguero wasn’t even born when La Albiceleste last ruled the globe.
His insane finishing and stupendous long-range shooting have established Manchester City as a dominant force in England, but the same cannot be said when he plays for the national team.
23. Luis Figo
It takes a lot of cajones to agree to a transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid, and that’s precisely what Figo did. Nevertheless, the guile and intelligence that characterised the Portuguese’s performances failed to fuel a Portuguese triumph in any competitions.
22. Andriy Shevchenko
Up to his ill-fated Chelsea move, Shevchenko was one of the most feared strikers in the game. He was prolific at both Dynamo Kyiv and Milan, joining the Rossoneri for a then-record $25m for an Italian side.
Being Ukrainian meant that any silverware he collected was almost certain to come at club level, and so it proved. Nevertheless, he captained them at Germany ’06, scoring twice in an unexpected run to the quarter finals.
21. Eric Cantona
A falling out with the French coaching setup in 1995 brought a premature end to Cantona’s international career, an incident he claims prevented him from extending his playing days.
In an interview years on from that dispute, the eccentric forward revealed that he would have stuck around for the 1998 World Cup had he still been involved with France. They hosted it that time and went on to win, making Cantona’s exile all the more annoying from his point of view.
20. Dennis Bergkamp
World Cup iconic moments:
04 July, 1998
️ Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
Dennis Bergkamp picks a Frank de Boer pass out of the sky with trademark poise and scores a sublime goal to win the quarter-final for @KNVB vs. @Argentina in the last minute. pic.twitter.com/q8mV3tXtCh
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) June 3, 2018
Bergkamp’s superlative skills are well-documented. Just watch his majestic score against Argentina in 1998; this man was worthy of lifting the trophy.
19. Sir Stanley Matthews
23 years. That’s how much time passed between Matthews’ first cap for England and his final one.
Sadly, the Stoke City and Blackpool hero was surrounded by a team of less remarkable footballers, the Three Lions failing to navigate their way past the second round in either 1950 or 1954.
18. Claude Makelele
If you hadn’t guessed it already, the ‘Makelele Role’ was named after this destructive French midfielder, meaning he essentially paved the way for N’Golo Kante to reach his current stardom and acclaim.
It’s very easy to underrate the tireless work of Makelele due to its apparent simplicity. It is far from that, however. His style of play requires a deep understanding of and fine-tuned ability to read the game.
Still, he was overlooked by Aime Jacquet when the coach assembled his squad for a home World Cup in 1998. They may have gone all the way that year, but the presence of the Marseille man would no doubt have been useful.
If you look up the word ‘cool’ in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Socrates. On top of his iconic beard-hairband combo, the Brazilian was as wise and learned as his philosophical namesake.
Adored by fans for his delicate distribution and style on the ball, the forward-turned-midfielder captained the Selecao in 1982 when they were knocked out by Italy in the second-round. He would return in the 1986 edition, only to fall to France in the quarters, Les Bleus progressing after penalties.
16. Kevin Keegan
Back-to-back Ballon d’Or victories represent the crowning achievement of Keegan’s career, though leading England in 1982 would appear to come as a close second.
However, he managed just one appearance in Spain that year due to a chronic back problem, playing the last 26 minutes in a match needed to win.
Facing the hosts, Keegan missed a header from point-blank range that would have broken the deadlock, his poorly-timed attempt condemning Ron Greenwood’s recruits to a second-round exit.
With England failing to qualify for the two previous tournaments and the forward knowing he wouldn’t make it to Mexico ’86, he chose to gamble when not fully fit, a risk that didn’t pay off.
If Socrates was the brain of the famed Brazil team of the 1980s, Zico was the heartbeat. Saying he had flair is an understatement when it comes to the extravagant playmaker’s on-field magic.
A strike-rate of roughly two goals every three matches for the Samba Boys speaks volumes about his proficiency at finding the net. He was far more than simply a scorer, though, offering immaculate ball-playing skills and wonderful creativity.
14. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
Two-time European Footballer of the Year Rummenigge was a merciless goalscorer, amassing over 200 for Bayern Munich during a decade in Bavaria. He was also incredibly productive for West Germany with a total of 45 goals in 95 appearances.
A couple of those caps were earned in World Cup finals, both of which were lost. Having fallen at the hands of Italy four years prior, Rummenigge and his teammates took on Argentina at the Estadio Azteca in 1986, the striker instigating a stirring fightback with an instinctive effort on 74-minutes.
Though they would equalise swiftly after, Diego Maradona delivered a hammerblow in the closing stages as he found an unmarked Jorge Burruchaga with a delightful through ball, the latter sealing victory with a composed stab underneath the goalkeeper.
13. Duncan Edwards
Had his life not been claimed by the Munich Air Disaster in 1958, Edwards would have been at the peak of his career and a shoo-in for England’s 1966 squad.
Many of the wideman’s contemporaries claim that it would have been him, not Bobby Moore, captaining Sir Alf Ramsey’s triumphant side, but Bobby Charlton’s comments stand out among a sea of tributes.
Others said he would’ve become the finest footballer in history, but the United stalwart kept it personal, saying (as quoted by BBC): “He was the only player that made me feel inferior. His death was the biggest single tragedy ever to happen to Manchester United and English football.”
12. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
No player is so adept at pulling off the miraculous. No man is so unwavering in their self-belief. No one is like Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Yes, the Swedish striker is capable of nearly anything, collecting some genuinely unbelievable goals, such as his 40-yard overhead kick in a 4-2 defeat of England. Regrettably for Zlatan, not a single one came at a World Cup finals.
11. Paolo Maldini
It’s one thing to play professional football for 24 years; it’s something completely different to do so as a left-back and maintain consistently-high performance levels throughout.
Nevertheless, all four of Maldini’s World Cup campaigns ended in disappointment, an outcome that was perhaps made more frustrating by Italy’s success in the first tournament after is international retirement.
Then again, he may be quite satisfied with winning the FIFA Club World Cup in 2007 with Milan…plus the seven Serie A titles and five European Cups that came his way during a career-long love affair with the Rossoneri.
10. Oliver Kahn
The only goalkeeper to be awarded the Golden Ball was also the villain in Germany’s 2002 loss to Brazil in Yokohama. It was Kahn who gifted Ronaldo the opener in the second-half, but his status amongst the game’s greats is not remotely harmed by that error.
If you never watched the Bayern shot-stopper play, just imagine how incredible Manuel Neuer was until 2017 and combine in with the brilliance of prime Iker Casillas.
9. George Best
Best by name, best by nature; in his prime, the Northern Irishman was devastating on the wing and a deserved winner of the 1968 Ballon d’Or after fending off the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Charlton.
Tragically, he lost his way and found alcohol as a solace, his addiction to the drink and sharp decline leading manager Billy Bingham to overlook the washed-up 35-year-old when Northern Ireland eventually qualified for a World Cup in 1982.
You will struggle to find many footballers who were better in front of goal than the Portuguese superstar, who racked up nine goals in his only ever World Cup finals appearance.
Four of those came against North Korea as Eusebio’s team reached the last four in England, where they were beaten 2-1 by their hosts. Unsurprisingly, it was their striker who grabbed the consolation, saluting opposing ‘keeper Gordon Banks immediately afterwards as a mark of respect.
7. Marco van Basten
Van Basten had no weakness, no flaws for opponents to take advantage of. He would glide across the turf, never looking worried, regardless of the situation at hand.
With a lofty stature and mesmerising feet, the Dutchman was deadly in the air and on the ground, while also having a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
However, you all know by now what befell this stunning Dutch side.
6. Ferenc Puskas
514 goals in 530 club games suggests that Puskas knew how to find the back of the net. He was somehow better on the international stage for Hungary, though, scoring 84 in 85 appearances.
The forward’s mind-boggling strike-rate fuelled the Hungarian charge to the 1954 World Cup final in Switzerland where they met West Germany, an encounter which would end 3-2 in favour of the latter.
Puskas still left his mark on the match by grabbing the opener, but he would leave an even bigger mark on the sport. Three years after his passing, FIFA created the Puskas Award for the most ‘beautiful’ goal, a fitting tribute to a superb footballer.
5. Johan Cruyff
Cruyff changed our game, acting as a pioneer of ‘total football’ at Barcelona, Ajax and the Netherlands national setup. The system essentially means that any player can take on the role of any teammate. However, no one could ever produce such exquisite play as the revolutionary Dutchman.
Words do not do justice to the astonishing skill-set of the winger. It is well worth unearthing some clips of Cruyff in his heyday – you won’t regret it.
4. Michel Platini
His name may be somewhat tarnished now as investigations into the awarding of the 2022 tournament to Qatar continue, yet Platini was once a lovely footballer to watch in full flow.
The Frenchman was thrice voted as the greatest player in Europe in the mid-1980s, although he was lacking match-fitness in the only tournament he played in under that title. Nevertheless, he hit two vital goals on Les Bleus’ march to the last-four that glorious summer in 1986.
Marked out of games in 1978, he starred the following championship as France reached the semis, ultimately losing in the shootout after an enthralling 3-3 draw.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo
What is there to say about Cristiano Ronaldo that hasn’t been said before? People have differing opinions about his all-round ability, but no one doubts the strength of his finishing.
Even those who believe him to be overrated are unsettled when he collects possession against their beloved club, fearing an unstoppable drive or a slick piece of skill.
Having won almost everything in his illustrious career – including the 2016 Euros and 2019 Nations League with Portugal – there is one glaring omission from his trophy cabinet, and at 34 years-of-age, it’s difficult to see him rectifying that.
2. Alfredo Di Stefano
If the Real Madrid of the past decade has belonged to Ronaldo, then Los Blancos of the 1950s and 1960s is without doubt Di Stefano’s.
The Argentina-born Spaniard was the driving force behind five consecutive European Cup triumphs, yet he couldn’t bring the same success to any of the national teams he represented.
Both Spain and his country of birth were still developing as footballing nations, while a four-cap spell with Colombia was never going to yield Wold Cup immortality, not that he needed it given his ranking in Madrid.
1. Lionel Messi
Messi came agonisingly close to ending Argentina’s drought in 2014, La Albiceleste going down 1-0 in the final to Germany.
Does the missing trophy hinder the claim that he is the greatest of all time? If you’ve seen him at Barcelona, you know the answer to that question…