Honourable mentions: Of those who didn’t quite make the list a handful are worth a special mention.Starting with 3 times European Cup winning goalkeeper Ray Clemence who would have played in 1978 had England qualified and was selected as an unused substitute for Spain ’82. Another Liverpool legend Sami Hypia played 102 games for Finland but they never qualified a fate that also saw Ukraine winger Andrei Kanchelskis, Georgia’s magical midfielder Georgi Kinkladze, Bayern Munich’s prolific Peruvian striker Claudio Pizarro and Ghana’s serial goal of the month winner Tony Yeboah all miss out. 70’s mavericks Stan Bowles & Charlie George never convinced England Manager’s of there worth whilst Arsenal legend Ian Wright missed out due to a failure to qualify in 1994 and a last minute injury before France 98. Iceland legend Eider Gudjohnsen hasn’t played for his country for 2 years and at 39 is unlikely to go to Russia this summer and we shouldn’t forget Everton legend Dixie Dean who retired before England began playing World Cups. And of course there are plenty of current superstars Gareth Bale, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Christian Pulisic and Virgil Van Dijk to name but 4 who will all have to wait at least until Qatar 2022 for their chance. So here’s the top 5…
5. Ian Rush (Wales)
The highest placed of the four Welshmen on this list sits the most prolific strike of the First Division football era. Rush started his career with Chester City but was signed to Liverpool aged 18 in 1980. By the time he made his Anfield debut Rush was already a Welsh international but his big break came in the 1981-82 season when he hit 30 goals as Liverpool won the League and League Cup double. Rush’s name represented the ultimate in nominate determinism- he was lightning quick combined with a poachers instinct and playing in Europe’s best club side of the early 80s’ the records began to tumble.
Rush began finding his feet for Wales in the 1982 World Cup qualifying campaign but Wales lost out on goal difference to Czechoslovakia. At club level Rush was unstoppable recording back to back 30 goal seasons before hitting an incredible 47 goals (32 in the league) in 1983-84 as Liverpool won the League for a third straight year along with the League Cup and European Cup; Rush was named PFA & FWA Player of the Year.
Wales meanwhile were struggling to build around Rush- they had a solid defence but unlike Liverpool they lacked a creative midfielder and in Mark Hughes they found a striker of comparable talent but not a natural partner for Rush with the pair struggling to find the same wavelength.
The 1986 World Cup qualifying campaign seemed to represent a great chance but it came down to a final night showdown with Scotland with a 82nd minute penalty giving the Scots the vital point and qualification and for the second straight World Cup Wales were the only British side to stay home. After the 1985 European Cup Final English clubs were banned from Europe and Rush started to see his future away from Anfield.
In the summer of ’86 after a League & Cup double and another 33 goals Rush signed for Juventus but stayed on loan for a final year at Liverpool which saw him hit another 40 goals. Rush struggled at Juve although his time there wasn’t the disaster it’s often portrayed to be- he hit 14 goals in 39 games and always claims he enjoyed life in Italy and that infamous “it was like living in another country” quote wasn’t his.
However in the summer of 1988 he was back at Anfield but initially without his previous success scoring just 7 league goals in the campaign, meanwhile Wales struggled to mount a credible qualifying campaign for Italia ’90. But Rush rediscovered his scoring touch in the 1989 FA Cup Final- scoring twice and he hit 20+ goals in 3 of the next 4 seasons.
Wales now had a real chance of playing in a major tournament- Euro 1992. The draw had pitted them against World Champions Germany but Wales at the crossroads of the Rush/ Southall/ Hughes generation and Giggs/Saunders/Speed made an excellent start and Rush gave them a vital 1-0 win over the Germans in Cardiff. Sadly Wales lost the return match and narrowly missed out on the tournament, it was a similar story 2 years later and Rush missed out on his last chance of a World Cup as Wales lost to Romania for USA ’94.
Rush retired from international duty in 1996 and finally left Liverpool for good that summer having made himself the all-time leading goalscorer for club and at the time country with 346 goals for Liverpool (199 in the league) and 28 goals from 73 caps for Wales.
4. George Best (Northern Ireland)
Possibly the most divisive player ever to play the game Best has been fairly described as amongst other things as a genius, drunk, magician, abusive, brilliant- what everyone can agree on is he was a phenomenally gifted player.
Best was initially signed by Manchester United aged 15 in 1961. After winning the FA Youth cup in 1964 Best made his way into United’s first team. His talent became immediately clear- he was blessed with incredible close control and could dribble his way past defenders for fun and in his first full season in the United first team they won their first post Munich First Division Title.
At international level Best made his Northern Ireland debut a year earlier but they were struggling to find other international standard players and Best was almost immediately carrying the side on his back. But it was the 1965-66 season that catapulted the 19-year-old to superstardom with a famous performance and brace against Benfica in the European Cup, leading the Portuguese press to dub him ‘O Qunito Beatle’ given his good looks and outrageous talent the comparison with the world’s biggest pop group wasn’t without merit.
But Northern Ireland failed to qualify for England ’66 and his talents were confined largely to club football. He won a second league title in 1967 as part of the famed Holy Trinity alongside Bobby Charlton & Dennis Law and a year later Matt Busby finally grasped the Holy Grail of club football and won the European Cup- Best won that year’s Ballon d’Or.
By now Best was rarely playing for his country as they continued their long stint in the international wilderness but the goals and accolades kept coming as Best recorded 5 successive 20+ goal seasons up to 1971-72. In 1971 he also enjoyed his two biggest moments for Northern Ireland- a 4 goal salvo in a win over Cyprus and the famous goal that wasn’t against England when he dinked the ball away from Gordan Banks as he was preparing to kick long.
But trouble was soon in the air- Busby and Charlton had retired and United were sliding meanwhile Best’s alcohol problem was starting to impact his career. He announced his retirement at the end of the 71-72 season aged just 26 but then reversed his decision and turned up for pre-season. It proved a mistake with Best increasingly a shadow of his former self United continued to slide and were relegated in 1974.
Best would play for 15 different clubs over the next decade. Whilst with Fulham in 1977 he made the final of his 37 Northern Ireland appearances. The most fruitful of his later stints proved to be in short-lived North American Soccer League and whilst at the San Jose Earthquakes his country finally returned the big time by qualifying for Spain ’82.
Northern Ireland boss Billy Bingham was left with a dilemma- should he recall 36-year-old Best for the tournament or stick with his the side that secured qualification. Best made the decision easy by moving to far-flung Hong Kong and barely playing in World Cup year. Ironically Bingham instead selected the new Manchester United teen sensation Norman Whiteside and Northern Ireland confounded expectations by beating hosts Spain and making it to the second phase.
Best finally hung up his boots in 1984 and the remainder of his life was plagued by alcoholism and trouble, the low lights included a bag theft, allegations of domestic abuse and the infamous Wogan interview. In 2002 his acute liver problems lead to a transplant an operation from which he barely recovered. Many hoped his brush with death would shake Best out of his drinking but sadly he couldn’t beat his addiction and he finally passed away in 2005. Best’s life will always be seen as a double-edged sword- brilliant on the pitch and deeply flawed off it but for all his troubles his magical talent will live long in the memory.
3. Duncan Edwards (England)
The highest places Briton is football’s greatest what might have been story. Described by close friend Bobby Charlton as the greatest player he played with or against (high praise indeed!) Edwards died aged just 21 having already played 151 games for Manchester United, won 2 league titles and 21 England caps.
Edwards was physically imposing renowned for his ability to make pinpoint clean tackles and bring the ball out of defence in a style comparable with Franz Beckenbauer, he also possessed a wicked shot, was equally good with both feet and was near impossible to knock off the ball.
He first came to prominence by winning the inaugural FA Youth Cup in 1953. The following season aged just 16 he became a club regular at senior level playing as a left half. He was making waves and won a call up for England’s Under 23s in January 1954 and was considered for the senior squad ahead of the 1954 World Cup but a poor performance in front of the selection committee that March saw him overlooked.
The following season the teenager scored his first league goal playing 33 league games and in April he won his first England call up. He made his debut aged 18 year and 183 days- setting a post war record for youngest England debutant not broken until Michael Owen’s debut 44 years later. But it was the following season that saw Edwards emerge as England’s brightest young star- United stormed to the League title and the legend of the ‘Busby Babes’ was born.
In May 1956 Edwards cemented his place as England’s best player with a stunning solo goal against West Germany- his first goal for his country. The following season saw United cruise to a second straight league title. England were rebuilding after the rude awakening they received from Ferenc Puzkas’ Hungary in 1953 and Edwards along with club mates Tommy Taylor & Roger Byrne were central to the new team- the fact United were the only club in England with European experience also helped the national side’s development as the World Cup homed into view.
United were dominating at home and progressing in Europe whilst England lost only 1 of the 18 games leading up to the 1958 World Cup- they looked serious contenders to win their first World Cup, whilst their leading club had made it to the last 4 of the European Cup. Glory appeared to be within Edwards’ grasp but as we all know it wasn’t to be.
On the 6th February United’s plane taking them home from a tie with Red Star Belgrade crashed on the runway at Munich Airport, 22 passengers including 7 of Edwards teammates were killed. But it initially seemed Edwards would survive with early reports suggesting his condition was rapidly improving but on 21st February he succumbed to his internal injuries.
England’s 1958 World Cup chances were severely impaired by Munich with Edwards, Taylor & Byrne all certain starters lost to the tragedy. Had Edwards played it’s hard to imagine England would not have made it to the business end of the tournament and perhaps we’d have seen the ultimate attacker/ defender showdown between Edwards & Pele. Edwards would have been only 25 in the 1962 World Cup and 29 in 1966 leading many to speculate he might have been England Captain when they finally did win the Jules Rimet Trophy.
It’s tough to predict what his future may have held into the 1960’s and perhaps his club and country would have made it to the top of the footballing world sooner had he lived. What’s not debatable is Edwards was a special talent and his loss at such a young age was a tragedy for football.
2. George Weah (Liberia)
Question: who’s the only footballer currently serving as President of his country? Answer: George Weah. Weah was an outstanding forward blessed with pace, power and explosive shot combined with a creativity and dribbling ability that made him an exceptional team player.
Yeah cut his teeth in his native Liberia and won his first cap for his country aged 20 in 1987. Whispers of his talent reached young Monaco manager Arsene Wenger who signed Weah in 1988 for a bargain £12,000. Weah quickly established himself in France and won the first of 3 African Footballer of The Year awards in 1989, Weah took the award back to his small homeland for his countrymen to celebrate- an early sign of his philanthropy.
In 1991 Weah won his first trophy in Europe- the Coupe De France, scoring 5 times in 6 cup matches and notching 18 in all competition for the season. The following season he took Monaco to the European Cup Winners Cup Final before departing for PSG. In Paris he kicked on to another level. In 3 seasons he lifted the Coup De France twice and added his first league title. More importantly he was the top scorer in the Champions League in 1994-95 earning himself a move to Europe’s top side of the ’90s- AC Milan in the summer of 1995.
But despite Weah’s success and commitment to his country Liberia couldn’t break into the World Cup, in 1994 Africa had just 3 World Cup berths taken by the more established powers- Cameroon, Morocco and Nigeria. The World Cup may have gone but Weah was a sensation in Milan, he won Serie A at the first attempt scoring a brilliant goal against Verona- picking the ball up from an opposing corner and beating 7 players as he ran the length of the pitch to score.
Now at the peak of his powers he won the 1995 Ballon d’Or, was dubbed ‘King George’ in Milan and added his third African Footballer of the Year Award. The following year he made it to his first tournament with his country- the Africa Cup of Nations but Liberia lacking players of similar quality failed to progress beyond the group. Liberia’s problems weren’t just those of a small nation with 1 star player- a bloody civil war raged through much of the 1990s.
Weah continued to be the star man in Milan but a controversial tunnel fight saw him banned for 6 European games as Milan struggled to maintain the standard they’d set in the first half of the decade. Weah stayed in Milan for 5 years and was voted African Player of the Century.
Weah helped to rally his club and won his second Serie A title in 1999 but his powers were waning and aged 34 he left the San Siro for Chelsea. It didn’t work out in London and Weah flitted around a few clubs in the final years of his club career. But he continued to play for his country and aged 36 almost made it to Japorea 2002 (losing out by a single point). Despite finishing his club career in 2003 but he continued to represent Liberia as he attempted to bind the wounds of civil war.
Weah’s post football career has seen him set up football academies in his homeland & further afield and carry out humanitarian work in his home country wounded so terribly by war. His continued popularity at home saw him enter politics and elected Liberian President earlier this year. Weah’s story is an inspiring tale in an era where footballers are often cast as ignorant playboys, Weah’s commitment off the pitch and displays on it are an example to all.
1. Alfredo Di Stefano (Argentina & Spain)
There was never really any doubt who’d be number 1 on this list, it remains an incredible irony that the most influential player in the history of club football never played in international football’s biggest event.
Di Stefano was born in Argentina and started his career in 1945 with River Plate and after a brief loan to Huracan became a River Plate regular in 1947 winning the Primera Division title. Already Di Stefano’s goal scoring ability and technical brilliance were clear to see as he amassed 28 goals in only 32 games in that debut season.
In 1947 he made his Argentina debut and was selected for that years Copa America. Argentina won the tournament with their sensational young striker bagging 6 goals in just 6 games. Di Stefano nothced a further 18 goals in his second season with River Plate but in 1949 controversy struck when he transferred to Colombian side Millonarios. The legitimacy of the move was questionable something that would play a huge role in his move to Spain 4 years later.
But in the meantime Di Stefano made hay in Colombia winning 3 League Championships in 4 years and bagging 100 goals in just 111 games. But Argentina didn’t enter the 1950 World Cup or the 1954 tournament and Di Stefano didn’t play for his home nation ever again.
But the decisive moment of his career came in 1953- Millonarios played a friendly tournament in Spain and his sensational form caught the attention of both Real Madrid and Barcelona. Barca were favourites for his signature but complications over his registration dating back to that disputed transfer to Millonarios muddied negotiations and Barca mistakenly believed they only needed to agree the deal with River Plate. Finally the paperwork was completed by Millonarios disputed the transfer and the Spanish FA refused to sanction the move. Whilst confusion reigned Real Madrid made their move and Di Stefano joined Los Blancos. It’s become an urban myth that General Franco intervened in the transfer to ensure Di Stefano didn’t end up in Catalonia, to this day the rumours of Machiavellian forces were behind the move and the full details remain mysterious but there’s no debating the outcome.
Di Stefano won the Primera Division title in both his first two seasons with Madrid netting 52 goals in just 58 games and more significantly gained Real access to the first ever European Cup tournament in 1955-56. Di Stefano scored Real’s first goal of the inaugural final as they came from behind to beat Stade De Reims 4-3. It was the first of 5 successive European Cup wins with Di Stefano scoring in all 5 finals. Di Stefano was runner-up in the inaugural Ballon d’Or and won the honour at the second attempt in 1957- he went on to win it again in 1959.
In 1956 Di Stefano became a Spanish citizen and restarted his international career with his adopted nation the following year- a full decade on from his last Argentina cap. Spain began qualifying for the 1958 World Cup in confident mood but a sluggish start saw a shock defeat to Scotland and despite winning the return match 4-1 the Scots claimed a final win over Switzerland and qualified at Spain’s expense.
Despite the set back Di Stefano’s brilliance reached new heights in the 1960 European Cup Final at Hampden Park. Facing an imposing Eintract Frankfurt side who’d anhilated Rangers 12-4 enroute Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas put on a masterclass with Di Stefano claiming a hat-trick in a 7-3 win to thrill the Socttish crowd.
Di Stefano finally got his World Cup chance in 1962 aged 36 as Spain qualified for the finals in Chile. But cruel fate intervened and Di Stefano picked up a muscle injury just before the finals and Di Stefano and Barca legend Lazlo Kubala both watched as frustrated spectators as Spain’s bid fizzled out.
Di Stefano continued to play for Real until 1964 and even survived a kidnapping in Caracas (incredibly turning out for Madrid only days later!) before winding down his career with 2 seasons alongside Kubala at Espanyol. He later proved an excellent manager most notably taking Valencia to a La Liga title and Cup Winners Cup win.
But Di Stefano will first and foremost be remembered as an incredible player and Real Madrid legend. Upon his death in 2014 Real President Florentino Perez simply said Di Stefano was Real Madrid his 14 League titles (with 3 different clubs) and 5 European Cup wins make him simply the most important player in the history of club football, and the greatest player not to play a World Cup.
Football fan, follower of England, Leeds and will watch any game possible (between raising twins!)