For any soccer player in the world, professional or amateur, having the honor to represent their country in the FIFA World Cup is probably the most important accolade in their career. Club titles and awards may come and go, but getting the opportunity to don their national team colors and play in the world’s most important soccer tournament is on a whole other level.
When speaking about players that have participated in the World Cup, many important stars come to mind. Brazilian superstar Pelé won the tournament three times in 1958, 1962, and 1970. Diego Maradona was Argentina’s motor in the Mexico ‘86 tournament championship run. Zinedine Zidane, arguably France’s most important soccer player in history captained “Les Bleus” to their first tournament win in 1998 at home in Paris.
But what about those other legends of the sport that didn’t make it to the World Cup? Players that are praised by fans all over for their prowess on the field managed to carve their names into the annals of soccer history.
With the Qatar 2022 tournament officially underway, let’s look back at three of the biggest players in soccer that never played in the World Cup.
Ryan Giggs, Wales
When people talk about Giggs’ career, the conversation automatically gravitates toward his title-amassing run with English giant Manchester United. As a pivotal part of that historic 1992 class of players that included David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, and the Neville brothers, Giggs became one of the most important players to wear the Man United jersey.
His international career with Wales though was one where accolades were never obtained. Even after earning his first cap with the Welsh National Team before turning 18, Giggs and the Welsh were never able to find any international success. The closest they came to making it to the tournament was before the 1994 tournament in the U.S. when they would get knocked out of the running by Romania in the last leg of the UEFA qualifiers.
Now that Wales has finally made it to a World Cup tournament after a 64-year absence, one can only wonder how this team would fare if it had had Giggs ready to lead their midfield.
George Best, Northern Ireland
Ask any soccer fan from the late ‘60s to the mid-’80s about Best and you’ll see how it doesn’t take more than a minute to agree that Best was one of the most talented soccer players in the history of the game. Known for two things, his ability to score goals and how much he loved the nightlife and parties, Best won everything he could while playing for Manchester United, but couldn’t manage to transfer those winning talents to his Northern Ireland squad.
With only 37 caps for his country’s team, in which he scored nine goals, Best was left out of the Northern Ireland teams that would qualify for the 1982 and 1986 World Cup tournaments. While some say this happened because of his partying antics, there is no denying that he was a player made for scoring goals and amazing fans.
Alfredo Di Stéfano, Argentina, Spain
In the conversation of who the best soccer player in history is, the names of the previously mentioned Pelé and Maradona always come to mind. Nowadays, that same conversation can’t be had without throwing Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the mix. But before any of them graced soccer fields around the world, there was Alfredo Di Stefano.
The Argentinian-born striker is considered by many as the most polarizing striker from the ‘40s to the mid-’60s having played in his home country, as well as in Colombia and Spain professionally. While considered as many as one of the best talents in the history of the game, Di Stéfano was never able to play in a World Cup tournament.
After Argentina decided to boycott the 1950 and 1954 World Cup tournaments due to off-the-field issues with other participating nations, Di Stéfano migrated to Spain. While putting on some of the country’s best goal-scoring numbers with Real Madrid, Spain’s most important soccer club in history, the Argentinian obtained his Spanish citizenship, thus allowing him to play for a new national team.
Sadly, in two last efforts to try and make it to the tournament in 1958 and 1962, the chance never came and the world never got the chance to see the former legend in action.