Winning the World Cup is every footballer’s dream. In the almost nine-decade long history of this grand event, only one player has won three titles: Brazilian star Pelé; meanwhile, other greats of the most widely practiced sport in the planet were never able to lift the Jules Rimet Cup or the FIFA trophy. At PanamericanWorld, we propose a look at ten football legends who tried, but never reached the summit of the World Cup.
The Dutchman is considered one of the five best footballers of all time. His great opportunity of winning the World Cup arrived in the 1974 edition in West Germany, where the “Clockwork Orange” he led amazed crowds with their attacking talent. In the match for the title, the Dutch faced off against West Germany at Munich’s Olympiastadion. Johan Neeskens gave the Netherlands an early lead, but the Germans fought back and won thanks to a goal by “Der Bomber” Gerd Müller. Four years later, the Netherlands once again lost the title bout, although this time their squad did not include Cruyff, who declined to participate in a 1978 World Cup held in Argentina under a dictatorship.
EUSEBIO DA SILVA FERREIRA
A Portuguese football legend, Eusebio was a sensation at the 1966 World Cup and finished as the tournament’s top scorer with nine goals, although his team couldn’t make it to the title decider, losing 2-1 to England in one of the semifinals. Afterwards, in the third-place playoff, Eusebio scored the first goal against the Soviet Union and helped Portugal to their best finish in a World Cup yet.
ALFREDO DI STÉFANO
Di Stéfano played for three national teams: Argentina, Colombia and Spain. He was the great star of Real Madrid and one of the most iconic footballers in history; however, for a number of different reasons, the “Blond Arrow” never got to play in a World Cup. In 1958, when he played for Spain, “La Roja” did not qualify for the tournament hosted by Sweden; in 1962 an injury kept him on the sidelines and by 1966 his finest moments on the pitch were well behind him.
Related article: Top 10 Goals for Latin America in World Cups
Puskás was part of the Hungarian squad that astonished all with their powerful attack at the 1954 World Cup. In total, that team scored 27 goals! It’s still the highest tally for a single finals tournament in World Cup history. Puskás was one of the main stars in that team that also relied on Kocsis, Tóth and Czibor. In the final, the Hungarians played West Germany, whom they had defeated 8-3 in the group stage, so many expected another easy victory. Puskás opened the scoreline in the sixth minute; however, the Germans did not give up and their ultimate 3-2 win may be considered one of the greatest World Cup upsets.
Platini is another great player in football history who wasn’t fortunate enough to lift the World Cup trophy. He played at three editions (1978, 1982 and 1986) and his best result was a third-place finish in the tournament held in Mexico.
The “Black Spider” is considered the most complete goalkeeper of all time. Yashin played in four World Cups, but never at a final match. The Soviet Union was defeated in the quarterfinals in the 1958 and 1962 editions. Then, in 1966, the Soviets advanced to the semifinals, where they lost to Franz Beckenbauer’s West Germany and later to Portugal in the third-place playoff. In 1970, the Soviets lost 1-0 in extra time to Uruguay in the quarterfinals, in what was the last World Cup match Yashin attended as a player.
Maldini is remembered as one of the best defenders of the last three decades. He played in four World Cups with Italy between 1990 and 2002, and he came very close to the title in the edition hosted by the United States. In 1994, Italy, managed by Arrigo Sacchi, reached the final against Brazil. Maldini was a starter in that match that finished scoreless, so, for the first time in World Cup history, a penalty shootout was required to decide the champion. The Brazilians showed better aim and won their fourth title.
ARTHUR ANTUNES COIMBRA (ZICO)
Zico has been one of the top-scoring midfielders in history, and had an immense skill for ball distribution among his multiple virtues. He played in three World Cups (1978, 1982 and 1986) and his best result with the Brazilian team was a fifth-place finish in Mexico. In that tournament, Zico missed one of the most famous penalty kicks in World Cup history against France in the quarterfinals. It was a costly mistake, since it prevented the “Seleçao” from winning that match in regular time. The contest was decided in the penalty shootout and Zico did score in it, but it wasn’t enough, since two of his teammates (Sócrates and Júlio César) missed and Brasil was knocked out.
MARCO VAN BASTEN
Van Basten, Rijkaard and Gullit made up the most celebrated footballing trio in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the 1990 World Cup in Italy, many expected Van Basten, who had won major club honors with AC Milan and Ajax, to lead the Dutch to the title; however, the “Oranje” found themselves unable to play their best and were eliminated by Germany in the round of 16.
CRISTIANO RONALDO / LIONEL MESSI
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have been the best footballers of the 21st century. They have won every possible honor in club football, but they are both missing the World Cup in the trophy cabinets of their successful careers. The Portuguese forward has played in four World Cups and his finest hour came in 2006, when Portugal advanced to the semifinal stage, although they then lost to France and later to Germany in the third-place playoff. Messi has also appeared in four World Cups with Argentina, and his most notable result has been playing in the 2014 World Cup Final, in which the “Albiceleste” lost to Germany in extra time.