Part 3 of our look back at the greats who never played a World Cup- as we’re getting into the top 10 the biographies are a little longer…
10. Bernd Schuster (West Germany)
If there’s one certainty in football it’s that if you’re a world-class player born in Germany you will play (and more than likely win) a World Cup- Schuster is the exception. German midfielders in the ’80s were characterised as dour, ruthlessly efficient, hard-working with robotic personalities, Schuster was anything but. He was a serious rival to Platini and Zico in the midfield playmaker stakes equipped with ability to dissect the toughest defences with his perfect passes and hit spectacular goals from 30 yards out, sadly he also grew a reputation for bust ups, tantrums and controversy.
Schuster made his first team debut with FC Cologne aged 18 in 1979 and his outrageous skill brought him his West Germany debut the following year. In 1980 he was part of West Germany’s powerful European Championship squad after an outstanding second Bundesliga season; Schuster played twice as West Germany lifted the trophy. Schuster’s huge potential saw him transferred to Barcelona early in the 1980-81 season and finished second in the Ballon D’or voting for 1980, he notched 11 goals in his first season at the Camp Nou, lifted the Copa Del Ray and was a regular for his country but then the bust ups began.
First he refused a friendly call up in order to attend the birth of his second child causing a scandal in Germany. He then suffered bust ups with the DFB, captain Paul Breitner and manager Jump Derwall and Schuster was excluded from the 1982 World Cup squad. in 1984 aged just 24 with 21 caps to his name Schuster announced his international retirement.
Brilliance and bust ups remained the twin tentpoles of Schuster’s career as he formed a close bond with Diego Maradona at Barca and after the wayward Argentine left for Napoli, Schuster inspired the Catalans to their first La Liga title in a decade in 1985 and took them to the 1986 European Cup final (which they lost on penalties). But Schuster fell out with manager Terry Venables leading to him being dumped to the reserves for the entire 86-87 season and in 1988 he crossed the great divide by signing for Real Madrid. After 2 years at the Bernabeu Schuster crossed another red line in Madrid by signing for cross town rivals Athletico where he spent 3 seasons before finally returning to Germany to finish his career in 1996 and finishing his career in far-flung Mexico a year later.
In all he won 3 La Liga titles, 6 Copa del Rey’s, the 1980 Euros and was twice voted for best foreign player in Spain. His country meanwhile produced series of prosaic sides in the 80’s that made it to 2 World Cup finals but lacked the finesse to bring home trophies- there may well have been even more silverware in the DFB cabinet had they and Schuster just learned to get along.
9. Eric Cantona (France)
The first great import of the Premier League era, Cantona was never quite the player for France that he was for Manchester United. Cantona began his career at Auxerre in 1983 and after a slow start caught wider recognition in 1988 with a starring role in France’s Euro under 21 triumph and a transfer to boyhood club Marseille.
But things rarely ran smoothly in Cantona’s homeland- first he was dropped from the national side in 1988 just year on from his debut after dubbing manager Henri Michel ‘A bag of shit’ meanwhile at Marseille he got involved in a series of bust ups and even when loaned out trouble followed; the highlights included punching a teammate, throwing away his shirt after being substituted, throwing the ball at a referee and kicking a boot at a teammate. At least with the national side things were looking up again with new manager Michel Platini recalling Cantona after Michel failed to make it to the 1990 World Cup.
Platini suggested Cantona move to England and tried to engineer moves to Liverpool and then Sheffield Wednesday, but it was title chasing Leeds who signed him in early 1992. Cantona’s initial impact on the pitch was fitful but the arrival of the mystical Frenchman boosted morale around the club at the low point of their title challenge and Leeds pipped Manchester United to the final First Division title.
That summer Cantona embarked on his only major tournament with France: Euro ’92. Platini’s side began with high hopes for the strike partnership of Cantona and uber poacher Jean Pierre-Papin, but France endured a shock defeat to Denmark (not the last time that happened that summer) in their final group game and crashed out winless- Platini was replaced with Gerard Houllier.
Back in England Cantona started the new season with a bang- grabbing 11 goals in 20 games for Leeds but he fell out with manager Howard Wilkinson and in a shock move he was sold to Manchester United that November. Most pundits dismissed the transfer as a panic buy but Cantona defied the critics providing a creative spark to a previously dour side and United stormed to their first league title in 26 years.
The following season Cantona moved to a new level grabbing 25 goals as United won the double and he was named PFA Player of the Year. But with the national side things went horribly wrong as France lost their last 2 World Cup qualifiers (see also David Ginola) and missed out on USA ’94.
Ginola and Houllier were blamed but many French fans noted Cantona struggled to find the space between midfield and defence at international level that was so plentiful in the early Premier League. But new France manager Aimee Jacquet still had faith in Cantona and made him captain. Then in January 1995 Cantona’s France career died in the most unlikely of places- Selhurst Park.
Cantona made his imfamous Kung-fu kick at a Crystal Palace fan, received an 8 month global ban and 120 hours community service and finally gave his strange sardines and seagulls quote. Jacquet was forced to look elsewhere for a playmaker and gave the role to Bordeaux midfielder Zinedine Zidane. In England Cantona had the last laugh making an inspired comeback to lead United to another league title and then scored the winner in the ’96 FA Cup final.
There were calls for Cantona to be recalled for Euro ’96 and despite The Sun calling for the French manager to receive a ‘straight-jacquet’ (see what they did there!) but Jacquet stuck with Zidane. Cantona played just one more season and said au revoir in 1997 having won an astonishing 5 league titles in 6 seasons in England, as for Jacquet, Zidane and France: they did just fine without Eric.
8. Johnny Giles (Republic of Ireland)
The late Duncan Revie once told an insightful story of the moment his father realised he’d made a colossal mistake swapping his beloved Leeds for the England job; Revie Snr turned to his son and simply stated “We don’t have a Johnny Giles.” For a decade Giles was the great Midfield General of English football.
It’s often forgotten Irishman Giles was initially discovered by Matt Busby and started his senior career at Old Trafford in 1959, making a goal scoring debut for the Republic of Ireland the same year. By the time of the 1961-62 season Giles was a regular for United and the following season saw him play the ’63 Cup Final, creating the winning goal with a trademark defensive splitting pass and alongside Bobby Charlton & Dennis Law lifted United’s first post Munich trophy.
But to the surprise of many Busby froze him out at the start of the following season and Giles was sold to Second Division Leeds United, Busby would later state selling Giles was his worst mistake in management. Giles was initially sceptical about the move but was impressed by manager Don Revie’s attention to detail and forward thinking. Giles time in the second tier was short-lived, gaining promotion at his first attempt.
Meanwhile Ireland were starting to make their way as a footballing nation reaching the last 8 of the fledgling European Championships in 1964. But the qualification draw for England ’66 did Giles and Ireland few favours as they were drawn against Spain. It came down to a playoff with the Spanish, held controversially in Paris where the Irish went down 1-0 and Giles missed a golden chance to play at a World Cup.
Things may have stalled with Ireland but Giles’ reputation was growing and he formed a formidable midfield partnership with Billy Bremner at Leeds. By 1968 Leeds were winning trophies and although they never quite shook off the ‘Dirty Leeds’ tag Giles was recognised by even Brian Clough as a magician in midfield. In all Giles won 6 major trophies as Leeds established themselves amongst Europe’s elite.
But with Ireland it was a different story- between 1968-73 Giles only played 9 times for his country as Ireland fell into the footballing shadowlands with many English sides refusing to release players for Ireland duty and a series of embarrassing qualification performances ensued. But by 1974 facilities and infrastructure at the FAI vastly improved and Ireland began to gain momentum with Giles central to their new look side. But qualification was again elusive in 1974 as Giles saw now aged 33 saw Scottish teammates past and present (Law, Bremner & Peter Lorimer) finally get their World Cup chance that summer in Germany- whilst Giles stayed home.
The summer of ’74 also saw Revie leave Leeds and recommend Giles replace him as manager. The Leeds Board disagreed with Revie and what followed has since been immortalised on the Silver Screen, with Giles so incensed by ‘The Damned United’ he sued and won the right to have his name removed from the book. But Giles did get another management job- Ireland Player-Manager.
The ageing Giles had found a midfield partner of equal quality in Liam Brady and with Giles plying his club trade at West Brom his Ireland career took centre stage. He managed them with 2 points of World Cup qualification in 1978 but yet again the biggest stage eluded him. Giles retired from International Football in 1979 after a 20 year 59 cap career. He also resigned as manager but ironically it was the appointment of his old Leeds teammate Jack Charlton that would finally propel Ireland to a World Cup in 1990.
7. Laszlo Kubala (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Spain)
Regarded by many as the first great Barcelona player, Kubala’s story is truly remarkable and saw him represent 3 different nations at international level but never get on the pitch at a major tournament.
Born in Budapest to parents who both had Slovak and Hungarian roots which country he could represent was a clouded subject and having made his debut aged 19 for Hungarian side Ferencvaros Kuala started his international career with Czechoslovakia in 1946. Kuala’s talents were immediately obvious; he was deadly with free kicks, could drift past defenders and finish- a perfect number 10.
Kubala moved around numerous Eastern European clubs and in 1948 switched international allegiance to Hungary but a year later a remarkable series of events changed his life. Firstly Hungary became a Communist State; Kubala and his family fled in January 1949- eventually making it to the US controlled zone of Allied occupied Austria. Once over the border Kubala moved to Italy and played for Pro Patria but was invited to play in a friendly for Italy’s best side Torino. Kubala was due to travel and play the friendly in Portugal but withdrew when his son became sick- subsequently the entire Torino team was lost in the Superga air-crash, Meanwhile Kubala’s escape became a propaganda tool in the fledgling Cold War with the Hungarian FA successfully having him banned from international football for 1 year whilst his escape became a movie in which he played himself.
Kubala formed part of an all refugee Hungaria team in 1950 and was spotted by Real Madrid but was persuaded by legendary scout Josep Samitier to sign for Barcelona. Once in Catalonia Kubala’s career took off. He guided them to an incredible 5 trophy season (including the League and Cup) in 1952- scoring 26 goals in 19 games. The following season saw Kubala’s career threatened when he contracted tuberculosis but he made an astonishing recovery to help Barca to another League title and then scored the winner in the cup final.
Despite his brilliance at club level Kubala remained in the international wilderness following his defection and was unable to play a part in Hungary’s Mighty Magyars side that stormed to the 1954 World Cup Final. Instead he adopted Spanish nationality and belatedly restarted his international career with Spain, but his new nation failed to qualify for back to back World Cup’s in 1954 & ’58.
Back at Barcelona the trophies dried up as Alfredo Di Stefano lead Real Madrid into a golden period. But Kubala persuaded fellow Hungarian refugees Sandor Kocsis & Zoltan Czibor to join Barca and another League & Cup double ensued in 1959. Kubala finally ended his decade long stint at Barca in 1961 aged 34 and moved across town to Espanyol as a player-coach where he was joined by Di Stefano. But he got one final chance at a World Cup when Spain qualified in 1962 with veterans Kubala & Di Stefano both making the squad. Sadly both legends got injured and neither played a part in the tournament.
Kubala never played for Spain again and finally hung up his boots in 1967 after a season as player-manager in Canada with the Toronto Falcons. He then took the Spain National team manager job in 1969. He stayed in the role for 11 years and in 1978 finally guided Spain back to the World Cup. In 1992 he returned to coaching to manage Spain at the Barcelona Olympics and ended the century being voted Barcelona’s greatest ever player.
6. Ryan Giggs (Wales)
The most decorated player in British Football history just misses out on a place in the top 5. Giggs made his first foray into international football with England Schoolboys in 1989 leading to the urban myth that England missed a trick by not selecting him at senior level. The problem with that story is Giggs was born in Wales to 2 Welsh parents and is well Welsh- he only went to school in England.
Giggs made his Manchester United debut in March 1991 and a long-term injury to Lee Sharpe saw him start the 1991-92 as a United regular, it became apparent almost immediately he was special, a dynamic left winger with pace, close control and an eye for goal, that season saw him win his first senior medal- the 1992 League Cup.
That season also saw Giggs make his Wales debut coming on as a late sub in a Euro ’92 qualifying defeat to Germany, a game had Wales managed to draw would have left them just 3 points away from securing qualification. As the Premier League era dawned Giggs was crucial to United ending their 26 year title drought securing the first of his thirteen Premier League winners medals.
Although still a teenager Giggs was quickly hailed as the final piece of his nation’s jigsaw. Ageing stars Rush, Hughes, Southall, Ratcliffe & Saunders weren’t going to be around much longer but with Giggs onboard the 1994 World Cup finals looked a realistic. Giggs excelled in qualifying, scoring his first Wales goal in a 3-0 thumping of Belgium as Wales overcame a poor start to come within 1 game of qualifying until Georghe Hagi and Romania intervened and Wales’ big chance was lost.
As the 1990s rolled on Giggs was established as one of the Premier League’s brightest talents and the medals kept coming at United but with Wales his commitment was questioned. Giggs didn’t play a friendly for Wales until 2000- missing 18 in a row prior to that. But Wales had other problems- a horrendous start to Euro ’96 qualifying saw them slip out of contention and in 1995 Bobby Gould was appointed manager. Gould initially got Giggs onboard for qualifiers but a comically bad spell saw Wales plummet in the World Rankings and er the Manic Street Preachers calling for Gould’s sacking. In all from 1994-2000 Giggs only played 14 games for Wales whilst Gould called up unknown 17-year-old Ryan Green- a move seen by many as a cynical ploy to break Giggs’ youngest cap record.
But the early 2000s saw a renaissance for Wales with Giggs playing a full part under the stewardship of his old teammate Mark Hughes. Wales made it to the playoffs for Euro 2004 only to suffer a controversial loss to Russia. Germany 2006 finally promised a real chance of qualification and a Battle of Britain qualification group with England and Northern Ireland. But Wales suffered yet another bad start and despite Giggs’ excellence a playoff spot eluded them, in March 2007 Giggs announced his international retirement aged 33.
Giggs’ career entered an Indian Summer as he secured a second Champions League crown in 2008 and his first Footballer of the Year award in 2009 and in 2012 aged 38 he finally got to play for his country in a tournament- sort of. Giggs was selected as captain for the 2012 GB Olympic football team, they made it to the quarter-finals but missed out on a medal when the English penalty shoot out disease afflicted the expanded nation. Giggs finally retired from playing in 2014 aged 40. He won 22 major trophies for his club and 64 caps for his nation. Ultimately his international career was something of a let down due at times his reluctance to play but more often the dearth of talent around Welsh football from the mid 90s until the Ramsey/ Bale generation emerged and their World Cup dreams are now in the hands of new Wales Manager: Ryan Giggs!