An All-Star XI of talents who won’t be at the World Cup finals in Qatar
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. You don’t necessarily need to play a World Cup to be considered a football great. Alfredo Di Stefano (Argentina, Colombia and Spain) never got to play in one, and neither did the legendary George Best (Northern Ireland). The tournament never saw the best of Marco van Basten (Netherlands) or Antonin Panenka (Czechoslovakia), and the great Eusebio (Portugal) played only in 1966.
There’s little doubt though that eye-catching performances on the global stage enhance a player’s reputation. As we gear up for the 22nd edition of the World Cup in Qatar, we look at a team of talents who won’t be gracing the biggest stage this winter.
Gianluigi Donnarumma (Italy)
One of the heroes of Italy’s Euro 2020 win, Donnarumma was one of those left stunned by Italy’s failure to get past North Macedonia in a play-off game. Having been at AC Milan since the age of 14, it was something of a shock when he left for Paris Saint-Germain after the triumph at the Euros. His huge frame and commanding presence will be badly missed even in a tournament that can boast of half a dozen world-class goalkeepers.
Reece James (England)
The Chelsea right-back insisted that he would be recover in time for the tournament, but Gareth Southgate wasn’t willing to take the chance. As fleet of foot as Kyle Walker and much more defensively secure than Trent Alexander-Arnold, James’s forays up the right flank and his ability to whip in accurate crosses will be badly missed.
Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)
Man of the match in the Euro 2020 final win over England, Bonucci remains one of the game’s premier centre-backs even at the age of 35. His combination with Giorgio Chiellini was nothing short of legendary, and it will grate with both men that their best years included two World Cup failures (2010 and 2014). But the failure to qualify for the last two tournaments will grate even more.
David Alaba (Austria)
An integral part of the Bayern Munich side that won the European Champions League in 2020, Alaba has since made himself similarly indispensable at Real Madrid. His first season there saw him and the defensive unit deny Liverpool’s fearsome forward line in the Champions League final. At 30, he will hope there is one more World Cup on the horizon.
Leonardo Spinazzola (Italy)
Until he tore his Achilles tendon in the Euro 2020 quarterfinal against Belgium, the AS Roma star had been Italy’s shining light in the tournament. Equally at ease when playing left-back, left wing-back or even left winger, Spinazzola’s sheer pace, dribbling ability and strength in the tackle brought back memories of the the legendary Giacinto Facchetti.
N’Golo Kante (France)
A succession of injuries has reduced his effectiveness in recent times, but a fully fit Kante was the fulcrum for title-winning sides at Leicester City and Chelsea. He was no less influential as France won the 2018 World Cup, providing both defensive solidity and boundless energy in the midfield engine room. The emergence of Eduardo Camavinga and Aurilien Tchouameni means that he won’t be as badly missed, but Didier Deschamps and other wise heads will tell you that there’s no substitute for big-game experience.
Marco Verratti (Italy)
The 30-year-old started two of Italy’s three games as they exited the 2014 World Cup at the group stage. That remains his only World Cup to date, though he has been at the heart of Paris Saint-Germain’s midfield as they’ve dominated French football for the last decade. An all-action midfielder with great versatility, it was his header that set up Italy’s equaliser in the Euro 2020 final.
Mo Salah (Egypt)
Beaten to a place at the World Cup by Sadio Mane, who was his strike partner at Liverpool for five seasons, Salah’s 2018 World Cup was ruined by the shoulder injury he picked up in the Champions League final weeks earlier. There are few in the World Cup who can match Salah’s pace, close control and finishing skill. After a slow start to the season, Salah will hope that the pain of missing out on glory with Egypt can be softened by success with Liverpool.
Sadio Mane (Senegal)
For millions of Liverpool fans, the sight of Mane scoring the penalty that took Senegal past Salah’s Egypt in the World Cup play-off was a bittersweet one. Now, Mane too will miss out, having just had surgery to reattach a tendon to the top of his fibula. It’s a bitter blow for Senegal, who looked the most dangerous of the African sides, with ambitions of emulating the 2002 side that reached the quarterfinals.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (Georgia)
It’s a measure of the impact that Kvaratskhelia has had since moving to Napoli in the summer that the fans have already taken to calling him Kvaradona. The club that will forever be associated with Diego Maradona, the Argentina genius, is riding high at the top of Serie A thanks largely to the displays of a player who combines pace and strength with dazzling ball control. Apart from Erling Haaland, no younger player has so caught the eye this season.
Erling Haaland (Norway)
Not since the Brazilian Ronaldo has football seen a centre-forward who rampages through defences like a raging bull. Built like a nightclub bouncer, Haaland’s speed off the mark and acceleration are frightening. He’s also a predatory finisher, equally lethal with his left foot and head. Since moving to Manchester City, he has terrorised Premier League defences, and Norway will hope that the generation led by Martin Odegaard and Haaland can finally end the country’s wait for a first World Cup appearance since 1998.
Substitutes: Jan Oblak (Slovenia), Presnel Kimpembe (France), Jorginho (Italy), Paul Pogba (France), Luis Diaz (Colombia)