December 3, 2022

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have dominated the game of soccer over the past decade-plus, and each has amassed an impressive résumé of career individual and team accomplishments. Yet, one prize — the grandest of them all — has been elusive. 
They are not alone. Many of the greatest players in the history of the game didn’t win a World Cup.
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Here’s a list of those iconic players who have never enjoyed a World Cup championship:
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Country: Italy
World Cups: 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002
Best World Cup finish: Runner-up, 1994
Maldini — considered one of the greatest defenders ever — played in 23 World Cup games, third most behind Miroslav Klose (24) and Lothar Matthaus (25) of Germany. Zlatan Ibrahimovic recently said that Maldini was the best teammate he ever played with, which is quite a compliment given where Zlatan has played throughout his career. Maldini had a decorated club career during 25 years at Italian powerhouse AC Milan, winning Serie A seven times and the UEFA Champions League five times (tied with Cristiano Ronaldo for the most all-time).
Country: Brazil
World Cups: 1978, 1982, 1986
Best World Cup finish: Third place, 1978
Zico — an attacking midfielder — played in the middle of the 24-year span between Pele’s final World Cup win and when Ronaldo emerged. The 1982 Brazil team — featuring Zico, Sócrates, Falcão, Eder, among some other great Brazilian soccer players who go by one name — were considered tournament favorites, but were eliminated by Italy in the second round in what is considered one of the worst losses in Brazil’s soccer history.  
Country: Northern Ireland
World Cups: None
Best World Cup finish: N/A
Known as a prolific goal scorer, as well as partier, Best was nicknamed the “Fifth Beatle” for being a transcendent sports star. Best quickly cemented status as a Manchester United legend, specifically for leading the team to victory in the Champions League (then known as the European Cup) in 1968. That feat earned him the Ballon d’Or at the age of 22. While he reached the pinnacle of club competition, Best never appeared for Northern Ireland in the European Championships or World Cup. 
Country: Germany
World Cups: 1998, 2002, 2006
Best World Cup finish: Runner-up, 2002
In leading Germany to the 2002 final against Brazil, Kahn — who had five clean sheets in the tournament — became the first goalkeeper in World Cup history to win the Golden Ball for the best individual performance. Kahn was a devastating presence in goal, and helped lead Bayern Munich to eight Bundesliga titles and the Champions League crown in 2001.
Country: France
World Cups: 1978, 1982, 1986
Best World Cup finish: Third place, 1986
Before he became president of UEFA, Platini was a three-time Ballon d’Or winner for his knack for scoring goals as an attacking midfielder. Platini led France to the 1984 European Championship, and the semifinals of the 1982 and 1986 World Cups.
Country: Germany
World Cups: 1978, 1982, 1986
Best World Cup finish: Runner-up, 1982 and 1986
In the five World Cups played from 1974 through 1990, Germany appeared in the final four times. Die Mannschaft prevailed in 1974 and 1990, but lost in the 1982 final to Italy and 1986 final to Argentina. Rummenigge was a part of those squads. He did help Germany win the 1980 European Championship, but much of his soccer success came at Bayern Munich. Rummenigge — who won back-to-back Ballon d’Or awards in 1980-81 — led Bayern to the European Cup title (now Champions League) twice.
Country: Portugal
World Cup: 1966
World Cup finish: Third place
Before Cristiano Ronaldo came along, Eusebio was Portugal’s greatest-ever footballer. The 1965 Ballon d’Or winner — and two-time runner-up for the award — was the top goal-scorer of the 1966 World Cup in England, where he led Portugal to a third-place finish. That’s the best Portugal has ever done in the World Cup.
Country: Poland
World Cup: 2018
World Cup finish: Fourth place in group
With more than 500 goals scored for both club and country, Lewandowski is considered one of the greatest strikers in the game’s history. After terrorizing Germany Bundesliga defenses for more than a decade (he’s the second-leading goal-scorer in Bundesliga history behind Gerd Müller), Lewandowski joined FC Barcelona for the 2022-23 season. He’d won 10 Bundesliga titles (eight with Bayern Munich and two with Borussia Dortmund), won the 2020 UEFA Champions League with Bayern and is a two-time Ballon d’Or Striker of the Year winner. However, success with his national team has been hard to achieve. Poland didn’t qualify for the 2014 World Cup, and failed to get out of the group at the 2018 tournament in Russia.
Country: Hungary
World Cup: 1954
World Cup finish: Runner-up
Hungary’s “Golden Team” — or “Magnificent Magyars,” “Magical Magyars,” or “Mighty Magyars” — were the dominant team of the early to mid-1950s, and its best player was Puskas. Puskas and Hungary were denied their moment of glory in the 1954 World Cup final by Germany, whose upset of the “Golden Team” is nicknamed the “Miracle of Bern” and is considered one of the more shocking results in the tournament’s history.
Country: Netherlands
World Cup: 1974
World Cup finish: Runner-up
As the fulcrum of “Total Football” — or totaalvoetbal — Cruyff helped Holland rise to prominence in the early 1970s. He led the Netherlands to the final of the 1974 World Cup, where it was defeated by the hosts, Germany, in Munich. Cruyff, a three-time Ballon d’Or winner, also stunned the masses at the 1974 World Cup when he unleashed what became known as the “Cruyff Turn,” a maneuver now common in the modern game.
Country: Portugal
World Cups: 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018
Best World Cup finish: Fourth place, 2006
Ronaldo has won the European Championship with Portugal in 2016, three Premier League titles, two La Liga titles, the Champions League a record-tying five times, and the Ballon d’Or five times. One of the most decorated players in the game’s history is missing one major accomplishment. Like Lionel Messi, Ronaldo — who is 37 years old — is entering his fifth (and most likely final) World Cup seeking that elusive win. 
Country: Argentina
World Cups: 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018
Best World Cup finish: Runner-up, 2014
Messi came tantalizingly close to World Cup glory in 2014, only to lose after an extra-time goal by Germany in the final. With 10 La Liga titles, four Champions League titles, a Ligue 1 title and seven Ballon d’Or awards already in tow, the 2022 World Cup represents the last best chance for the 35-year-old Messi to win the game’s grandest prize.


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