The World Cup usually boasts the greatest players in the world, but occasionally, circumstances conspire to keep some of the world’s greatest from strutting their stuff on the biggest stage. It might seem like an unforgivable crime against football, but here is part one of the best players who never played in the World Cup.
He was described by Bobby Charlton as “the only player that made me feel inferior.” Stanley Matthews said he was “like a rock in a raging sea.” On his debut for Manchester United, at the age of 16 years, 185 days, he was the youngest ever player in the English first division. At the age of 18 years and 183 days, Edwards became England’s youngest postwar international, a record he held for over forty years. Edwards, as centerpiece of the legendary “Busby Babes,” seemed destined for great things, and would have been 29 when England won the World Cup on home soil. Tragically though, Edwards was fatally injured in the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, battling for his life for fifteen days before succumbing to kidney failure, a terrible loss to the game of football. At the time of his death, Edwards was just 21, but had already played over 150 first team games, and amassed 18 caps for England. Former England manager Terry Venables claimed that had he lived, it would have been Edwards, not Bobby Moore, who would have captained England in the 1966 World Cup. Famed Scottish player and manager Tommy Docherty said of him, “There is no doubt in my mind that Duncan would have become the greatest player ever. Not just in British football, with United and England, but the best in the world. George Best was something special, as was Pelé and Maradona, but in my mind Duncan was much better in terms of all-round ability and skill.” His close friend Bobby Charlton, one of England’s greatest ever players, was in utter awe of Edwards’ ability: “Duncan Edwards I unhesitatingly say was the best player I ever played with. I never thought I could be as good as him. Never. Never.”
Alfredo Di Stefano
Alfredo Di Stefano scored 377 goals in 521 games. He won league titles in three different countries, won five consecutive European Cups, won two Ballon d’Ors, and played for three different national teams. He is a confluence of staggering statistics and an astounding collection of silverware. Di Stefano first cut his teeth in the Argentine League with Huracan and River Plate, and made six appearances for the Argentine national team during this time, scoring six goals. When Argentine footballers went on strike in 1949, Di Stefano moved to Colombian powerhouse Millonarios, winning four titles, a domestic cup, and twice finishing as top scorer. During his time in Colombia, he represented the Colombian national team four times. In 1953, Di Stefano agreed to join FC Barcelona, but issues with his exit from Millonarios and his contract with Barcelona enabled Santiago Bernabeu to convince Di Stefano to join Real Madrid. He spent 11 years with Madrid (and a further two with Espanyol), winning eight La Liga Titles, a Copa Del Rey, the first five European Cups, and the Intercontinental Cup. Individually, he won five scoring titles, two Ballon d’Or awards, was twice European Cup top scorer, and scored 23 goals in 31 games with the Spanish National team. Unfortunately, Di Stefano never got to test his mettle at the World Cup. Argentina did not enter the 1950 or 1954 World Cups. Although he acquired Spanish citizenship in 1956, La Furia Roja failed to qualify for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Cruelly, an aging Di Stefano helped Spain qualify for the 1962 World Cup, but injury ruled him out of the tournament, ending his international career.
Ian Rush’s career is an incredible parade of success. As an integral part of the fantastically successful Liverpool sides of the 1980s, Rush put up staggeringly impressive numbers, and got his picture taken with a whole lot of trophies. In two stints with the Merseyside giants, rush played over 450 league games, and scored almost 250 league goals. He won six league titles, 3 FA Cups, 5 League Cups, and 2 European Cups. Rush also won the 1984 European golden boot. He holds records as Liverpool’s all-time leading scorer in all competitions (346), Wales’ all-time leading scorer (28), the scorer of the most Mersyside Derby goals (25), the top FA Cup goalscorer of the modern era (44), joint top League Cup goalscorer with Sir Geoff Hurst (49), and most FA Cup final goals (5). Rush was also the first player to win the League Cup five times. Rush also spent time with Juventus, Leeds, Chester City (where his £300,000 transfer fee to join Liverpool in 1980 was never topped), Newcastle, Sheffield United, Wrexham, and Australian side Sydney Olympic. And yet, despite all of his success with Liverpool, Rush would never feature in a major tournament. The closest he came was the 1982 World Cup, where defeat in their final game saw Wales miss out on qualification by goal difference.
In 1988, a young manager by the name of Arsene Wenger brought an unknown young Liberian by the name of George Weah to AS Monaco. In a glittering career, Weah would go on to become regarded as possibly the finest African player in the history of the game. With Monaco, Weah won the Coupe de France, and after moving to Paris Saint-Germain, he won the French League, and became top scorer in the Champions League the following season. This performance brought about a move to Italian giants AC Milan, with whom he won two Serie A titles and picked up the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards.Later successful spells in France and England (where he endeared himself to Chelsea fans by scoring the winner against Tottenham on his debut) only furthered his reputation. Amazingly, though Weah is the only FIFA World Player of the Year who failed to qualify for a World Cup. Despite his exalted status in World football (he was named African player of the century), Liberia have never been a world football power, and Weah never had the team around him to showcase his talents. The closest Weah came was in 2002, when he player-managed his country to within a single heartbreaking point of World Cup qualification.
Keith Hickey is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at USArsnl@gmail.com.