Over the years, the World Cup has seen many great players, and many great performances. Sometimes, great players achieve immortality by picking up the biggest prize of all, a World Championship. But there are other legends who never quite got there, and were left to ponder, “what if?” These are the best players who never won the World Cup.
His name is synonymous with beautiful football. As a player and manager, he won an incredible 38 trophies, and is one of the select few to have won the European Cup as a player and as a manager. Once described as “Pythagoras in boots” for the precision of his passing, Johan Cruijff was the epitome of the elegant, intelligent Dutch footballer, but as with every great Dutch player, Cruijff fell short on the World’s biggest stage. The closest he came was in 1974, when he captained the Netherlands in the final against bitter rivals West Germany. Although the Oranje took an early lead through a Johan Neeskens penalty, the Germans fought back and won 2-1 on home soil. Cruijff retired from international football in 1977 after an attempted kidnapping against his family.
The Hungarian team of the early 1950s, famously dubbed the “Magical Magyars,” made some of the most important innovations in football history. They employed a forerunner of what the Dutch would later perfect into the “Total Football” system, and were pioneers in the use of a playmaker. But the most famous of the Hungarians is undoubtedly “The Galloping Major,” Ferenc Puskas. A legendary goalscorer, he netted 84 times in 85 matches for Hungary, and tallied 514 goals in 529 club matches in Hungary and Spain. Although unfit, he captained Hungary in the final of the 1954 World Cup, scoring the first goal of the game against West Germany. But being Germans, they ruined the party, and ended up beating the Magyars 3-2. Puskas defected in 1956, following the failed Hungarian revolution, and although he would go on to represent Spain in the 1962 World Cup, he never won the game’s highest honor.
He was the top scorer at the 1966 World Cup. He scored an incredible 648 goals in 614 matches for Benfica and 41 in 64 for Portugal. He won back-to-back European Cups. Yet for all his exploits, Eusebio, widely regarded as the first great African player, never managed to win the World Cup. He came close though, in 1966. Trailing 3-0 to North Korea in the quarterfinals, he scored 4 goals to inspire a Portuguese comeback. In the semifinals, Portugal again found themselves trailing, this time to England, and Eusebio scored yet again in an attempt to inspire another comeback. But it was not to be, and the “Black Panther” had to settle for third place, scoring to dispatch the Soviets in the third-place match.