A broken dream. You could see it on the face of David Beckham as he left the San Siro pitch on Sunday evening, fighting back the tears after the sudden snap of his Achilles tendon. With a lengthy spell on the sidelines duly confirmed, Beckham’s hope of closing his international career by appearing at his fourth FIFA World Cup™ finals has been shattered.

The England midfielder’s misfortune, which spells another setback for his coach Fabio Capello, and will deny South African spectators the chance of seeing one of world football’s biggest names in June, is a familiar tale. Just as each world finals produces heroes, so it also gives us hard-luck stories of players cruelly denied an opportunity to shine on the greatest stage.

England fans, who have also seen Michael Owen’s faint prospects of claiming a place at South Africa 2010 scuppered by injury, are no strangers to nervously scanning medical bulletins in FIFA World Cup years. 2006 brought the saga of Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal, while in 2002 it was Beckham’s. Both were eventually passed fit to play though in 2002 coach Sven-Goran Eriksson did miss the injured Steven Gerrard and Gary Neville.

Whether they would have made a difference in that year’s quarter-final defeat by Brazil is doubtful. Indeed, their South American opponents had to shrug off an arguably greater loss en route to winning a fifth world crown.

Training fun turns sour
The Seleçao captain Emerson suffered a dislocated shoulder on the eve of their opening fixture against Turkey, after taking over in goal during a light-hearted training match. The mood turned sour, however, when the then Roma midfielder landed awkwardly, injuring his shoulder. The fall would rule him out for four weeks – in effect the entire tournament – though the deep regret will surely have lasted much longer. 

Another player forced to sit out Korea/Japan 2002 was Spain’s Santiago Canizares who, unlike Emerson, really was a goalkeeper. His reflexes were evidently sharper in the penalty box than the bathroom, however, with the keeper cutting a tendon in his right foot with a shard of glass after dropping a bottle of aftershave at the team’s training base in Andalusia. 

The longstanding deputy of Andoni Zubizarreta, Canizares had been preparing for his first taste of FIFA World Cup action but instead Spain coach Jose Antonio Camacho had no option but to throw a 21-year-old Iker Casillas in at the deep end. As history records, the Real Madrid man seized his chance with both hands and has not looked back since. 

Nor was that to be the last lamentable story ahead of the 2002 finals. China PR’s most capped footballer, Li Ming, missed his country’s first appearance on the big stage because of an injury sustained in the build-up. 

Holders France, meanwhile, went into their doomed title defence without Robert Pires and Christian Karembeu, Pires’s absence being a particular blow given he had just earned the Footballer of the Year prize in England.

Ayala absence
Argentina, like France, made a surprise first-round exit from Korea/Japan and in their case were hindered by the loss of captain Roberto Ayala. The defender made the trip to Asia but was consigned to the bench for all three group games after picking up an injury in the warm-up for the opening fixture against Nigeria.

Ayala was not the first Albiceleste captain to suffer this fate, although the national team’s campaign had a notably happier ending on the previous instance. In 1986, Argentina’s totemic defender Daniel Passarella, who eight years earlier had captained his country to their first world title, was stricken with a virus that led to weight loss and lengthy period of repose.

Passarella chose to remain with the squad in Mexico and helped nominate the new captain – not a difficult task with the inspirational Diego Maradona to call on – and the rest is history as the South Americans captured their second world crown. 

Yet Passarella’s misfortune was nothing compared to that of another Argentinian legend, Alfredo di Stefano, who failed to grace football’s flagship event despite representing three different counties. In 1950 his native Argentina refused to take part for political reasons, while in 1954 the ‘Blond Arrow’ was declared ineligible after being capped for a second country, Colombia. After subsequently taking Spanish citizenship, Di Stefano helped La Roja qualify for Chile 1962, only to be ruled out of the finals because of a muscle injury.   

Fast forward to Korea/Japan 2002, where Germany finished runners-up despite missing defender Jens Nowotny and midfielder Sebastian Deisler. Nowotny, an ever-present in qualifying, was injured playing for Bayer Leverkusen in the UEFA Champions League semi-final while playmaker Deisler broke his leg in a friendly against Austria that May.

Deisler suffers
Nowotny at least had the consolation of appearing at the finals on home soil four years later. By contrast fate continued to conspire against Deisler, who in March 2006 suffered a serious knee problem that denied him a place in Jurgen Klinsmann’s eventual bronze medal-winning squad.

France striker Djibril Cisse does not need telling that lightning can strike twice. 20 months after sustaining a serious fracture in his left leg when playing for Liverpool, he broke his other leg in his country's final warm-up match against China PR prior to their departure for Germany in May 2006.  Cisse had already missed out on the UEFA EURO 2004 finals because of a suspension, leading to comparisons with former France forward Jose Toure, who was denied a place at the 1984 European and 1986 world showpieces by injury.

Of course, one man’s pain is another man’s gain and French football history offers an outstanding example of the silver lining. Before jetting off to Sweden in 1958, France lost leading forwards Thadee Cisowski and Rene Bliard, a double blow that opened the door to a certain Just Fontaine. Installed as the new first-choice striker for Les Bleus, he seized his opportunity in style, writing his name in the tournament record books with an unsurpassed 13 goals. 

So while David Beckham joins the likes of Brazil’s Anderson and Portugal’s Bosingwa in revising his plans for June, there will be others dreaming anew of stepping out of the wings and taking centre stage in South Africa in less than three months’ time.