"To become a legend, to become great, you have to win the World Cup." It was Lionel Messi who uttered these words, and the little Argentinian's logic is difficult to dispute. All it takes, after all, is a look at the all-time greats – Pele and Diego Maradona to name but two – to establish the key role of the FIFA World Cup™ in establishing football's hierarchy of heroes.
Nonetheless, as FIFA.com explores, there exists a band of players who have defied Messi's reasoning by achieving legendary status despite never gracing the game's greatest stage.
Injury, ill luck and tragedy
Given that Pele hailed him as "the best ever", Alfredo Di Stefano represents a logical starting point on this journey. Yet the story of 'La Saeta Rubia' (Blond Arrow) is anything but straightforward. A two-time European Footballer of the Year and five-time European Cup winner, Di Stefano actually represented three different national teams – Argentina, Colombia and Spain – and failed to reach the FIFA World Cup with any of them.
Argentina, the country of his birth, chose not to participate in 1950, then failed to qualify in 1954, while a place in the finals also eluded Spain in 1958 despite the Real Madrid icon's switch of allegiance two years earlier. Even when an ageing Di Stefano inspired the Spanish to reach Chile 1962, fate intervened in the shape of an injury that again prevented him from taking part.
Cruel as that was, it was nothing compared to the tragic fate of Duncan Edwards, another of that era's colossal talents. Edwards is widely adjudged to have been the greatest of Manchester United's famous Busby Babes, and Sir Bobby Charlton remains adamant that this elegant wing-half – a player he describes as having been far superior to himself - would have been England's captain and key figure in 1966. As it was, Edwards was critically injured in the 1958 Munich air disaster and died at the age of 21 two weeks later. A similar tragedy befell Italian football when Valentino Mazzola perished in the 1949 Superga plane crash that wiped out the dominant Torino side of that era.
Ladislao Kubala provides a more uplifting tale. Like Di Stefano, the Barcelona legend turned out for three different national teams, and joined his Real Madrid rival in helping Spain qualify for Chile 1962. The similarities did not end there with injury also robbing Kubala of a role at those finals, yet this son of a Hungarian-Polish father and Hungarian-Slovak mother did eventually make it to the FIFA World Cup as a coach, leading Spain to Argentina 1978 to end a 12-year absence.
Big talent, small nation
While injury, tragedy and ill luck all played their part in denying these legends an appearance on the world stage, the fate of others could be said to have been sealed at birth. Wales, for example, has produced scores of world-class players, but this nation of three million has never produced enough at one time to form a team capable of repeating their solitary FIFA World Cup qualification of 1958. As a result, players such as John Toshack, Neville Southall, Mark Hughes, Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs have been denied the platform their ability merited.
An identical fate befell the great George Best. The FIFA World Cups of 1966, 1970 and 1974 would surely have been richer for the Manchester United legend's sumptuous skills, but Northern Ireland – population 1.8 million - failed to qualify on each occasion, and Best was well past his prime by the time they made it in 1982. Republic of Ireland icons Liam Brady and Johnny Giles also had the misfortune to reach their peak during their national team's lean years.
Perhaps the most notable case of the right player in the wrong era is that of Abedi Pele. No-one did more than this three-time CAF Footballer of the Year to lead the way for African players in Europe, yet Pele never made it to the FIFA World Cup, coming up short with Ghana on five separate occasions between 1982 and 1998.
Yet Pele is by no means the only African icon denied to the game's greatest tournament. Kalusha Bwalya was nominated for the FIFA World Player award in 1996, but Zambia’s preliminary failures ensured their record goalscorer and most-capped player never achieved worldwide renown. Then, of course, there is George Weah, the first and, to date, only African recipient of the FIFA World Player award. While the Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan legend dazzled fans in France and Italy, Liberia’s internal strife left him to look in from the outside on the beautiful game's biggest show.
Fall-outs and fierce competition
Playing for a major power might offer greater hope of FIFA World Cup recognition, but it also brings its own problems. The most notable is fierce competition for places, with English duo Ray Clemence and Matt Le Tissier, for example, left to curse the excellence of rivals such as Peter Shilton and Paul Gascoigne. Jesaia Swart might similarly have expected that 217 goals for Ajax, eight league titles and three European Cups would merit recognition, but the strength of the Dutch squad of that era ensured that he did not even make the squad for either 1974 or '78.
Personal factors have also proved crucial in some high-profile cases. Eric Cantona's international career, for example, became notorious for his run-ins with a series of coaches and officials, and the volatile forward retired at 31, a year before Les Bleus became world champions. Another French player idolised in England but overlooked at FIFA World Cups was David Ginola, whose absence from Aime Jacquet's class of '98 owed as much to lingering bitterness at his role in France's failure to reach USA 1994 as to the ability of his rivals.
Suffering for off-field disputes is not restricted to the French. Russia's Andrei Kanchelskis missed out on USA 1994 after refusing to play under coach Pavel Sadyrin, political wrangling reportedly cost Brazilian legend Artur Friedenreich his place at the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930, and Bernd Schuster's international career ended at 24 following a messy personal dispute with the DFB. All of these players reached great heights despite the absence of a FIFA World Cup on their CV. Inevitably, however, we are left to wonder how much brighter their stars might have burned had it not been for this one glaring omission.
Have Your Say
These, of course, are just some of the legends who have never appeared on the game's biggest stage. But who in your opinion is the greatest player never to have participated at a FIFA World Cup? Just click 'Add your comment' to share your view with the world.