FIFA World Cup: 11 greatest players to never win the world’s biggest sporting to event

When Real Madrid won the UEFA Champions League final against Liverpool — its fourth title in five years — Cristiano Ronaldo became a five-time winner of that prestigious club competition.

Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have dominated the game of soccer over the past decade, and each has amassed an impressive resume 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.

11. Paolo Maldini
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 (second most behind Germany’s Lothar Matthaus’ 25). 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).

10. Zico
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.

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9. George Best
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.

8. Oliver Kahn
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.

7. Michel Platini
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.

6. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
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.

5. Eusebio
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.

4. Ferenc Puskas
Country: Hungary
World Cup: 1954
World Cup finish: Runner-up

Hungary’s Golden Team — or Magnificent MagyarsMagical 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.

3. Johan Cruyff
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.

2. Lionel Messi
Country: Argentina
World Cups: 2006, 2010, 2014
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 eight La Liga titles, four Champions League titles and five Ballon d’Or awards already in tow, the 2018 World Cup represents the last best chance for Messi — who will turn 31 years old on June 24 — to win the game’s grandest prize.

1. Cristiano Ronaldo
Country: Portugal
World Cups: 2006, 2010, 2014
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 Messi, Ronaldo — who is 33 years old — is entering his fourth (and most likely final) World Cup seeking that elusive win.

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