There is a long-standing myth that Giggs, the Manchester United icon who has played more games for that club than any other man, could have played for England. He did indeed captain the England School Boys. But the winger was never eligible for the senior team. While he went to school in England, he was born in Cardiff, Wales. And the eligibility rules weren’t changed until after he had already made his debut for Wales, tying him to that country in perpetuity. He says that’s the side he would have chosen anyway. Either way, Wales never qualified for a World Cup in his 16-year national team career, which he ended in 2007.
Action Images / ReutersEDDIE KEOGH
Jari Litmanen, Finland
Finland only ever produced one great player. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Litmanen was one of the premier playmakers in Europe, first with Ajax’s all-conquering sides and then with Barcelona and Liverpool. But his career was beset by injuries. And while it was impressive to come out of a relative soccer wasteland and reach the summit of the game, it also doomed him to a career spent missing out on every major tournament. With 137 caps and 32 international goals, Litmanen has a mighty fine international resume, but we never got to see him take on the world. Or even Europe.
Action ImagesKeith Williams
Bernd Schuster, Germany
Schuster’s rise to the top of the international game was almost as quick as his fall from it. After playing his part in West Germany’s capture of Euro 1980 as a 20-year-old, he’d fallen out with several teammates and his coach by the 1982 World Cup. A bad injury would have ruled him out anyway, but by the time the next World Cup came around, he was already two years into his international retirement, announced at 24, on account of several more run-ins with the German federation.
Bongarts/Getty ImagesRuediger Fessel
Ian Rush, Wales
He may have made his international debut before he made his first start for Liverpool, where he became the all-time leading scoring legend, but that didn’t ever get him to a World Cup. Born in the wrong country. See: Giggs, Ryan.
George Weah, Liberia
George Tawlon Manneh Oppong Ousman Weah did many things in his life. He rose from poverty to becoming a switchboard technician and then forged a soccer career that made him Africa’s first real superstar. He won trophies in Liberia, France, Italy and England, was named African player of the year three times and won both the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995. He went on to run for president in Liberia in 2005, following a second civil war, and made it into a run-off, before losing to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. He did all of those things, but he never played in a World Cup. Never even came close, in fact, as Liberia didn’t typically get very far in qualifying.
George Best, Northern Ireland
One of the world’s greatest players was plagued by demons and fairly well ruined the second half of his career through drink and excessive partying. He didn’t have much of an international career, allegedly skipping games in favor of parties. With just 37 caps and nine goals for Northern Ireland, this is a tale of what might have been. By the time Northern Ireland finally made it to a World Cup in 1982, he was 36, hadn’t played for his country in five years, and was badly out of shape.
Alfredo Di Stefano, Argentina, Colombia, Spain
Dissatisfied with his salary in Argentina, Di Stefano left River Plate in his native Argentina to go play for Millionarios in Colombia in 1949, who, as their name suggested, were much better heeled. He had already played for Argentina. But now that he lived and worked in Colombia, he turned out for them. Argentina refused to participate in the 1950 and 1954 World Cups and Colombia didn’t qualify for either. Besides, Di Stefano was barred from playing anyway, since he had suited up for two countries, which was against the rules. He had moved to Real Madrid in 1953, gained Spanish citizenship in 1956, and now played for a third country -- this was inexplicably approved by FIFA. But Spain didn’t qualify in 1958 and in 1962 Di Stefano was injured.
Getty ImagesTerry Disney
Gareth Bale, Wales
See: Ryan Giggs or Ian Rush. Same deal.
Action ImagesAndrew Couldridge
Laszlo Kubala, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Spain
Okay, try to follow this: Born in Hungary, Kubala fled to Czeckoslowakia to avoid military service and played for its national team. When that country tried to draft him, he returned to Hungary and played for his second national team. Then he left for Spain as Communism took hold and signed for Barcelona. Incensed, the Hungarian federation had him suspended, accusing him of stealing money and defaming his character. In the end, Kubala played for Spain anyway. But they didn’t qualify in 1954, after FIFA banned him from playing just minutes before the deciding game, on account of his caps for other countries. Spain didn’t qualify in 1958 either and by 1962 Kubala had retired.
Eric Cantona, France
Dieu, as Manchester United’s fans, who still sing his name, lovingly referred to him, entered the national team picture in 1987. But in 1988, he called France manager Henri Michel a “bag of crap” on live television and was kicked off the team. France didn’t make it to the 1990 World Cup anyway. Michel’s successor Michel Platini brought Cantona back, but France again didn’t qualify in 1994. As the team got ready for Euro ’96, Cantona was named captain. In January 1995, he karate kicked and punched a Crystal Palace fan in the stands after getting sent off and was suspended from soccer for eight months. By the time he came back, Zinedine Zidane was France’s playmaker and Les Blues won the 1998 World Cup without him.