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Not on the Plane

29 Apr

Not on the plane

As the domestic season before a major international tournament draws to a close, more and more column inches are dedicated to each nation’s squad selections. Every now and again you find an article ‘in memory’ of those players who, for one reason or another, won’t be gracing our screens this summer.

For various reasons there are always these players who fail to make it, for the most part they are forgotten about once the first ball is kicked and the tournament gets underway. Few in Ireland had their minds on Roy Keane, as Steve Finnan lofted a hopeful ball forward, Niall Quinn headed on and Robbie Keane ghosted in between the German defence to equalise in Kashima in 2002. Similarly, Paul Gascoigne was but a distant memory for England fans in 1998 as the campaign lurched from stunning success to heartbreaking failure at the hands of the Argentines.

There are various reasons why the world’s top players don’t make it to the big occasion, Keane’s tempestuous exit is not the most orthodox explanation for an absence. Juan Román Riquelme, David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahiovic will most likely act as this summer’s examples of how best not to make it onto the plane.

Some of the world’s greatest players have missed out on World Cups due to quite simply not being selected by their nation’s national coach. In 1997, Eric Cantona won his forth league title with Manchester United, whilst in 1999, David Ginola, dubbed ‘Le Magnifique’, was named both PFA Players’ Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year. In between these two fantastic French achievements, the national team won their first World Cup on home soil in ‘98. Neither Cantona nor Ginola were selected by Aimé Jacquet and both players ended their careers without having graced the greatest stage of all.

Simply ‘not being picked’ is a fear facing many of the world’s biggest football personalities this summer. Italy’s Antonio Cassano and Spain’s record scorer Raul are two of their respective league’s most recognisable figures, yet both seem likely to be overlooked for South Africa. A resurgent Ronaldinho, finding himself in his finest form since the last World Cup, after a difficult four years, faces an anxious few weeks before he learns Dunga’s decision regarding his suitability for the squad.

Whilst Ronaldinho helped Brazil to a world title in 2002, he was far from his best in Germany in 2006, a competition which he went into as one of the star attractions. If a final opportunity is not forthcoming this summer, he, along with particularly Raul, will surely regret not having made the most of previous opportunities at World Cups past.

Juan Román Riquelme’s likely exclusion from Argentina’s squad this summer is a situation a little more delicate than that of Cassano, Raul and Ronaldinho. During his career with the national team, Riquelme has encountered some highs, and several lows. Overlooked for the 2002 squad, he was substituted in the Albicelestes’ quarter-final defeat to hosts Germany in 2006. An international retirement followed, however Riquelme was soon back and helped Argentina to a winning start to their qualifying campaign with important contributions against Chile and Bolivia.

However, Argentina’s new national team manager, Diego Maradona was unsure of how to include the elegant, but often underperforming playmaker in his side. A disagreement soon followed between the two men, both with reputations of being highly strung and particularly sensitive to criticism. It wasn’t long before Riquelme had once again announced his retirement from the international scene. Whether he could have fitted into Maradona’s plan (if indeed Maradona has a plan) is a question open to debate, but certainly the World Cup will be a little less stylish without arguably South America’s finest number 10.

It’s hard to really blame Davic Beckham for not being there. A torn Achilles tendon suffered during a Milan game in March has ended his chances of playing in what would have been his forth consecutive World Cup. Whilst still a top draw and a thoroughbred professional, there had been queries as to whether Beckham would have made the England squad anyway, regardless of his injury, and so his absence is not as shattering as that of other World Cup casualties from years gone by.

In the World Cup 1998, Beckham, along with Michael Owen who will also miss South Africa through injury, emerged as England’s two brightest young talents. As Brazil lost that year’s final to France with little more than a whimper, the main focus was on Ronaldo, the tournament’s star player who was at best a shadow of himself in the Stade de France.

It all could have been so different had Romário been up alongside the off colour number 9 to help fire the Seleção to the title. Only the previous year, Romário and Ronaldo, together known as the Ro-Ro duo had scored a hat-trick each as Brazil had overcome Australia in the Confederations Cup. In 1998 he was left out of the squad on deadline day due to a muscular injury at the back of his lower leg. Whilst Ronaldo fired Brazil past the semis, he was unable to shoulder the pressure of the final and the holders succumbed to the hosts.

Although the injury is the official line as to why Romário didn’t make the final world cup squad, it would be perhaps fairer to have him straddling the last two categories, due to the striker’s infamous temper and his ‘spirited’ relationship with then coach Mario Zagallo.

Alfredo di Stéfano himself courted controversy with his contentious ‘transfer’ between Barcelona and Real Madrid, and like Romário, he too found himself ruled out of a World Cup due to muscular injury. Maradona and Pele are popularly regarded as the best football players of the 20th century, and whilst Pele himself has suggested that di Stéfano is the greatest of them all, he fails to hold the same status as the other two. I would attribute this mainly to the fact that he never got the chance to showcase his ability on the greatest stage of all. Surely, coming only two years after he had scored a hat-trick to help Real beat Eintracht Franckfurt 7-3 in the European Cup final, di Stéfano missed a great opportunity to augment his legacy in Chile, in 1962.

George Best is a player who holds a similar status to di Stéfano, although he missed out on the World Cup for a third unique reason, one understood by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, among several other top players this year.

Zlatan, identified in 2009 as the best player in the world by José Mourinho, has already played at World Cups, contributing fairly little as Sweden encountered last 16 exits in 2002 and 2006. With the Swedes failing to escape their qualifying group this time around, Ibrahimovic will be unable to perform in what would have been his (and his county’s) third consecutive world cup. Whilst his recent performances for Barcelona would suggest that the world won’t be missing much in his absence, it is clear that he is one of the finest players around, even if perhaps not to the level suggested by Mourinho.

Ibrahimovic is an example of a player who won’t be on the plane due to the limitations of his country in qualifying. Following the international retirements of Henrik Larsson and Freddie Ljungberg, the Swedes found themselves shorn of two of their finest players, and it was always going to be a tall order to qualify from a group containing Portugal, and rivals Denmark. A similar fate has fallen upon Peter Cech and his Czech national team, as well as the previously impressive Croatian team, inspired by Tottenham playmaker Luka Modric.

Whilst all of these players mentioned have had the opportunity to play at football’s biggest competition before, their absences will surely be missed in South Africa. During qualification, much was made over the potential nonappearance of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo due to the various qualifying woes of their nations. Both eventually have made it, but the cases of players who haven’t due to their country’s inability to qualify, players such as Zlatan, Cech, and Modric, and the Finnish pair Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypia, serve to remind us of those greats who never had the chance to qualify for the World Cup. Greats such as Best.

The World Cup is the stage where names and moments are forged in peoples’ minds forever, and players can go from ‘good’ to ‘great’, or ‘great’ to ‘iconic’ in a flash of technique, or a moment of audacity. Legends such as Pele, Maradona and Cruyff became such at World Cups, and had their personalities indelibly etched on the international scene due to their performances.

The same opportunity was not realised by George Weah of Liberia for example, a former FIFA World Player of the Year, European Footballer of the Year, and African Footballer of the Year. Nor will it ever be by one Ryan Giggs, the Welsh winger, whose performance against Brazil in 2006 led Dunga to suggest that Giggs would not have appeared out of place in the Brazil team. Only time will tell if Giggs’s legacy will be affected by the fact that he never played in a World Cup.

Simply playing on the biggest stage, let alone achieving some measure of success, can be the absolute pinnacle of a footballer’s career. This is a fact that will make this summer extra bitter for the likes of Beckham, Giggs and Ibrahimovic, who will certainly not be making it to South Africa. It is a fact that will give the likes of Ronaldinho and Cassano sleepless nights as they await the news of the final squad selections, and it is a fact that has helped to define the careers of those who have made it, and of those who never got on the plane.

Ed Dove

Writer, Journalist, & Commentator on African Football

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