Combined XI: 21st century’s best players never to win an international trophy
This summer, Lionel Messi finally won the Copa America with Argentina and Giorgio Chiellini claimed Euro 2020 with Italy.
Those wins were the first senior international titles those players had won, putting to an end a career full of heartbreak with their nations. Chiellini has been a stalwart in the Italian defence since 2008, two years after Italy’s last trophy at the 2006 World Cup.
Meanwhile, Messi has played three finals in three years around the middle of the last decade but every time he suffered a soul-shattering loss to go with the final agony he experienced in 2007. Both he and Chiellini were avatars of their nations’ struggles, and so both are now basking in the glory of their respective wins.
But while Messi and Chiellini have finally tasted glory, there are plenty more modern greats that have never enjoyed that same joy of winning with your country. Below, we’ve got a combined XI (plus honourable mentions) of all the very best players from this century to have never won a senior international trophy (age-restricted events like the Olympics, Pan-American Games and youth competitions don’t count).
Goalkeeper: Keylor Navas
Nation: Costa Rica
King Keylor won the Champions League in his first three seasons at Real Madrid and his astounding reflex saves were a big reason why Los Blancos claimed those crowns. Yet, for all his goalkeeping genius, and as much as that run to the 2014 World Cup thrilled us all (with Navas getting three clean sheets and three man of the match awards from just five matches), the closest he’s come to victory was two runners-up places in the now-defunct UNCAF Nations Cup in 2009 and 2011. Navas has been ruled out of this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup through injury, so the wait goes on.
Honourable mention: Jan Oblak, Thibaut Courtois, David de Gea
Right-back: Javier Zanetti
The ageless Javier Zanetti dominated the right side of the pitch for Argentina and Inter Milan for an absurd amount of time. His run at Inter lasted 19 years while he played for Argentina for 17 years. He was the beacon of consistency but despite playing in some deliriously talented teams, he has no senior trophies with the Albiceleste.
Honourable mention: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Gary Neville, Cesar Azpilicueta
Centre-back: Rio Ferdinand
Rio Ferdinand was a watchtower of defensive excellence for England, starting in the 2002 World Cup when he was the bedrock upon which the side was built. A move to Manchester United saw him scale the heights of the club game but he and the rest of the “golden generation” could not translate that magic into glory for the Three Lions. Ferdinand was a cool and composed defender and commanded his defence like few others, but even though England had the talent to win at least two tournaments in the mid-2000s, no wins were forthcoming.
Honourable mention: Ricardo Carvalho, Nemanja Vidic, Roberto Ayala
Centre-back: Virgil van Dijk
A relative newcomer to the international scene, Virgil van Dijk is nevertheless one of the outrageously brilliant defenders of the modern era. Imperious on the deck and in the air, nothing gets by him and his effect on other defenders is so amazing that he turned Liverpool and the Netherlands into a force again. Yet, despite Van Dijk being at the peak of his game, the Dutch conspired to lose the 2019 Uefa Nations League final. And injury ruled him out of Euro 2020 meaning he remains trophyless.
Honourable mention: Sol Campbell, John Terry, Walter Samuel
Left-back: Ashley Cole
The perfect mirror for Zanetti, Ashley Cole was impossibly consistent. A world-class defender, he was also part of England’s golden generation and although he has since admitted he felt he didn’t do enough for his nation, to watch him own any winger that tried to penetrate down his flank you find that hard to believe. Still, no trophies.
Honourable mention: Eric Abidal
Defensive midfield: Claude Makélélé
Given his age and role in France’s near-miss at the 2006 World Cup, many would assume that the brilliant Claude Makelele won the World Cup and Euros with his compatriots in 1998 and 2000, but Makelele was not part of either side and so that shootout defeat in Berlin remains the closest one of the game’s great defensive shields has ever come to international glory.
Honourable mention: Ivan Rakitic, Owen Hargreaves, Edgar Davids
Central midfield: Luka Modric
Luka Modric’s international career began with penalty shootout heartbreak at Euro 2008. However, the Croatian was such a magnificent midfield maestro that he elevated the entire nation around him and helped keep the Croats competitive. This culminated at the 2018 World Cup where he (and Ivan Rakitic) led Croatia all the way to the final only to fall at the last to France. Modric won the Ballon d’Or for his efforts, but despite that gong and his numerous titles for Real Madrid, he still has no international trophy.
Honourable mention: Clarence Seedorf, Paul Scholes, Michael Ballack, Deco, Frank Lampard
Attacking midfield: Juan Roman Riquelme
In the modern age of football, it’s rare that a world-class player does their best work outside of Europe but nothing Juan Roman Riquelme did for Villarreal or Barcelona could come close to the genius of his two spells at Boca Juniors where he won not one, not two but three Copas Libertadores. Riquelme was Argentina’s main man during this period too, the hub around which even a young Messi revolved. He was slow as hell yet incredibly elusive, a phenomenal passer and one of the best set-piece takers you’ll see. Yet despite all his genius, he couldn’t get Argentina over the line in a senior tournament, choking as La Albiceleste got dumped out of the World Cup in 2006 and lost the 2007 Copa America final to Brazil. He did win the 2008 Olympics but, as previously stated, that doesn’t count.
Honourable mention: Rui Costa, Kevin De Bruyne, Wesley Sneijder, Steven Gerrard
Right-wing: Arjen Robben
Arjen Robben was always threatening to explode at various tournaments. He nearly always looked unplayable whether that was Euro 2008 or the World Cups in 2010 and 2014. Yet, despite dishing out some beatings in 2008 and 2014 and reaching the final in 2010, Robben never could get the Dutch over the line and he probably still wakes up in a cold sweat thinking about his 1-v-1 miss against Iker Casillas in the 2010 World Cup final with the score at 0-0.
Honourable mention: Mohamed Salah, David Beckham, Figo, Gareth Bale
Neymar is one of the most underappreciated players of his generation in terms of his pure skill and production. He almost has more goals for Brazil than Pelé! But despite all the glorious football, he’s never managed to lift Brazil to a senior trophy. Sure, he delivered Brazil’s first Olympic gold medal, but at the senior level, the closest he’s come was losing the 2021 Copa America final. To make matters worse, Brazil actually won the Copa when he was out injured in 2019.
Honourable mention: Pavel Nedved, Ryan Giggs, Eden Hazard, Sadio Mané, Franck Ribery
Striker: Didier Drogba
Nation: Ivory Coast
There have been many strikers who have fallen short of delivering international success but none can come close to Didier Drogba. The colossal striker dominated every team he faced in a career that spanned two decades and three continents, and he was just as good for the Ivory Coast with a preposterous 65 goals in 105 caps, twice winning African Footballer of the Year. He led them to three consecutive World Cups (the only three World Cups in the country’s history, they haven’t qualified since he retired) and is their all-time top goalscorer.
Drogba’s influence in the Ivory Coast was such that when he asked for a cessation of hostilities in a civil war that had ravaged the country for years, the power of his words were so strong that a ceasefire did come to pass. Yet despite this, Drogba could never lead the Ivory Coast’s golden generation to glory, twice losing in the Africa Cup of Nations final on penalties. Naturally, they finally won it the year after he retired. Drogba has used his power and influence to literally save thousands of lives, making him comfortably the greatest striker without an international trophy.
Honourable mention: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Andriy Shevchenko, Wayne Rooney, Romelu Lukaku, Michael Owen, Robert Lewandowski, Raul, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie, Harry Kane, Alan Shearer