Football Features

The contrasting fortunes of star names left at home for World Cup 2018

By Ben Green

Published: 20:11, 3 May 2020

Ahh, the World Cup. The pinnacle of any footballer’s career and often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fulfil a childhood dream: representing your nation on the grandest of all stages. 

Few of us will ever experience the adulation of receiving that phone call — the news you will be packing your bags and flying out with your compatriots to compete amongst legends and greats of the game.

Indeed, the quadrennial competition permeates more than just the footballing sphere. Nations hold their collective breath, business districts become vacant as everyday life takes a back seat, and streets transform into convivial gatherings, littered with the patriotic colours and flags.

So, in other words, it’s a pretty big deal. And as such, it should include the very best the game has to offer. But sometimes that is not always the case.

For one reason or another, national managers have often omitted high-profile players from their final 23-man squads, sometimes with reason, sometimes without.

Well, looking at some of the high-profile snubs from Russia 2018, we have delved in to see how these players performed thereafter and whether any of them have been able to force their way back into the international fold, or in some cases, have even received a first cap.

1. Leroy Sane (Germany)

Why were they snubbed? “It was a tight race between Leroy Sane and Julian Brandt. Both have big qualities, both are good in the one-on-one duels. Julian Brandt was at the Confed Cup, had some strong games there, and put in good shifts in the training camp too. Leroy Sane is a huge talent, no doubt, and he will be back with the team in September.” (Joachim Low)

The incisive Manchester City winger clinched the PFA Young Player of the Year award in 2017/18, registered a quite sensational 15 Premier League assists — and 10 goals — and was instrumental as Pep Guardiola’s side clinched a domestic double. All of which still was not enough to convince Low.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and on reflection, Low’s decision proved detrimental to German football as Die Mannschaft embarrassingly crashed out of the group stages, finishing bottom after humiliating defeats to South Korea and Mexico, prompting Mesut Ozil to acrimoniously retire, and causing Low to brutally axe the old guard.

Thomas Muller, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels have all faced the guillotine due to the World Cup and Nations League shambles, sparking retaliation and friction, but Sane has since been a mainstay in the Germany national team. Rather oddly, at a time when he is not always making Guardiola’s starting XI, despite notching another 10 goals and 10 assists during the 2018/19 Premier League. More often than not, Sane is now linked with a move to Bayern Munich.

Meanwhile, Brandt, who made substitute appearances in Russia in all three group-stage games, created more chances than any other Bundesliga team in the 2018/19 season (86) — enough to earn him a move to Borussia Dortmund.

2. Radja Nainggolan (Belgium)

Why were they snubbed? “Nainggolan is a top player. The reason is tactical. In the past two years, the team has worked in a specific manner. Other players had those roles. We know Radja has a very important role in his club and we cannot give him that role in our squad.” (Roberto Martinez)

Martinez shocked the footballing world when he excluded the mercurial midfielder from his final selection, citing “tactical” reasons. But given that Nainggolan can pretty much play any role in the middle of the park, that seemed an odd validation at the time. In retrospect, the Red Devils finished third in Russia, so Martinez’s choice was perhaps vindicated.

Nevertheless, the 32-year-old responded by announcing his international retirement in the immediate aftermath, stating: “Very reluctantly my international career comes to an end.

“I’ve always done everything I could to represent my country.”

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Met veel pijn in het hart maak ik een einde aan men internationale carriere… ik heb er altijd alles aangedaan om er bij te zijn en belgie te vertegenwoordigen 🇧🇪… spijtig genoeg is ECHT zijn niet goed voor SOMMIGE… En vanaf vandaag zal ik de eerste supporter zijn…. Purtroppo molto a malincuore termina la mia carriera internazionale… ho sempre fatto di tutto per poter rappresentare la mia nazione 🇧🇪 Essere se stessi a volte puó dare fastidio… Da oggi saró il primo tifoso… Very reluctantly my international career comes to an end…I’ve always done everthing I could to represent my country🇧🇪 Being yourself can be bothering …From this day on I will be the first fan…

A post shared by Radja Nainggolan (@radja_nainggolan_l4) on

Since his omission, the midfield maestro has swapped Roma for Inter Milan and helped the club seal Champions League qualification right at the end of the 2018/19 season. He has subsequently moved to Cagliari on loan, however.

For his part, Nainggolan expressed disappointment at the time over the impact he made at Inter: “I wanted to give more to Inter but we did well and we are close to Champions League qualification. However, I still feel young and dynamic. The injury that I had at the beginning of the season had an impact for the entire campaign.”

He has since suggested he would be open to a return to Roma one day.

3. Anthony Martial and Alexandre Lacazette (France)

Why were they snubbed? “They were good against Germany, but that was only one match; that aside, they were a bit less.” (Didier Deschamps)

Deschamps had no qualms rejecting the Premier League duo from his final roster, and seeing as he clinched world football’s most coveted gong, he probably doesn’t care either. Les Bleus’ national set-up has been an odd entity the past few years, with key players like Karim Benzema not getting a sniff — though for non-footballing reasons it should be noted.

Since his omission, Lacazette has generally flourished for Arsenal, helping the club reach the Europa League final while forming a formidable strike partnership with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang — at one time even sparking rumours of a move to Barcelona in the process.

And yet, Deschamps continues to snub him at international level, with Lacazette last being capped back in 2017. Given his more inconsistent nature in front of goal during 2018/19, that’s a situation unlikely to improve in the near future.

Meanwhile, Martial has endured a somewhat volatile time at Manchester United, so there are certainly no surprises it’s still been two years since he last donned the immaculate blue strip. His goalscoring form seems to be on the up as of 2019/20, however.

4. Alvaro Morata (Spain)

Why were they snubbed? “Including four players up front was not something we wanted to do. We have opted for three other players who had different assets.” (Julen Lopetegui)

Lopetegui made the decision, but Fernando Hierro oversaw the Round-of-16 collapse against the host nation. Spain, like Germany, faltered on a stage that has been such a happy hunting ground for them in recent times, but after an inconsistent season, Morata’s exclusion was perhaps justified.

The former Los Blancos striker was unable to slot seamlessly into Maurizio Sarri’s fluid Chelsea system at the start of last season, and after just five Premier League goals, he decided to upset another fanbase by relocating to his former side’s fierce rivals: Atletico Madrid.

Morata received a hostile reception from Atleti fans after they chanted “Menos Morata y mas Borja Garces” (“Less Morata, more Borja Garces”) — a reference to one of the club’s teenage forwards developed in the youth academy — upon news of his arrival. However, he’s slowly but surely winning over his critics and his goal in Atleti’s Champions League win over Liverpool can only help.

Morata scored four goals in six caps for Spain during 2019, so his international form has gone unquestioned.

5. Mauro Icardi (Argentina)

Why were they snubbed? “It is nothing strange. I think that it was only because I lacked more time [on the pitch]. I do not know if I joined the national team at the right time because of the pressure that we faced.” (Mauro Icardi)

Sergio Aguero. Gonzalo Higuain. Paulo Dybala. Lionel Messi. Mauro Icardi. How on earth do you fit all these strikers into a starting XI? It is certainly a utopian managerial headache, but unless Jorge Sampaoli opted for a 5-0-5 in Russia, then he was always bound to struggle. Sampaoli never did give a reason for his decision to omit the former Inter captain, though another factor is commonly used to explain Icardi’s Albiceleste absence is his marriage to Wanda Nara. Why? Because Nara was previously married to Maxi Lopez, who was previously Lionel Messi’s teammate.

Their marriage ended in accusations of infidelity (from both sides) and Icardi, an ex-teammate of Lopez himself, began a relationship with Nara almost immediately after the divorce. Reports suggested the Inter forward was never a part of ‘Messi’s magic circle’ for this reason, which is why he is always overlooked.

It’s incredible a player of Icardi’s goalscoring prowess has picked up just eight caps, and that’s a situation that hasn’t improved even despite scoring goals for fun on loan at PSG.

6. Aymeric Laporte (France)

Why were they snubbed? “If you tell me he must be in [Marseille centre-back Adil] Rami’s place then I stop you right away. Sorry but two left-footed defenders at centre-back at international level…We have a lot of left-footers and few right-footers.” (Didier Deschamps)

Hailed by Guardiola as his best City signing, found a place in the PFA Team of the Year, completed the second-most successful passes of any player in the Premier League (2768) during 2019/20, formed a formidable centre-back partnership with Raphael Varane for Fra… oh, wait. Yep, Laporte has somehow been overlooked by Deschamps yet again.

The City bulwark was a figurehead as the North West club clinched an unprecedented domestic treble, and yet Clement Lenglet has moved above him in the pecking order for France. Seriously, what does this guy need to do to convince Deschamps?

7. Fabinho and Lucas Moura (Brazil)

Why were they snubbed? “Choosing two holding midfielders between Casemiro, Fernandinho and Fabinho is hard. It was the hardest list I have had to put together. I had sleepless nights.” (Tite)

The above comments were made by Tite in relation to Brazil’s recent Copa America squad announcement, though we can assume the reasons were similar to those when he was snubbed in 2018 too. Despite excelling in recent years, Fabinho and Lucas have found international recognition hard to come by, being omitted from the 2019 Copa America squad.

Fabinho has since become a Champions League winner with Liverpool, of course, and picked up five caps for Brazil in 2019. Lucas Moura’s own Champions League exploits with Spurs have elevated him to cult status, but he remains uncapped since 2018.

8. Mario Gotze (Germany)

Why were they snubbed? “It wasn’t his season. He did not show what his qualities are. He just did not have the form.” (Joachim Low)

Having struggled with myopathy, a metabolic disease, a few years back, Gotze hasn’t quite been able to replicate the halcyon days of his early career brilliance. He tried to get back up to full speed during 2017/18 at the Westfalenstadion but failed to convince Low when crunch time arrived.

Since then, the 27-year-old has shown glimmers of his footballing ingenuity as Borussia Dortmund push Bayern in the Bundesliga, but it’s still a far cry from the insatiable form he demonstrated during his teenage years when he first burst onto the scene as one of Jurgen Klopp’s finest unearthings. In May 2018, upon his World Cup omission Gotze vowed to get back into the team…

But Low is yet to be moved.