There is nothing remotely comparable to the World Cup in football; a tournament that transcends every competition at club level, even the Champions League.
Indeed the quadrennial showpiece has gone on to define the careers and legacies of some of the game’s greatest players. It wasn’t described by the legendary three-time winner Pele as the true “test of a great player” for no reason.
The Brazilian immortal was a Santos superstar in Sao Paulo, but it was at the World Cup where he truly etched his name in football mythology. He appeared in the competition four times, won it three times and became synonymous with the Jules Rimet Trophy.
Even making a World Cup squad, especially a World Cup winning squad, is a remarkable achievement and a testamant to a player’s ability. This is a competition for the game’s very best after all.
With that, here are eight players who won the World Cup without making an appearance in that year’s edition of the competition.
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Runner-up in 1998 and winner in 2002, the aptly named “Fenomeno” had already followed in the footsteps of his No. 9 Samba forbearer Pele by winning a World Cup as a 17-year-old by the time South Korea and Japan came around.
However, unlike Pele who became the youngest footballer to play in a World Cup final and scored six goals in the 1958 tournament, his bucktoothed coeval failed to make the turf in America in 1994. Part of Carlos Alberto Parreira’s 22-man squad for the stateside instalment, Ronaldo could only sit back and watch as Romario swept all before him.
The preceding campaign, Ronaldo had netted goals by the bucketful for Cruzeiro and following the tournament, he would swap Belo Horizonte for Eindhoven, where he would go on to reshape the landscape of European football.
For a striker who once stated that he doesn’t “think sex could ever be as rewarding as winning the World Cup,” because the tournament only comes around “every four years”, well, he would have to wait another eight before getting his hands on the golden prize again — only this time, playing a lead role.
Pepe Reina (2010)
It is not uncommon that goalkeepers win World Cups without donning the gloves, but in Reina’s case, his story largely mirrors a career playing at the very peak of the game, but often playing second fiddle to more illustrious glovemen.
With Iker Casillas the undisputed No.1 for Spain, Reina, like Victor Valdes, largely sat on the periphery as La Roja secured a three-peat of international triumphs: Euro 2008 and 2012, and of course, the World Cup in 2010.
But, that does not mean Reina did not play his part. Renowned as a spirit-raising presence behind the scenes, Reina’s influence in dressing rooms in well-documented. Labelled by himself as the “chief entertainer in team celebrations”, it’s clear the former Liverpool goalkeeper played an integral role in squad harmony and keeping motivation high.
Vicente del Bosque may as well have listed Reina as squad DJ rather than back-up goalkeeper. I mean, just look at his karaoke-induced mania on the plane ride home from South Africa… every dressing room needs a Reina.
Adil Rami (2018)
There are many lasting images from 2018: Robbie Williams flipping the bird, Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat, Benjamin Pavard’s wonder strike, and Pamela Anderson in the stands cheering on Adil Rami.
Well, not so much cheering him on as clapping for the cameras, as Rami failed to make it off Didier Deschamps’ bench for France. But, his role, or more specifically, his moustache’s role played a vital, if not quite bizarre part in France adding their second star to the national crest.
The 36-year-old retired after the tournament, but not without revealing the mystical superpowers his facial hair had in the dressing room. “Antoine Griezmann touched it before the game, and even the manager did to bring luck,” Rami told TF1.
“It is now the most famous moustache in France. I will keep it.”
A Baywatch girlfriend, a magical moustache and sketchy geographical knowledge, what an absolute lad. Kylian Mbappe may have been the crown prince, Deschamps the master tactician, and N’Golo Kante the midfield engine, but Rami was the dressing-room fulcrum.
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We’ve already touched on goalkeepers and winning World Cups while not appearing. If we listed them all, we would be here all day. But, Dida, despite not featuring in 2002, played a quite fundamental role in Brazil’s triumph in Japan and South Korea that year and deserves a special mention.
As the Brazil and Germany XIs walked out in Yokohama for the final, the sinister undertones of France 1998 seemed to take on a greater significance. Ronaldo, Golden Ball winner four years prior, infamously suffered a seizure before the 3-0 loss to France and ultimately underperformed in the final.
However, there would be no repeat of that against Germany as Ronaldo netted a brace and exorcised the ghosts of Paris to clinch the 2002 trophy. And Dida played a major role in the build-up. The night before the final, Ronaldo, fearing a repeat of the convulsions he suffered in France, took comfort in Dida’s presence.
“I discovered that our substitute goalkeeper, Dida, was awake, and we ended up chatting for an hour or so,” Ronaldo reflected 14 years later.
“He was really kind to me. He distracted me, because he knew every time I thought back to the 1998 final, I would remember the convulsions.
“The idea of that happening again was my biggest fear.” Fair play, Dida.
Erik Durm (2014)
Erik Durm, World Cup winner in 2014, relegation fodder with Huddersfield Town in 2019. It has been quite the fall from grace for Durm, who at one stage looked set to occupy Borussia Dortmund’s full-back flanks for many years after being handed his debut by Jurgen Klopp in 2013.
The German coach even went as far as to call Durm “the most extraordinary player we have” at the time.
To date his major trophies include one DFB-Pokal and one World Cup, while his only caps for Germany came in 2014, seven to be exact. But, none actually came in the World Cup that year as Mario Gotze came off the bench to bring home the trophy against Argentina.
Durm was an unused substitute in all seven games, and even now, years later, it still hasn’t quite sunk in for the versatile defender the level of his achievement. “It was hard to process at the time as a young player,” he told The Times in 2019.
“Even today, I don’t think it’s sunk in that I’m a world champion, that I was in the World Cup-winning squad.”
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Franco Baresi (1982)
A Ballon d’Or runner-up, three-time European Cup holder and, World Cup winner. Baresi is widely regarded as one of the best defenders the game has ever seen, the “consummate libero” according to Zico, an AC Milan hall-of-famer, and an all-round Italian legend.
However, his sole World Cup triumph (Spain 1982) came without playing a single second for Enzo Bearzot’s side. The Italian coach often played the Milan skipper out of position, with Juventus libero Gaetano Scirea his go-to sweeper, which caused a breakdown in relations and Baresi omitted from Mexico 1986 altogether.
Upon Bearzot’s departure, though, Baresi re-entered the fold and became a more consistent and formidable member of the Azzurri, and had the chance to win the World Cup again, only this time as a protagonist and not a bystander.
The then 34-year-old captained Arrigo Sacchi’s side to the 1994 final, where they lost on penalties to Brazil, with Baresi culpable of missing in the shootout. That, however, has not tarnished his legacy, as he remains one of the emblematic defenders of Italy’s historic roll call.
Daniel Passarella (1986)
Skipper of Argentina’s famous 1978 World Cup triumph, “El Gran Capitan” is the only player to have featured in both of La Albiceleste’s World Cup wins, only he didn’t appear at all in Mexico 1986. A bout of enterocolitis left him bedridden, while his replacement, Jose Luis Brown, coincidentally opened the scoring in the final.
Passarella’s caustic relationship with Diego Maradona was well-known at the time, with the former infuriated at having his armband handed to the mercurial and temperamental ball-playing genius. But, that did not stop Maradona taking centre stage in Mexico, with that Hand of God goal, and Passarella, despite not featuring at all, still collecting a medal.
Pepe (1958 and 1962)
The Santos legend was a teammate of Pele’s at club and international level and largely mimicked his trophy-hoovering success. But in 1958 and 1962 Pepe lifted the coveted silverware without strutting his stuff in either Sweden or Chile. Still, he had the best seat in the house and will go down in history.
He did score 22 goals in only 41 matches for the Selecao, but when Vicente Feola and later Aymore Moreira could call upon the likes of Pele, Vava and Garrincha, who can blame them for shunning Pepe? Remarkable nonetheless that in such a talented era for Brazil, Pepe made the squad twice.