One of the tragedies of the World Cup is that, occasionally, the best players never get the opportunity to play on football’s greatest stage. The likes of George Weah, Abedi Pele, George Best, Ryan Giggs and Jari Litmanen, for example, were unable to drag their countries to the World Cup.
But what if the World Cup featured a bonus squad, comprised of players who didn’t qualify – with no more than one player per country? It might look something like this…
Petr Cech (Czech Republic)
Voted in the team of the tournament during the Czechs’ run to the Euro 2004 semi-final, Cech remains one of the more impressive performers in the Premier League – but his national side have dipped in quality over the past decade, and 2006 remains Cech’s only World Cup.
Samir Handanovic (Slovenia)
The Inter goalkeeper has developed into one of Europe’s best over the past couple of seasons, having consistently been superb at Udinese. He’s renowned as a penalty specialist, while at international level he fights off competition from his elder cousin Jasmin, now back home with Maribor.
Justo Villar (Paraguay)
Now boasting over 100 caps, Villar is a veteran of the 2002 tournament, where he was back-up to the legendary Jose Luis Chilavert. He had a terrible time in 2006, where he played seven minutes of the opener against England, conceded an own goal and then got injured, missing the rest of the tournament, but he was excellent in 2010, where Paraguay reached the quarter-finals – Villar saved a Xabi Alonso penalty.
Branslav Ivanovic (Serbia)
As outlined last week, Serbia produce an absurd number of talented defenders, and Ivanovic’s ability to play out at right-back means he gets the nod over some excellent compatriots at the back. Although a reluctant full-back, Ivanovic has become more dangerous when going forward, developing into a good crosser.
Jonny Evans (Northern Ireland)
Surely one of Europe’s more underrated defenders, Evans doesn’t have the presence of Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic but his cool, calm manner of defending means he’s increasingly become an option for David Moyes, although it’s unlikely he’ll ever appear at a World Cup.
Mehdi Benatia (Morocco)
Benatia has been one of the most impressive defenders in Europe so far this season, contributing to Roma’s status as the side with the best defensive record across Europe’s major five leagues. Comfortable playing in a back four or a back three, which has proved useful at international level, he’s also a threat in the opposition box.
Vlad Chiriches (Romania)
Impressive during his first couple of months as a Tottenham player, Chiriches has proved exceptionally consistent at international level, being named captain of Romania at just 23. He’s not the tallest, or the strongest, but his positional sense is excellent, he’s mobile and capable of playing in a high line, and can bring the ball out from the back.
Niklas Moisander (Finland)
Ajax have a fine tradition of ball-playing centre-backs, and an impressive history of talented Finns too – so it only seemed natural last summer when Moisander returned to the club where he had trained as a youth team player. Comfortable at centre-back or full-back, Moisander now captains Finland and has been named as Finnish Player of the Year for the last two years.
Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Venezuela)
During Venezuela’s surprise run to the Copa America semi-final in 2011, Vizcarrondo was arguably the best centre-back in the tournament. A rugged, old-fashioned South American defender that storms into tackles and is dominant in the air, Vizcarrondo is also prolific at attacking set-pieces, managing eight goals in 48 appearances. This summer he finally got a European move, to newly promoted Ligue 1 side Nantes, at the age of 29.
David Alaba (Austria)
The finest footballer Austria has seen for years, Alaba’s performances for Bayern Munich over the past couple of seasons means he’s rightly regarded as one of the world’s best left-backs, although for Austria he’s often played in central midfield. He was recently named as Austria’s Sports Personality of the Year, the first footballer to win the award since Toni Polster in 1997.
Juan Vargas (Peru)
At his best, Vargas is a devastatingly effective player, capable of storming down the left flank before whipping powerful crosses into the box. He’s also a superb free-kick taker, and capable of playing in a variety of roles. But questionable professionalism and discipline has let him down – he was sent-off in the 2011 Copa America semi-final for an elbow, for example – and seems unlikely to fulfil his potential.
Seydou Keita (Mali)
Now at Chinese side Dalian Aerbin, Keita’s peak came under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, where he was used as a physical midfield presence during big matches. But at international level he’s played at the head of a trio, demonstrating his passing quality from higher up the pitch – and his goalscoring record of 24 goals in 88 games shows he’s more than just a defensive option. Unlikely to play in a World Cup, he’s captained his nation to two consecutive third-place finishes in the Africa Cup of Nations.
Nathan Sinkala (Zambia)
Zambia’s unlikely, historic 2012 Africa Cup of Nations victory was achieved with a solid defensive and rapid counter-attacks – and Sinkala was crucial in both respects. Intelligent in a positional sense and positive with his first pass out of the defence, he was one of the tournament’s most impressive players, and it’s surprising he’s still playing in Africa with TP Mazembe.
Mohamed Diame (Senegal)
A quietly impressive performer in his time at Wigan, Diame has evolved into a more attack-minded player at West Ham, frequently breaking forward and scoring some fine goals. Often linked with a move to much bigger clubs, he’s yet to star at senior international level but performed well at last summer’s Olympics, where Senegal reached the quarter-final.
Nuri Sahin (Turkey)
Having captained Dortmund to the title in 2011, being voted the Bundesliga player of the year, it’s fair to say things haven’t gone as planned since his departure – not wanted by Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid and underwhelming at Liverpool, he’s returned to Dortmund and appears much happier, if not the player of old. Despite scoring on his international debut against Germany – the country of his birth – he’s yet to fully impress for Turkey.
Christian Eriksen (Denmark)
Frequently cited as one of Europe’s most promising youngsters, a player set for a move to a big club, and an unknown who could have an impact at the upcoming international tournament, Eriksen is no longer any of the three – he’s an established playmaker at a major Premier League club. Amazingly, has 42 caps at the age of just 21, but after Denmark missed out on a play-off spot, will have to wait before impressing at international level.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Armenia)
Only 24, and yet already the most prominent player in the relatively short history of the Armenian football team. An intelligent, evasive number ten capable of excellent, calm finishes, Mkhitaryan’s scoring record with Shakhtar Donetsk last season was absurd for a player in his position – 25 goals in 29 games. He’s thriving at Dortmund as Mario Gotze’s replacement, and Armenia’s unfortunate third-placed finish in their qualification group gives them hope for Euro 2016.
Marek Hamsik (Slovakia)
Previously an energetic, feisty, combative player who popped up unnoticed in goalscoring positions, Hamsik has become a much more creative player over the past 18 months, and now appears Rafael Benitez’s key player at Napoli. Appeared at the 2010 World Cup, although had little influence.
Gareth Bale (Wales)
The world’s most expensive footballer never had much hope of playing at next summer’s World Cup, although Wales now produce a decent generation of players, led by Bale and Aaron Ramsey, and could qualify for Euro 2016. Now an all-round attacker rather than a pure winger, Bale remains devastating on the counter-attack and a constant threat from long-range.
Mirko Vucinic (Montenegro)
He boasts a a tremendous partnership with Stevan Jovetic upfront, but the Juventus forward is capable of taking on the opposition single-handedly at times. Clever at drifting left before charging inside into goalscoring positions, his link-up play is impressive, and his finishing often amazingly composed.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden)
Now receiving considerable acclaim following some amazing performances for PSG and his national side, Ibrahimovic came off second-best in his confrontation with Cristiano Ronaldo this week, but remains the world’s best number nine, and perhaps the best entertainer around, too. “One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch,” he said following Sweden’s play-off defeat.
Dimitar Berbatov (Bulgaria)
It seems this side will specialise in tall, languid, skilful but often frustrating centre-forwards – Berbatov’s move to Manchester United in 2008 is analogous with Ibrahimovic’s move to Barcelona a year later. Currently retired from international football, Berbatov’s record of 48 goals in 78 appearances is stunning, but he’s another seemingly destined never to play at a World Cup.
Robert Lewandowski (Poland)
Lewandowski’s performance for Dortmund against Real Madrid in last season’s Champions League semi-final goes down as one of the most remarkable of the year – four shots, four goals. An old-fashioned number nine also capable of moving deep to help build moves, he scored the opening goal of Euro 2012, but has scored just once from open play at international level since.
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