Top Five World Class Players Who Never Shone in the World Cup

Delivering weekly on the club level is one thing. Evidently, nailing yourself to World Cup history books is another

Our football memories are made of legends. Those players who’ve broke records, scored that winning goal in the final overtime, and led their teams to trophies. Some of the world’s biggest stars on the club level, who’ve won multiple local championships and lifted the Champions League trophy, couldn’t rise to the occasion in the standard they set themselves for their country in the World Cup. Here we look at five shining examples of some of the game’s biggest stars who struggled to leave their mark in the biggest football event. Almost made the list: Didier Drogba, Mohamed Salah, and every English star from the previous two decades.

5. Wayne Rooney

Total World Cups: 3 (2006, 2010, 2014)

World Cup appearances: 11

Goals: 1 (0 in the knockout stages)

Assists: 1

By the 2006 World Cup, “The White Pele” had four outstanding professional seasons and a breakthrough European Championship on his resume. Rooney showed that goalscoring and a short temper could live side by side from a young age. Unfortunately for England, he demonstrated only the latter during the tournament in Germany when 62 minutes into the Quarter Finals, the striker irresponsibly left his team with ten players after a brutal foul on Manchester United colleague, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Heading into the 2010 World Cup, hopes were high in England, where a group of world-class players played vital roles in local clubs that reached the latter stages of the Champions League. Rooney was supposed to be the jewel on the crown, having been in pure form for a few seasons. England narrowly went through the group stage only to get destroyed 1-4 by Germany, with Rooney not finding the net a single time. The Manchester United and Three Lion’s all-time top goalscorer finished his career with only one World Cup career goal to his name, in a loss to Uruguay at a group stage match. The former striker’s performance at big tournaments is one of the most prominent symbols of England’s incapability to materialize its potential until very recently. 

4. Karim Benzema

Total World Cups: 1 (2014)

World Cup appearances: 5

Goals: 3 (0 in the knockout stages)

Assists: 2

At age 34, after taking over post-Cristiano-Ronaldo Real Madrid, leading them to an impressive La Liga-Champions League double this season, Benzema has nothing to prove… almost. Whereas he cemented his legendary status in club football, the striker was not pivotal for his country in a major tournament. He was left out of the squad for the 2010 World Cup, scored three and assisted two in a forgettable 2014 campaign, and was then suspended from wearing the France shirt due to his involvement in scandals off the pitch, meaning he had to watch from home as the Tricolor reached the final of a home Euro 2016 and go all the way to lift the trophy in the 2018 World Cup. Imagine the FOMO. The uplifting of his suspension ahead of Euro 2020 promised a lot, but despite performing well with four goals, France couldn’t get it together and went home after a disappointing Round of 16 exit. In the 2022 World Cup, Benzema is expected to take a positive leadership role in a squad full of talent and ego. It may be his last chance to leave an international mark.

3. Cristiano Ronaldo

Total World Cups: 4 (2006, 2010, 2014, 2018)

World Cup appearances: 17

Goals: 7 (0 in the knockout stages)

Assists: 2

Having scored one goal in each of the first three tournaments, the Portuguese superstar improved his numbers in the last competition in Russia, netting four, including an unforgettable hat-trick against Spain. But from the top goal scorer of international football, Real Madrid, and Champions League history, you expect a tally of more than seven in four tournaments, none of them in the knockout rounds. Adding to that, despite being part of deep, talented squads, Portugal didn’t provide a memorable World Cup campaign during his term as the leader of the post-Figo era.

2. Leo Messi

Total World Cups: 4 (2006, 2010, 2014, 2018)

World Cup appearances: 19

Goals: 6 (0 in the knockout stages)

Assists: 5

Messi’s story is similar to that of his Portuguese nemesis. Arguably one of the best players in club-football history, Messi stands at the top of the list of Argentina’s all-time goal scorers with 86, out of which only six were netted in World Cups, none in the knockout rounds. His most memorable campaign was in 2014 on neighboring Brazil’s soil, scoring four in the group stages but against mild opponents such as Iran, Bosnia, and Nigeria. La Celeste proceeded all the way to the final, where Messi missed in an unlikely fashion, costing his country the trophy.

In 2018, he missed what could’ve been a match-winning penalty against Iceland and saw the back of Kylian Mbappe leading France to a World Cup at only 18. 

1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Total World Cups: 2 (2002, 2006)

World Cup appearances: 5

Goals: 0

Assists: 0

Alongside trophy hunting and scoring many incredible goals, one thing that makes Zlatan, well… Zlatan, is his sense of humor and a long list of classic quotes. Gloating is fun and cute as long as your performance shows for it, which is not the case in the relationship between the great Swede and the World Cup. After losing the World Cup 2014 qualifying playoff face-off to Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, Zlatan said, “a World Cup without me is not worth watching, so it’s not worth waiting for it.” With 0 goals on the big stage, the stats simply don’t back up his statement, especially when you consider Sweden making an impressive quarter finals campaign without him in 2018. Ascending off the back of the golden generation who led Sweden to third place in the 1994 World Cup, Zlatan may have become the top goal scorer for his country and achieved glory that no local player achieved before, but this never converted to a significant performance in major tournaments.

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