The debate surrounding who between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is the best in the world could skyrocket if one of them wins the World Cup in Brazil. As of yet though, none of them has yet to put in decisive performances at a World Cup to elevate them to the level of Pele or Diego Maradona.
Likewise, if none of Argentina or Portugal wins the World Cup, the status quo will remain. Two incredibly talented footballers who have so defined the meaning of greatness in their generation will have missed out on football’s grandest prize. That would continue a trend of some of football’s greatest players who failed to win the World Cup despite winning so much more in their illustrious careers.
Here is a look the Top 5.
**The order indicates more at a player’s potential at winning the World Cup when measured against the team that they played for at the time rather than the individual player’s degree of talent.
The tears flowed freely. Portugal had illuminated, and its brightest star had been the man from Portuguese East Africa. But as his tears hit the Wembley turf, there was a realisation that this time he could not lead his team past another crucial game.
His penalty had proved merely consolatory. Eusebio for once had not done enough to see Portugal through. England would celebrate and a few days later would be crowned World Champions.
But it would be Eusebio who would go back home with the Golden Boot and lots of praises. His stamp of authority had reigned upon the international stage. It had seemed as if his heroics for Benfica at club level had escalated to Portugal at international level.
It had certainly seemed so after his superb display in the quarter-final against North Korea. The Koreans had already proved to be giant slayers, upsetting Italy 1-0 in the Group Stages to knock them out. And with 25 minutes gone in the quarter-final, they led Portugal 3-0.
Eusebio stepped up. He scored the game’s next four goals, as he inspired a 5-3 win. Defeat to England in the semi-final was followed up by a win in the third place playoff match. To this day, it remains the highest that Portugal has ever finished at a World Cup.
It also means that one of its greatest ever sons, and one of football’s greatest ever players, never got to lift that golden trophy.
4. Michel Platini
As if by coincidence, Michel Platini enjoyed the comfort of major international tournaments happening in the month in which he was born.
To complete it, it almost seemed as if he was destined to play on the day of his birth. For two consecutive World Cups, Platini captained France in a game on the 21st of June.
The script always got written when he would eventually score. At the 1982 World Cup, he did so on his birthday in a group game against Kuwait and at the 1986 World Cup, he repeated the feat in France’s quarter final win against Brazil.
When expected to, Platini always delivered. If scoring on his birthday was not enough, it pointed at just how easy it was for the French playmaker to do what he pleased whenever. Indeed, at the 1984 European Championships, it was his goals that were ultimately decisive — coming in as winners in decisive games.
His definitive performance however never materialised to absolute congruency at the World Cup. All his brilliance led France only as far as the semi-finals in 1982 and 1986. Oddly, it would be West Germany who would knock out Platini both times, before going on to lose in the Final.
And while a version of Platini exemplified himself in the form of Zinedine Zidane at the 19998 World Cup, the original failed to ever get France its maiden World Cup triumph.
3. Johan Cruyff
It was Johan Cruyff who totally mastered the concept of total football.
Inventive and imaginative, innovative and incisive, Cruyff was a piece cut from Rinus Michels ideology. It was he that personified everything about what the father of total football envisioned.
The control of a football, the manipulation of space, the use of both all culminated at its absolute peak in Cruyff. The rotation across the pitch combined with the utmost confidence for flair and fantasy meant that during the 70’s, no other footballer could hold the title of king in the manner that Cruyff did.
Indeed, even Miguel Delaney ranks him third in his brilliantly compiled list of 100 all-time footballers in history. And while Pele and Maradona were hugely significant in terms of the trophies they gunnered, Cruyff’s ability alone separates him from all who rank below him.
This sheer talent displayed itself at the 1974 World Cup, and defied and destroyed some of the world’s best. En route to the final, they defeated highly fancied South American contingent of Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina all without conceding a goal. In a game against Sweden as well, Cruyff unleashed the sort of skill that while now seeming elementary, was so genius at the moment it was first displayed to the world. Aptly, it became known as the Cruyff turn.
And Cruyff’s moment seemed to have come in the final when for the first minute, the Netherlands kept the ball away from the West Germans. Cruyff’s kick off had seen the ball passed around and when eventually around 60 seconds later Cruyff got hold of it again, he went on a mazy run that could only be stopped by a trip in the penalty area. From kick off, West Germany had not touched the ball. They would do so for the first time when they kicked off at 1-0 down.
That perfect start however would not bring about a perfect conclusion as Gerd Muller was on hand to ensure West Germany did not lose. But as Cruyff faded, so too did his team. That became a truism to his genius nature. A man so full of fantasy can only ever fantasize of winning the World Cup.
Before Pele, there was Zizinho. And that is the problem. For before Pele, Brazil had a torrid record in the World Cup.
That record descended into disaster in 1950, when on home soil, Brazil got so close to winning the World Cup, but ultimately failed. The star player of that time had been Zizinho, and had he led the seleccao to a maiden triumph, it is he, rather than Pele, that would have become Brazil’s first world superstar.
Instead the largely Flamengo legend is an unknown outside his native Brazil.
It was he that epitomised Brazilian football before Pele. His passing skills and dribbling skills illuminated many a stadium and after missing the opening game of the 1950 World Cup, he returned to a side that was majorly formed of players who a year earlier had become South American champions.
But his position from a deep-lying inside forward was altered by coach Flavio Costa in the run up to the final game. Fearing that his side would lose, Costa became the manager who oversaw the lowest point of Brazil’s football history.
That meant that the incident commonly known as Maracanazo would mean that Brazil were tragic losers. At the same time, it forever meant that Zizinho never won the World Cup.
1. Ferenc Puskas
It should have been the glorious end to a glorious team. For four years, Hungary had decimated all who had appeared on their path. On one day, in one game, all that disappeared.
With it went the chance for Ferenc Puskas to win himself a World Cup. Although he would later on become a European Cup legend with how he assisted Alfredo Di Stefano in establishing Real Madrid as an institution, it is the world’s premier medal that misses from his achievements.
As such, it seems as peculiarly odd as that Hungary loss in that 1954 World Cup final. No team has ever gone into a final as such clear favoutites as Hungary did in 1954. Even Brazil in 1970 had to go in with the knowledge that they were facing the fierce catenaccio of Italy who were European champions.
Not the same for Hungary. West Germany it seemed were there to be brushed off. They had been when the two teams had met earlier in the Group Stages, Hungary winning 8-3. And they had gone for four years unbeaten on the international stage, including becoming the first team from outside the British Isle to defeat England at Wembley.
Carrying them all through that was Puskas. His deft technique probably ranks as high as that of Diego Maradona. Puskas however was not as much a dribbler as the Argentine, but his simplicity exemplified his sophistication. With the ball at his feet, he could pass it or shoot it wherever he wanted to. One swing of his left boot was enough to decide and define any game.
Only that for that one day in 1954, it was not. And it denied one of the world’s greatest from clinching the greatest trophy his career deserved.