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Kings without the crown: Top five stars who haven’t won the FIFA World Cup

Stalwarts in their own right and superstars in world football for their exploits in their clubs, these five top draws in Qatar are yet to win a World Cup, the ultimate prize for a country in football. Messi, Ronaldo and Benzema may not have another World Cup appearance left in them.

Cristiano Ronaldo, 37

Striker, Portugal

Club: Manchester United (Eng)

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo(REUTERS)

Like Messi, he exited in the Round of 16 in Russia. Like him, again, he is the team’s talisman, a multiple Ballon d’Or winner, and possibly in his last World Cup. That’s where the similarities end. Having missed part of the preseasons, Cristiano Ronaldo has struggled to make the first team at Manchester United – he has played 531 club minutes less than Messi going to Doha – and has been barred from training with them for showing poor attitude. He has also wanted to leave the club but found no takers, and given an explosive interview last week in which he’s attacked his manager and club owners.

But Ronaldo is the planet’s most successful goalscorer in international football with 117 strikes in 191 games since making his debut for Portugal in 2003 at the age of 18. He is 37, but has tremendous work ethic and hates missing games. He would want to add a World Cup to the 2016 Euro title and the 2019 Nations League, but there are big question marks over Portugal’s personnel and attitude to go that far.

Clubbed with Uruguay, South Korea and Ghana, Portugal could run into Brazil in the final 8 if they don’t top the group. And given that it was Uruguay who sent them home from Russia, it could take some doing.

Coach Fernando Santos has been criticised for not being able to get Portugal’s attacking talent perform to potential. “You can have the best players in the competition, but if you don’t know how to make the most of the strengths of each player, then you won’t be able to operate properly as a team. People will see you as just another ordinary team,” Ruben Dias, the Manchester City defender, has said.

Such comments tend to stick more after Round of 16 exits in the World Cup and European championships and failure to make the Nations League finals last September. But if Ronaldo can channel his frustration into showing what he is capable of – look no further than the game against Spain in 2018 when he got a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw – they could go far.

Lionel Messi, 35

Striker, Argentina

Club: Paris Saint Germain (Fra)

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi controls a ball during a training camp(AFP)
Argentina’s forward Lionel Messi controls a ball during a training camp(AFP)

Berlin. Cape Town. Rio de Janeiro. Kazan. Cities where Lionel Messi’s World Cup campaigns have ended. In disappointment. Images of him shuffling past the podium looking distraught after winning the Golden Ball in 2014 have been burned in our minds and spurred debates of whether Messi would ever emulate Diego Maradona and end Argentina’s wait for a World Cup, one that has kept getting longer since 1986.

What’s different this time? A lot. Argentina go to Doha on the back of a 35-game unbeaten run, one that includes two wins against Brazil and a cruise through the World Cup qualifiers. In that time, and by beating Brazil at Rio’s Maracana in the Copa America final, they have also ended a 28-year wait for a trophy.

“I don’t know whether we are big favourites or not, but I believe Argentina is always a favourite for its history, what it means and even more now for how we got here,” Messi has said. “Whenever we talk about candidates, we always talk about the same teams,” Messi told South American Federation Conmebol. “If I have to put some above others I think Brazil, France and England are a little bit above the rest. But the World Cup is so difficult and so complicated that anything can happen.”

Not surprisingly, Messi’s form has been crucial to Argentina’s performance. The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner scored seven goals in the qualifiers, sharing the top spot for Argentina with striker Lautaro Martinez. Since Lionel Scaloni took charge after a disastrous 2018 finals, Messi has scored 25 goals. Five of them came in one game against Estonia last June. Messi is Argentina’s top scorer with 90 goals in 165 games.

Rodrigo de Paul and Leandro Parades freeing Messi to move further up the pitch is one reason for that. A strong defensive core where goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and central defender Cristian Romero are important cogs that helped keep 10 clean sheets in the qualifiers is another. The team looks solid at the back,and with Messi in the mood – he has 12 goals and 14 assists in 18 games for PSG this term – spectacular in front.

“He gave us confidence, he was bringing in new people, he always knew what he wanted and we grew. From the Copa America 2019, we took a leap,” Messi has said of Scaloni.

So will it all come together in what Messi, 35, has said will be his last World Cup?

Neymar, 30

Striker, Brazil

Club: Paris Saint Germain (Fra)

Brazil's Neymar reacts during a friendly soccer match between South Korea and Brazil at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul, Thursday, June 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)(AP)
Brazil’s Neymar reacts during a friendly soccer match between South Korea and Brazil at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul, Thursday, June 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)(AP)

If you had asked me this four years ago, I would have agreed,” said Cafu, when asked if Brazil have a lot riding on Neymar. The World Cup-winning captain of 2002 then explained why his answer has now changed, listing a string of attacking players Brazil could take to Doha. And that can only be good news for Neymar.

Neymar’s first World Cup ended in agony, literally, when he was carried off the pitch after a foul by Colombia wing back Juan Zuniga. Brazil made the semi-final, but would be without their most famous player, and a 7-1 humiliation followed. He got one goal in the 2018 finals, and featured in multiple memes suggesting he kept going down to easily to claim a foul.

This time though, Neymar is going to a World Cup following a good run of form at PSG, where he has 15 goals and 12 assists in 19 games. “When Neymar says that at a given time he made a mistake it is beautiful. What an example… Some people know how to grow and evolve. And they are brave to say it when they make mistakes. That’s his maturity,” Brazil head coach Tite has said of Neymar, whose time at the club has had some rough edges.

Brazil’s wealth of attacking options could mean that Neymar could in the position he prefers — play behind a striker. He may operate behind Gabriel Jesus, Richarlison or Pedro, with Vinicius Jr, Antony, Raphinha or Gabriel Martinelli stretching the play. They are wicked, Neymar said of his colleagues. “We have a great number of rising players. It hurts not to bring them all,” Tite has said.

It’s been 20 years since Brazil won their fifth World Cup — the last country from South America to do so. And not since the 2002 World Cup, which marked the resurrection of the great phenomenon called Ronaldo, have Brazil had such fizz in attack. This group scored after a 29-pass routine against Peru in the last Copa America in 2019, and produced a 25-move goal against Ghana this September. Such is the creative excitement around the squad’s attacking players that, of the lot, Neymar, two goals short of Pele’s 77 international goals, is possibly the only one sure of a place in the starting line-up.

Karim Benzema, 34

Striker, France

Club: Real Madrid (Spain)

France's Karim Benzema(AP)
France’s Karim Benzema(AP)

For five-and-a-half years, Karim Benzema was exiled from the national team for his role in a sex-tape/blackmail scandal involving a France team mate. In that time, Didier Deschamps forged a team capable of being world champions, one that rode on an unstoppable force called Kylian Mbappe to the title in Russia.

“There was a difficult period when I wasn’t in the French team but I never gave up,” Benzema said while receiving his first Ballon d’Or in Paris last month at 34 years of age (he turns 35 one day after the World Cup final on December 18).

Giving up is something Benzema hasn’t done since he began kicking a ball against a wall in a Lyon suburb. He has been brilliant at Real Madrid — first doing the running for Cristiano Ronaldo, and then the bulk of the scoring after Ronaldo left in 2018. It was repeated acts of pulling Real Madrid back from the brink that fetched Benzema the Ballon d’Or and made his club the champions of Europe last season.

His return to the national team though hasn’t been without pangs. Kylian Mbappe has said he prefers playing with OIivier Giroud, who is two goals away from Thierry Henry’s national record of 51, as the focal point of the attack because his hold-up play gives Mbappe more freedom.

“A plus for us? Of course he is. When you are the second-best striker in the French team if you are not a plus you will never be a plus,” Mbappe has said of Giroud.

Benzema and Mbappe didn’t hit the high notes in the 2020 Euro (played in 2021). Mbappe didn’t score and though Benzema got four, France were eliminated by Switzerland in the Round of 16 at Euro 2020 (played in 2021). France have also struggled this season to avoid relegation from the Nations League, a competition they won in 2021.

“It’s perfectly normal for a team to go on slightly less successful runs, but France remain a really competitive force and are among the top teams in Europe and the world,” head coach Didier Deschamps, who has been in charge for 10 years, has said. “We’re the defending world champions. When you’re at the very top, it’s difficult to do any better.”

No team since Brazil in 1962 has won back-to-back World Cups. If France are to emulate that, they will have to sort of issues in defence and midfield, hope Benzema can fire, and that he and Mbappe can find a way to bring the best out of each other.

Kevin de Bruyne, 31

Midfielder, Belgium

Club: Manchester City (Eng)

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - World Cup - Quarter Final - Brazil vs Belgium - Kazan Arena, Kazan, Russia - July 6, 2018 Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne celebrates scoring their second goal REUTERS/John Sibley/File Photo(REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football – World Cup – Quarter Final – Brazil vs Belgium – Kazan Arena, Kazan, Russia – July 6, 2018 Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne celebrates scoring their second goal REUTERS/John Sibley/File Photo(REUTERS)

Will Kevin de Bruyne join the list of club legends who have struggled to impose themselves in major international tournaments? By the end of this World Cup, his third, we will know.

De Bruyne is the beating heart of Manchester City, a serial winner of domestic titles, and that alone is saying a lot given how many creative players they have. In 2020, City manager Pep Guardiola called the Belgian the world’s best midfielder. Two years later, and given how quickly he has forged an understanding with Erling Haaland — the big Norwegian is regularly scoring by sliding in to meet a De Bruyne assist — to ensure that Guardiola’s assertion still rings true.

But with Belgium? The team, ranked No. 2 in the world behind Brazil, have not played in the final of a major competition. In 2018, they were stopped in the semi-final by France, four years prior to that it was Argentina who halted their run in the quarter-final, and in the Euro, it was Italy’s turn to do that in the Round of 8. In the 2016 Euro, Wales shocked them in the quarter-final after Belgium failed to protect an early lead. Barring 2016, where Belgium lost 3-1, they have all been one-goal defeats. Exactly the kind of situation where the vision of De Bruyne or his ability to conjure a goal from range with his remarkable shooting prowess could have made the difference.

Belgium have had the same core for nearly 10 years, central defenders Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld have played a total of 264 international games, and there are six players with over 100 caps. “Of course, we’ve got an incredible generation of players, but we still haven’t won anything. If we really want to earn that ‘golden generation’ nickname, I think that’s the one thing we still need to do,” skipper Eden Hazard has said. De Bruyne needs to step up in Doha for that to happen.


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