We are now 164 days away from the opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and with almost every league hunkered down for a Christmas break (with the exception of the Barmy Brits… but that’s a discussion for another post), we can start to look towards June in what should be an epic tournament.
Why epic? When you look at the teams that have qualified for Brazil 2014, there isn’t a nation that makes you think, “They shouldn’t be there”. Conversely, I can’t think of a team that, based on recent form, has been hard done by not qualifying. That means that all the past champions will be going, all the heavy hitters and nearly men (Dutchies, I’m looking at you).
I was recently reminded that, despite appearing in three World Cups, the great Zico had never won the thing. That’s gotta hurt, but he’s not alone. In fact, the list of players who have never lifted the Jules Rimet trophy is extensive. Think about it: Sindelar, Puskas, Di Stefano, Fontaine, Eusebio, Cruyff, Platini, Stoichkov, Baggio, Maldini, Figo… none of them have ever won the biggest tournament on the planet. It’s probably as good as any argument that football is won and lost as a team, at least internationally.
But you can’t win the Coupe du Monde if you don’t get to go in the first place. Some major marquee players won’t be appearing in Brazil because they and their compatriots couldn’t get it done. Here are the top 10 players staying home in June:
10) David Alaba (AUT) — Is he a fullback? Is he a midfielder? All we know is that the Austrian wunderkind will be off the pitch, while just about every other one of his Bayern Munich teammates will be in Brazil (except for Claudio Pizarro). Austria actually held their own in qualifying , but were done in by double losses to Germany and then to Sweden on the penultimate match day. No worries though, as Austria’s youngest-ever Player of the Year is only 21 years old, so he’ll have a few more shots at it.
9) Branislav Ivanovic (SER) — Speaking of fullbacks, pundits are calling Ivanovic the best right back in the world right now. His is the first name on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team sheet, and he is a menace in attack and defence. But after starting with a 1-1-3 record in qualifying, the Serbians were pretty much doomed, even though ultra-rivals Croatia finished with two losses. The Croats went through, which has to sting more than a little.
8) Arda Turan (TUR) — There was a time when Turkey’s national football team was filled with German-born Bundesliga players who were considered too much Türken and not enough Deutsch. The DFB has become far more progressive — look at Germany’s multicultural line-up now — and Turkish football has come into its own, with Turkish-born players staying in the Superlig. The one notable exception is Arda Turan, the tough winger who has helped put Atlético Madrid in the running for its first Liga title in 18 years. The good news for the Atleti? Turan will be able to rest up this summer before they sell him off to a bigger club. Hooray.
7) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (GAB) — Like many African players, Aubameyang was born in France, but decided to represent the nation of his parents. Too bad. The young Gabonese had a high enough profile at St. Etienne, before lighting up the Bundesliga with Dortmund this season, to find a place on a troubled French squad. Instead, he has become the African version of Dimitar Berbatov playing for Bulgaria, a great player on a team that will do nothing. It’s just as well: that name is a nightmare for the kit makers.
6) Petr Cech (CZE) — Oh how the strong and steady goalkeeper must pine for the days of Koller, Baroš and Nedved, when his countrymen were qualifying for European semi-finals and actually appearing at the World Cup. Alas, the veteran netminder (a 31-year-old who has looked 50 since he was 20) will have to settle for glory at Chelsea, where he and his club have won every major European and English title.
5) Marek Hamsik (SLO) — Slovakia did alright at South Africa 2010, their first major tournament since they split from the Czechs. Hamsik captained his side to the Group of 16 by shocking the Italians 3-2, before losing to eventual finalists, Netherlands. But when they tried to qualify for Brazil, they were outdone by a lack of adventure: only once did the Slovaks score more than one goal from open play. Too bad… because Hamsik’s Mohawk/Kid n’ Play fade looks awesome streaking up the pitch.
4) Aaron Ramsey (WAL) — This one will elicit the most groans as undeserving, but the young Taffy has been a revelation this season. Arsene Wenger has kept faith in his midfielder, who has had trouble keeping off the treatment table. But he has been Arsenal’s best player since August and has overshadowed teammates who are offensive threats in their own right.
3) Robert Lewandowski (POL) — Poland’s failure to qualify for even the playoffs is a case of a team’s parts being better than the team itself. The squad has some great talent (with tricky names): Blaszczykowski, Piszczek, Boruc, Szczesny, and Dortmund’s highest scorer over the last three seasons, Lewandowski. Last year, he was a goal away from the Bundesliga scoring title, and two away from being the Champions League’s top marksman. He is among the top 10 strikers in the world, but unfortunately he will not be able to play with his peers in Brazil.
2) Gareth Bale (WAL) — Surely the world’s biggest tournament should feature the world’s most expensive player. When Gareth Bale went to Real Madrid for €100M, most people thought that the whole affair was ridiculous. But the spectacle of the transaction should not take away from a player who is starting to reach the height of his powers. Nine goals in fifteen games for Madrid: he’s no Ronaldo, but he doesn’t need to be. Unfortunately, he plays for a nation that has never fully embraced association football and may not qualify for a major tournament for some time.
1) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE) — You could hear the collective groans around the soccer world when Sweden was paired with Portugal in the qualifying play-offs. We knew that either Christiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not be playing in this summer’s tournament. That’s a shame because if there is ever a place for massive egos, it is the World Cup… and they don’t get much bigger than CR7 or Ibra. In the end, it was a battle between two huge talents on otherwise mediocre teams. After a tight first leg, it was left to the big striker to tie everything up on aggregate. Unfortunately for the Scandanavians, Ronaldo showed why he is better than everyone else… include Kung Fu Zlatan. Still, we will miss the sound bites, the temper tantrums, and the awesome, awesome goals. Ibra’s take on the loss: “One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch.”