Pulisic, Weah, Litmanen & the most exciting players not to play at the WC

In Depth

Over the weekend, during Borussia Dortmund’s top-of-the-table Bundesliga clash with Bayern Munich, we witnessed one of the most special individual – if inconsequential – moments of the season.

Trapped in the corner and surrounded by three Bayern players, Christian Pulisic moved his feet like a Three Card Monte trickster moves his hands, mapping out the trio’s position and movement in his mind before escaping with a perfectly-executed nutmeg on Arjen Robben.

The nutmeg and offload was special in its own right, coming as it did against a player more jealous than angry – the way these things should be done.

It was like watching a group of hunters set a trap for a bear, only to collectively blink and suddenly find themselves imprisoned while the animal watches on from the other side.

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It is not the first time Pulisic has produced such magic, and it won’t be the last, which makes it all the more heartbreaking that we won’t see his talents showcase at the World Cup in Russia.

And yes, it’s heartbreaking that we’ll be robbed of a talent so alien to his near-namesake at West Brom that one wonders whether the pair are exact polar opposites, but he’s not the first to find himself in everyone’s staying-at-home dream XIs and he won’t be the last.

For all the criticism of plans to expand the World Cup beyond its current 32-team format, a larger tournament would make it even more likely for all the world’s top talents to feature in the biggest international competition around.

The United States’ failure to qualify isn’t the only example of one of the world’s most exciting players missing out, of course: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon are out of contention with one round of African qualifying remaining, while Gareth Bale and Alexis Sánchez are among the others staying at home.

Pulisic is likely to get another opportunity, at least, even if it isn’t one preceded by such a rich vein of form – he is still just 19, after all – but others never got the opportunity, purely due to a combination of nationality and timing.

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Invariably, many of the great players to miss out on the tournament are African. The continent has had five teams in the tournament since 1998 – the same as South America, despite often having five times as many nations competing – so competition has been fierce at the best of times.

Liberia have never been a footballing powerhouse, rarely even making the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, and this left George Weah in a similar position to Aubameyang: attempting to lift a group of players not used to his own high level.

Had the West African nation not withdrawn from qualifying in 1994, that might have offered them their best opportunity with the forward approaching his peak.

Instead, it was in 2002 when they came closest, finishing just one point behind group winners Nigeria, but there’s no guarantee a 35-year-old Weah would have sparkled like his younger self in Serie A.

He’s not the only one to miss out, though.

While goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary is preparing for his first ever World Cup in his mid-forties, one of his Egyptian contemporaries will never know the feeling.

Mohamed Aboutrika’s life has taken a turn since his retirement, with Egypt adding the former playmaker to a terror list this year, but during his playing days the attacking wizard was widely considered one of his country’s greatest ever players, if not the continent’s.

It’s not as if he squandered his talent, either, it’s just that the high points came in continental rather than worldwide competition. His peak years, involving back-to-back AFCON titles in 2006 and 2008, coincided with Didier Drogba thriving for Côte d’Ivoire, while 2010 saw the Pharaohs miss out following a play-off against neighbours Algeria.

Algeria were eliminated without scoring a single goal – you can’t help but think the tournament would have been a richer place with Aboutrika embarrassing European and American defences.

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It isn’t just African players, of course. Wales’ heartbreaking loss against Romania in 1993 denied a World Cup spot to Gary Speed, Ian Rush and a young Ryan Giggs.

The Manchester United winger might have ended up having a tortured relationship with his country, often failing to provide the same inspiration he did at club level, but his years as an exciting and tricky winger could well have been the exact sort of player capable of taking such a tournament by the scruff of the neck.

As it happens, the man on the opposite wing at Old Trafford at the same time, Andrei Kanchelskis, missed the tournament in the aftermath of a major dispute with Russia coach Pavel Sadyrin. By the time his country next qualified, in 2002, he was long out of the international picture.

While Giggs’ career might be the one with the biggest international tournament gap (Kanchelskis at least played at the European Championships), either would have been an asset to at least one World Cup.

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And then there’s Jari Litmanen, a man who certainly can’t be accused of not giving it a real go.

The former Ajax and Liverpool playmaker spent more than two decades playing international football and scoring in five consecutive qualifying campaigns. Unfortunately for him, though, he was far and away the stand-out player in multiple Finland squads, never even making it as far as a play-off.

The closest he came was in 1998, when a late Hungary goal denied his country second place in their group, but the Magyars’ 12-1 play-off defeat suggests the Finns may well have found themselves similarly up against it.

Throughout his career, Litmanen brought the best out of supremely talented players, helping them scale even greater heights, and it’s a shame he was never granted the opportunity to show off his talent during a summer showpiece.

The spectacle of a World Cup can make heroes out of average players, so who knows what he might have achieved with a supporting cast lifted by their surroundings?

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Pulisic isn’t quite in the same position as the others: the United States will surely qualify in 2022, and if not then they’re expected to co-host the following tournament.

Nonetheless, there’s every chance we find ourselves watching an underwhelming game in Russia over the summer and wondering how much better it could be with even more star power.

By Tom Victor


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