Lukaku leads the line. Who else makes the cut?

A jaw-dropping XI of the most cursed footballers in history: Lukaku, Reus…

Talent can take you a long way in football. So too can hard work. But fortune can also play a massive role in how a player’s career pans out – even the very best of them.

There are some footballers, even world-class ones, that appear to have been afflicted with a chronic case of hard luck. Those where you just have to marvel at the ways in which the universe finds a way of spitting in their face.

We’ve put together a full XI of players we swear have been cursed by the football gods, arranged in a 4-4-2 formation:

GK: Igor Akinfeev

The former Russia international once went 11 years (43 games) without keeping a clean sheet in the Champions League for CSKA Moscow.

No further questions, your honour.

RB: Aaron Wan-Bissaka

We’ll level with you: we struggled at right-back. We did consider Reece James, given his recent injury woes, but he’s got time on his side to kick on and has already won a Champions League with his boyhood club.

Searching for cursed right-backs brought us to this tweet from Gary Neville, reacting to a fluffed chance from Aaron Wan-Bissaka in April 2013. It might be a stretch, but it did get us thinking that Wan-Bissaka has been cursed to play in the wrong era.

His astute positional awareness and outstanding tackling ability would’ve made him a machine in the 80s or 90s.

But as full-backs expected to bomb on as quasi-wingers in the 2000s, let alone the 2020s trend for inversion and playmaking, his career record of just two goals and 17 assists in 236 career appearances makes him look a player out of time.

CB: Ledley King

Now we’re getting into injury territory, which’ll be a recurring theme here.

King didn’t have a bad career by any means, representing England at major tournaments and notching over 300 matches for Tottenham, starting in the 2008 League Cup final win over Chelsea – still their last major trophy.

But chronic knee problems in his latter years always left a ‘what if?’ hanging over the defender.

Things might have been so different for Spurs and England had he remained fit and firing in his prime.

READ NEXT: 7 of football’s most bizarre curses: Mick Jagger, Aaron Ramsey, fake gold medals…

TRY A QUIZ: Can you name the 25 worst teams in Premier League history?

CB: Richard Dunne

Not only does the former Republic of Ireland international hold the (joint) title for the most red cards in Premier League history with eight, but he also boasts the unwanted outright honour of scoring the most own goals with 10.

You might well argue that’s just plain incompetence, and we’re not compiling a sh*ttest XI here. Fair enough. But there’s also a large degree of being in the wrong place at the wrong time as balls made a habit of cannoning off Dunne, into the back of his own net.

There was an extra portion of hard-luck serendipity, too. His team failed to win on every occasion he scored an own goal, while half of them proved particularly costly by being scored in the final 15 minutes. Ouch.

Jamie Carragher of Liverpool scored 7 own goals in the Premier League - only Richard Dunne scored more

TRY A QUIZ: Can you name every player to have scored 5+ own goals in the Premier League?

LB: Leighton Baines

When Baines retired in 2020, he ought to have looked back at his career with a lot of pride.

He played over 600 matches for club and country and – until the rise of Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold – held the record for the most Premier League assists from a defender. For well over a decade, he was among the best left-backs in the country.

But what does he have to show it in terms of silverware? Nothing. Nowt. Nada.

As a youngster he helped Wigan get promoted to the Premier League, but back then you didn’t receive a medal for finishing runner-up in the Championship, and he later finished a runner-up in League Cup and FA Cup finals.

We’re sure he wouldn’t trade his status as a loyal Everton hero for anything. But it’s not difficult to imagine a parallel universe in which he signed for Manchester United as a youngster and hoovered up trophies there.

He was exactly the kind of solid, dedicated pro that Sir Alex Ferguson built a dynasty around.

RW: Adrian Doherty

We’ve tried to keep this XI fairly lighthearted. Most of the players we’re featuring, for all their misfortune, can consider themselves pretty blessed in the grand scheme of things.

But we couldn’t overlook Doherty, who might have become a Manchester United legend were it not for an anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered as a teenager in a reserve match. Many regarded the Northern Irish as the most talented prospect in Manchester United’s legendary Class of ’92.

“Speak to Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, the Nevilles, they will all tell you he was the best player they ever played with at that level,” recalled Brendan Rodgers.

Sir Alex Ferguson himself described him as “the boy with the most amazing football skill.”

But that injury killed his career before it even began. Doherty never made a senior appearance for United and his career amounted to just three matches for Derry City. He died at age 26, found unconscious in a canal in The Hague.

Oliver Kay’s Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius comes thoroughly recommended as an account of his heartbreaking tale.

READ: The four ‘world class’ players Sir Alex Ferguson had at Man Utd – according to the man himself

CM: Michael Ballack

Where do you begin?

The poster boy for Bayer Neverkusen as they infamously finished runners-up on three fronts in 2001-02, his pain confounded that summer when a yellow card left him suspended for Germany’s World Cup final defeat to Brazil.

With echoes of Leverkusen, Chelsea finished runners-up on three fronts – the Premier League, Champions League and League Cup – in 2007-08, while international disappointment was another recurring nightmare – a Euro 2008 final defeat to Spain, injury denying the midfielder a place in the 2010 squad.

Ballack did win silverware, and lots of it, at Bayern Munich and Chelsea, but he never got his hands on the Champions League – him incensed, chasing down Tom Henning Evrebo during the Blues’ semi-final defeat to Barcelona in 2008-09 might just be the defining image of his European heartbreak.

CM: Marco Reus

Having come up through Borussia Dortmund’s academy, Reus reportedly turned down Bayern Munich to rejoin his hometown club in the summer of 2012. He’d just been named Bundesliga Player of the Season at Borussia Monchengladbach and Jurgen Klopp had just led Dortmund to back-to-back Bundesliga titles.

A match made in heaven? Unfortunately not. Reus won a couple of DFB Pokals with Dortmund but his 12-year stint at the Westfalenstadion often felt like a horrible joke, denying him glory in increasingly cruel ways. Things reached an apex on the final day of the 2022-23 campaign, when Dortmund failed to beat Mainz, allowing the worst Bayern side in years to claim an 11th successive Bundesliga title.

Reus’ Dortmund career had a fittingly brutal end when he was introduced, off the bench with the game still scoreless, in the Champions League final. Within minutes Real Madrid had taken the lead, eventually winning 2-0.

That’s not even mentioning his sad tendency to get injured on the eve of major international tournaments; his absence from Germany’s victorious 2014 World Cup final squad will surely still sting to this day.

LW: Eduardo

This team wouldn’t be complete without an injured player from Arsenal’s trophy-drought era.

Abou Diaby was a real contender, but we couldn’t quite justify his place in midfield so we’re shunting Eduardo a little out of position onto the left wing here.

Arsenal fans will still tell you that they would have won the title had the Brazilian-Croatian not suffered a horrific double leg break during the run-in. To be fair, they might have a point.

Eduardo eventually recovered and went on to have a lengthy career in football, but you were always left with the sense that afternoon at St. Andrew’s robbed him of becoming the player he ought to have.

ST: Romelu Lukaku

On the one hand, Lukaku has enjoyed a career that most footballers can only dream of.

The all-time top goalscorer for his country, second to only Cristiano Ronaldo when it comes to European nations. He’s played for some of Europe’s biggest clubs and it wasn’t so long ago that he was named Serie A Player of the Season after a starring role in Inter’s first Scudetto in over a decade.

On the other hand, a series of misjudged career choices have left him unloved almost everywhere, unwanted by parent club Chelsea, frequently loaned out during what should be his peak years.

Declaring how much he missed Inter months after signing for the Blues was a mistake, while flirting with Juventus – burning his bridges for a potential return to the San Siro, the one place he can consider home – was a worse one.

Then there’s his eerie, unerring ability to miss golden chances in some of his most high-profile games, with Champions League defeats and World Cup exits set to haunt him for the rest of his career.

Having three tight VAR disallowed goals – two for marginal offsides, one for a contentious handball he had nothing to do with – in Euro 2024 so far is just the icing on the cake.

ST: Harry Kane

Failing to win silverware with Tottenham and England is one thing. England last lifted a trophy over half a century ago, while Spurs’ last league title was even further back than that.

Moving to Bayern Munich, on a run of 11 successive titles, and failing to win anything is another thing altogether.

The fact that Xabi Alonso turned Bayer Leverkusen – of all teams – into unbeaten mentality monsters, at exactly the moment that Kane arrived in Germany, might be the closest thing we’ve got to proof that the Football Gods have something against him.

Most Cursed XI featuring Marco Reus