Dubai: In the fortnight before every World Cup there’s the invitable training ground bust-up between coach and player or the agonising achilles flare up that denies a tournament its key player, and this year in Russia will be no exception.
That list of the omitted who are usually played up by the press as a ‘best eleven who aren’t even playing’ will have to join a long queue however, as due to the failures of some big countries to qualify we already have a decent team of non-goers who could take on the world, if only they could register as a collective.
Here we look at the best players we already know won’t be playing at this summer’s World Cup in the first of a six-part series of features counting down to the start of Russia 2018, which kicks-off six months from today on June 14.
Mark your diaries, hosts Russia will be kicking-off the tournament that day from 7pm (UAE time) against Saudi Arabia in Moscow. Also watching from TV like you and me will be...
Arguably the greatest keeper of all-time, this Juventus and Italy stalwart has already won the World Cup once with the Azzuri back in 2006, but at the age of 39, many were expecting him to sign off in style with a last throw of the dice in Moscow. He had essentially staved off retirement in order to have a last stab of the Champions League – a title he’s never won – with Juventus, after losing the final last year. If he did that he may as well hang on until the summer for the World Cup as well, but then Italy lost their qualifying play-off with Sweden.
A solid option at right back for Manchester United and our team of non-travellers, the 32-year-old won’t be in Russia because his native Ecuador finished a lowly eighth out of 10 in their Conmebol qualifying group, a full six points off a play-off spot. Valencia played in World Cup 2006 and 2014, getting out of the group before Last 16 defeat to England in 2006. He then captained the side that failed to get out of the group in 2014. Given his age, Russia would have been a chance to build on that but now he essentially bows out.
Like Buffon, this seasoned 33-year-old Juventus and Italy defender was looking to put the cherry on the cake in Russia. It was more desperate a bid for Giorgio than it was for Gianluigi however, as Chiellini wasn’t part of the Azzuri’s 2006 World Cup winning squad because he had the likes of Fabio Cannavaro and Matteo Materazzi ahead of him. This latest edition of the tournament would have been a last chance for Chiellini to bury that ghost, but Italy failed to qualify for the first time since 1958 and now he will be left thinking ‘what if’.
Virgil van Dijk
This 26-year-old Dutchman has just made a £75 million switch from Southampton to Liverpool making him the most expensive defender of all-time. His native Netherland’s third place finish behind France and Sweden in their World Cup qualifying group however means he won’t be present in Russia. While his club career is clearly on the rise, internationally he’s played just 16 games for the Oranje and has been part of two consecutive failures to reach both Euro 2016 and Russia 2018. After settling in and making an impact at Liverpool his next ambition must surely be to get things going again with Holland.
The Bayern Munich Austrian-born left back of mixed Filipino-Nigerian descent had the choice of playing for three countries; Austria, Philippines or Nigeria. Only Nigeria have qualified this time around however, and Alaba, 25, could well be left to rue his decision to play for the other eagles. Austria may be close and convenient to Munich, but since he debuted in 2009 they have only qualified to Euro 2016, where they failed to get out of the group. Their latest bid to reach Russia saw them finish fourth in their qualifying group behind Serbia, Ireland and Wales. Nigeria made World Cup 2010 and 2014 plus won the 2013 African Nations.
It’s always a long shot when you’re from a country like Armenia, who have never qualified for a World Cup or a European Championship to expect to suddenly get a run to Russia. With that in mind this 28-year-old Manchester United winger might have to get used to the idea of joining that unenviable group of greats who have never played at a major international tournament. Armenia’s latest failure came about when they finished second from bottom in their group with Poland, Denmark and Romania just above Kazakhstan. Mkhitaryan’s only hope is to inspire the next generation in his home country so that they don’t suffer the same fate.
From having won two Copa Americas running by shootouts over Argentina in 2015 and 2016, Arturo’s Chile now have the summer to sit idle after just missing out on the Conmebol play-off spot to Peru. At the age of 30, it’s a massive blow for this former Juventus and current Bayern centre. He featured in World Cup 2010 and 2014, making the Last 16 and getting knocked out by Brazil on both occasions. With their latest dominance in South America however, they would have been expected to go better this time out, but Vidal might now have to accept that a peak has been reached.
One of the stand out performers at both World Cup 2010 and Euro 2016 where he not only got Slovakia to their debut appearance at both tournaments, but also got them through to the last 16 on both occasions at the first time of asking. The Falcons and their spikey-haired Napoli talisman just missed out on making Russia by finishing second to England in their qualifying group, and failing to get enough points to qualify for the play-offs as one of the best runners-up. Another major tournament run out could have put him back in the shop window, but for now the 30-year-old stays put.
The Welsh Dragons didn’t just stir from a 58-year absence to make only their second appearance at a major tournament when they qualified for Euro 2016, they went both nostrils blazing to reach the semi-finals, and their Real Madrid-playing idol was a key part of that. Not qualifying to Russia 2018 is an unfathomable return to mediocrity for their fans after they finished third to Serbia and Ireland in their qualifying group to miss out on a play-off spot to their Irish rivals. Bale will be now kicking himself that his team couldn’t seize momentum while hoping they don’t have to wait another six decades to roar again.
Another case of a huge player hailing from a small non-traditional footballing country. Although Gabon have made seven of the last 11 African Nations even reaching the quarters as recently as 2012, they’ve never made a World Cup and this year was never going to be any different after they finished third in their group behind comparative footballing giants Morocco and the Ivory Coast. Aubameyang remains one of the most sought after strikers for his performances with Borussia Dortmund but that bigger move might never materialise without the eyes of the world getting a glimpse at a major tournament. Should he have stuck with France where he was born and whom he represented at Under-21 level?
There’s talk of him leaving Arsenal for Manchester City in this transfer window but the one place he’s not going is Russia. Another of the big guns after Arturo Vidal to be side-lined by Chile’s failure to put their double Copa America success to best effect is Sanchez. Ironically not playing in the tournament might make him more desirable. Everyone already knows what he is capable of not least his ex-Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, who’s now at City. What Pep really needs in his team of stars is someone who’s not going to be injured or fatigued after the summer break and in Sanchez he has his man.
GK Jan Oblak, Atletico Madrid/Slovenia
MF Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund/USA
MF Riyad Mahrez, Leicester City/Algeria
FW Arjen Robben, Bayern Munich/Holland
FW Edin Dzeko, Roma/Bosnia and Herzegovina
Did we make the right choice? Is there anyone else you would have had in the team of non-travellers? Let us know via twitter @GulfNewsSport