Originally, I was going to take a straightforward look at the best soccer players who play for nations which didn’t qualify for the World Cup this summer in Brazil. The list, though, is a lot shorter than you’d think, even though two of the world’s best, most-expensive players — Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Gareth Bale — missed out when Sweden and Wales, respectively, failed to qualify.
On the next tier down there are some well-known players such as Bayern Munich’s Austrian left back David Alaba or Chelsea’s Czech keeper Petr Cech who’ll vacation on non-Rio beaches in June. Look at it this way, Roma’s defender Mehdi Benatia has been one of the best performers in Serie A this year, but the World Cup won’t exactly lack for star power since Morocco didn’t qualify. Only hardcore fans or people who spend countless hours playing FIFA 14 or watching beIN Sports are going to notice someone like Benatia isn’t in Brazil.
Yes, players relatively well-known to European soccer fans like Marek Hamsik (Napoli/Slovakia), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund/Gabon), Christian Eriksen (Tottenham/Denmark), Robert Lewandowski (Borussia Dortmund/Poland), Stefan Jovetic (Manchester City/Montenegro) and Arda Turan (Athletico Madrid/Turkey) won’t participate in the tournament, but it’s doubtful outside their home nations they’ll be missed very much. Same goes for 2013 Asian Footballer of the Year Zheng Zhi — a big name in China, but a relative unknown in the Western Hemisphere.
Consider this, of the top 20 goal-scorers in the English Premier League this year, only Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey (Wales) plays internationally for a nation which didn’t qualify for the World Cup. In Spain and Italy the Top 10 scorers are comprised entirely of players who play for nations that qualified.
Since the Champions League resumes Tuesday with the Round of 16, I looked at the remaining clubs and their roster composition. By my math only 77 of the 418 players listed on the clubs’ rosters play for nations which won’t be part of the field of 32 in Brazil this summer. It means 82 percent of players remaining in the Champions League — the presumed best club competition in the world — could potentially play in the World Cup. If we took Galatasaray out of the equation — the majority of its roster is comprised of Turkish players — the figure jumps to 85 percent.
A couple interesting tidbits from this research:
- Three of the remaining 16 clubs only have one player from a non-qualified country: Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and PSG. (Those players are Bale, Turan and Ibrahimovic, respectively.)
- Without counting Galatasaray, Borussia Dortmund has the most non-qualified players on its roster with eight: Neven Subotić (Serbia), Lewandowski (Poland), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Armenia), Miloš Jojić (Serbia), Jakub Błaszczykowski (Poland), Aubameyang (Gabon), Nuri Şahin (Turkey) and Łukasz Piszczek (Poland).
- Ibrahimovic is the top non-qualified Champions League scorer this season with eight goals.
- Round of 16 Champions League clubs averaged 4.8 non-World Cup qualified players, 3.7 without counting Galatasaray.
- Each of the 11 non-Turks on Galatasaray’s roster play for nations which qualified for the World Cup: Guillermo Burdisso (Argentina), Felipe Melo (Brazil), Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands), Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Izet Hajrović (Bosnia), Alex Telles (Brazil), Aurélien Chedjou (Cameroon), Fernando Muslera (Uruguay), Emmanuel Eboué (Ivory Coast), Koray Günter (Germany) and Lucas Ontivero (Argentina).
Naturally the best international players playing for Europe’s top clubs shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The power in soccer remains rooted in England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France, either from its own domestic players or its leagues drawing the top talent from Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, Colombia and the other top exporters of talent around the globe.
If anything it proves the strength of the field of 32 in Brazil. The FIFA Rankings are generally useless, but the only teams inside the Top 20 which didn’t qualify were Ukraine and Denmark. Outside of Nicklas Bendtner’s dumb haircuts and Daniel Agger’s tattoos, we’re not missing much here. However had France lost to Ukraine in the World Cup playoffs the Champions League participation number would have turned out much more skewed. On top of that, the South American teams which failed to qualify — Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay — generally don’t produce many players who wind up at the top teams in Europe.
With the possible exception of Bale, we don’t really have that one outlier type player, a true world star who plays for a weak national team, like George Weah did as the 1995 FIFA Player of the Year from Liberia. Ibrahimovic is that kind of player, but Sweden has played in plenty of tournaments during his career and mostly missed out on Brazil by drawing Portugal in the playoffs.
We can criticize Sepp Blatter’s FIFA for lots of things. The field at this summer’s World Cup — maybe through blind luck — ensures nearly all of the world’s best players, bar injury, will play in one tournament together and for that as fans we can be (temporarily) happy.