The World Cup is billed as the grand stage for the best in the world to put their talents on display, but the 2014 competition won't have its full-strength cast. A rash of injuries has wiped out a host of would-be World Cup stars, while a failure for some nations to qualify and some managers' personal preferences have prevented a handful of other household names from taking their place under the Brazilian spotlight.
To that end, we compiled a Best XI and a frighteningly deep bench sampling of the high-caliber players who won't be participating in the 2014 World Cup:
Zlatan Ibrahimović, Sweden - The electrifying, eccentric Ibra scored 36 goals for Paris Saint-Germain this season and brought his national team almost to the brink of qualification almost entirely on the strength of his creativity. A Cristiano Ronaldo hat trick in the second leg of a play-in matchup (in which Ibrahimovic scored two of his own) robbed Sweden of a World Cup spot and the world of a chance to see a magician at work.
Radamel Falcao, Colombia - Coach José Pekerman left his countrymen in suspense until the last possible moment, releasing his final 23-man roster mere hours short of the deadline. The reason was presumably questions about the Monaco star forward’s recovery from a January ACL tear. Falcao is one of the most lethal scorers in the world, but the injury suffered against a fourth-tier team in a domestic cup match has prevented him from leading the highly touted Cafeteros.
Gareth Bale, Wales - England would probably be willing to pay well more than the record $100 million-plus transfer fee that sent Bale to Real Madrid from Tottenham if it meant bringing the lightning-fast forward to the Three Lions. Bale isn’t just a volume scorer (24 total goals), but comes up biggest when the stage is brightest. He notched the decider in both the Copa Del Rey and Champions League finals.
Franck Ribery, France - Though Les Bleus were a disaster during Ribery’s one World Cup as the squad’s key player, there’s no denying that he is one of the world’s most important players. The Bayern Munich midfielder finished third for the Ballon d’Or and was named Bundesliga player of the year in 2013. Ribery is an exhilarating creator who is equally skilled at distributing and finishing (10 goals and 10 assists in 22 appearances or Bayern last season). His recovery from lingering back issues came up short and he was scratched on Friday.
Kevin Strootman, Netherlands - The eyes of European soccer are fixated on the Roma’s 24-year-old commanding central midfielder. Even after suffering an ACL injury in March, he’s still one of most coveted properties in Europe. Manchester United has reportedly been plying for his services for years, with some dubbing him the potential “Dutch Roy Keane.” Strootman is stout in the middle and excellent at setting up teammates for scores. Known for his leadership, Strootman served as the Dutch captain at just 22, the Oranje’s youngest skipper in 105 years.
Marco Reus, Germany - Reus was spectacular for Dortmund last season, leading the team in assists and finishing second in goals, but a sprained ankle in Germany’s final pre-Cup friendly against Armenia spoiled his opportunity to star for the favored side. He’s a tactical finisher who is especially dangerous on set pieces. Brazil was meant to be his coming out party to join the upper echelon of world stars.
Theo Walcott, England - Walcott is relentless in his pace moving forward, but an ACL tear in January crushed his World Cup hopes. He scored or assisted on 10 goals this season for the Gunners before his injury. Trust the master, Lionel Messi, who called Walcott, “one of the most dangerous players I’ve ever played against.”
Filipe Luis, Brazil - Luis has been as steady as they come at left back for Atletico Madrid, averaging 33 appearances over the past three La Liga seasons. He was a key member of an Atletico defense that gave up just 26 goals in 38 games en route to a domestic title. Luis’ form in La Liga and the Champions League were so strong that it seemed possible he’d crack his way into Brazil’s thoroughly entrenched back line. Brazil manager Luis Felipe Scolari apparently had other ideas, leaving him off the final 23.
Neven Subotic, Serbia - Born in the former Yugoslavia and raised in Utah and Florida, Subotic had the choice of representing the U.S., Bosnia or Serbia at the senior level. He chose the one team of the three that failed to qualify for the World Cup. Subotic has been a rock at center back a Dortmund squad that is among the best in the world in recent years. Had he chosen differently, his journey back to full form after a November PCL tear would be one of the more interesting plot lines for the USMNT.
Ashley Cole, England - Cole has been a mainstay at his position for what seems like forever. But England manager Roy Hodgson wanted to emphasize youth on his back line. To wit, he has more caps (107) than six of the seven defenders on the 23-man roster. A mid-season injury didn’t help his chances, but Cole can still be a top-flight defender. Chelsea had 10 clean sheets in the 17 matches in which Cole played this season.
Petr Cech, Czech Republic - No conversation about the world’s best goalkeeper is complete without Cech’s name being mentioned. In his 10th season between the pipes for Chelsea, Cech tied for most clean sheets in the Premier League. Cech was stout in qualifying for his country, allowing only nine goals in 10 matches. Even if the Czechs had found the offense to qualify, a late-season shoulder injury may have kept out of the Cup regardless.
Landon Donovan, USA - It would have been unfathomable four years ago in the wake of his tournament-saving goal against Algeria that Donovan would be a healthy scratch from Jurgen Klinsmann’s final 2014 roster, and for some, it still is. Even with the omission, Donovan may still be the face of American soccer. He’s scored more goals than any other American in international play (57) and MLS history (137 regular season goals and 22 postseason goals). Most assumed a fourth World Cup was a given. Not Klinsmann.
Carlos Tevez, Argentina - With his marauding, aggressive attack, Tevez would seem to be the perfect complement to Lionel Messi’s precision. But El Apache has been absent from his national team roster since the 2011 Copa America. Tevez scored two goals against Mexico to send Argentina to the 2010 quarterfinal. He’s also scored 31 goals for his domestic clubs in the past two seasons. Tevez’s continued exclusion is attributable simply to coach Alejandro Sabella’s personal preference.
Robert Lewandowski, Poland - A world-class finisher who led the Bundesliga with 20 goals for Dortmund, but struggled in qualifying. The Polish finished fourth in a comparatively weak European group.
Carlos Vela, Mexico - A versatile and prolific attacking midfielder with 42 goals in the past three seasons for Real Sociedad, Vela has refused overtures from El Tri since 2011 due to bad blood presumably stemming from suspension for partying.
Christian Benteke, Belgium - The 23-year-old ultra-athletic striker had 29 goals in two seasons at Aston Villa but won’t be back from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles until October.
Francesco Totti, Italy - Even after retiring from international play in 2007, Totti was touted as a possible selection for the Azzurri in South Africa and Brazil. The 37-year-old still can perform at a world-class level.
Giuseppe Rossi, Italy - The U.S.-born Rossi missed out on the Azzurri's final cut for the second straight World Cup, even though he had returned to fitness after a January knee injury that was his third long-term injury in the last two years.
Álvaro Saborío, Costa Rica - Saborío led the Ticos with eight goals in qualifying and has reached double digits in goals for Real Salt Lake in each of the last four seasons. A foot fracture suffered in training in the build-up to Brazil has cost him his tournament.
Samir Nasri, France - To the uninitiated, it might be a shock that a key cog in two of the past three Premier League titles would be omitted from the French roster. The fact is, no one close to the situation, including Nasri himself, expected him to make the team. This was not a decision based on ability, as when he’s on Nasri is an elite facilitator. But French coach Didier Deschamps didn’t see enough of that skill when Nasri suited up for Les Bleus to outweigh the negatives of Nasri’s occasional selfishness and bad behavior.
Rafael van der Vaart, Netherlands - Poor Rafael has just had the worst World Cup luck. Nagging injuries stunted his play in 2006. He was a footnote to one of 2010’s most notable stories, notching less than an hour of playing time in his country’s final five matches after being replaced in the lineup by Arjen Robben’s return from injury. Last week he suffered a calf injury in training that will keep him out of the 2014 Cup. The Dutch will miss his stellar passing -- Van der Vaart has led his domestic squad in assists three of the past four years.
Andros Townsend, England - Hodgson’s youth movement would likely have included the 22-year-old Tottenham midfielder, who provides a pace and frenzy that the aging England attack sorely lacks. An April ankle injury will force the Three Lions to wait until 2018 for Townsend’s services in a World Cup.
Riccardo Montolivo, Italy - The steady, experienced defensive midfielder and AC Milan captain broke his shinbone in a warm up match against Ireland.
Luis Montes, Mexico - Montes showed his value as an attacking midfielder on May 31 with a spectacular Golazo from outside the box in a friendly against Ecuador but broke both of the bones in his right shin less than two minutes later.
Gaël Clichy, France - At 28, Clichy has been a fixture at left back in the Premier League for more than a decade and was a member of the France squad in 2010 and at the 2012 Euros. Deschamps left him off the squad in favor of 20-year-old Lucas Digne.
Daniel Agger, Denmark - The Danish captain and Liverpool vice-captain has given the Reds a steady center back to build from in more than 200 appearances since 2005. Denmark finished second in a qualifying group that only saw one team, Italy, move on to the final.
John Terry, England - At 33, Terry may still be one of the best central defenders in the Premier League. Under normal circumstances, Terry would most likely be an exception to Hodgson’s youth movement. But Terry retired from international football in 2012 prior to hearings on accusations that he used racial slurs against another player. Hodgson has said he didn’t even try to coax Terry back into red and white.
Bryan Oviedo, Costa Rica - The 24-year-old appeared to be a rising star at left back for Everton, starting eight straight matches before suffering horrific break of his tibia and fibula in January. He’s nearly recovered, but lacked the opportunity to gain the fitness for a national team call-up.
Victor Valdés, Spain - There are probably only three or four countries in the world for which Valdés wouldn’t start. Valdés has made more than 500 appearances over 10 years for Barcelona, at one point going 896 minutes this season without conceding a goal. Iker Casillas keeps him off the pitch for Spain and an ACL tear knocked him off the roster entirely for 2014.
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