Why Me? Top 2018 World Cup Snubs
Some have the golden boot. Some get booted. As the 2018 World Cup gets underway, fans are salivating on the sidelines with excitement, anticipating which team will emerge victorious and hoist soccer’s most precious prize, The FIFA World Cup trophy. Yet, for some players, sitting on the couch watching from their high-definition televisions instead of from the pitch’s sideline is a bitter reminder of how cut-throat soccer can be.
For these star players, missing out on a chance to play for their country is considered one of the greatest disappointments in all of soccer, second to only losing in the World Cup. To add salt to the wound, these famous World Cup snubs are going to have to patiently wait another four years for a shot at redemption. And as everyone knows in sports, four years is like an eternity. A lot can change. Here’s to 2022, boys.
1. Joe Hart
For Joe Hart, one of England’s most iconic goalkeepers, this snub really has to sting. He was passed over by not one or two other goalies. No, Mr. Hart was passed up in favor of three other goalkeepers. To make matters worse, Hart was a key contributor on England’s past two World Cup squads and was the starting keeper for England during the 2016 UEFA Euro Cup.
Outside of international play, Hart has proven to be one of the more dominant goalies in the English Premier League. He is tied for the most Golden Glove Awards, which is given to the goalie who finishes the season with the most shutouts, or as they say in soccer, “clean sheets.” During the 2011-12 season, Hart’s excellence in net helped his Manchester City squad capture their first Premier League championship. In 2014, Hart would go on to win another Premier League championship.
As history has shown us time and time again, no empire is safe forever, no dynasty invincible, and no king immune from rebellion and upheaval. For Hart and his outstanding play, history proved to correct. His 2017-18 campaign emphatically proved to be one of his worst. Hart’s season was marked by errors and a terrible save percentage in which he stopped just 57.1% of shots he faced. Basically, Hart’s presence in the net was as good as a cardboard cutout you see at the county fair, albeit a lot more expensive.
The timing of Hart’s poorest season in recent memory couldn’t have come at a worse time, as it coincides not only with the World Cup, but also the emergence of Burnley’s Nick Pope, who had the second-best save percentage in the Premier League (79.1%). To pour a bit more salt in Hart’s gaping wound, Hart was the starting goalie in England’s first nine World Cup qualifying matches. So, although Hart will not be on the field in Russia, his impact will definitely be felt.
With the 2022 World Cup a full four years ahead of us and Hart being 31, his window to represent England on soccer’s biggest stage may have officially closed. To say his playing career is over would be flat-out wrong, but playing for the national team is a whole other beast where the competition is stingier and roster spots are more coveted than gold.
Despite the obvious frustration and displeasure with the manager’s decision to exclude Hart from the roster, Hart has remained positive and wished his squad the best of luck, saying that he was “gutted” to be left off the team, while simultaneously encouraging his (former) team to go out onto the pitch with “no fear” and “smash it.”
2. Mario Gotze
The year is 2014. Germany is tied with Argentina in extra time in the World Cup final held in Brazil. The game has been intense. Neither team budging. Neither team’s offensive weapons able to provide much spark. The world’s best scorer and most elite offensive weapon, Lionel Messi, has been held scoreless. Despite numerous chances for each team, the score remains 0-0 at the end of regulation. A full 90 minutes have gone by and neither team is clutching soccer’s greatest prize.
Enter Mario Gotze, a legend forever etched in German soccer lore. After receiving a beautiful ball from Andre Schurrle, Gotze calmly collected the cross off of his chest and, as charging Argentinian goalie Sergio Romero attempted to cut off the angle, swiftly booted the ball off his left foot and into the back right side of the net. Just like that, Gotze placed Germany atop the soccer world and solidified himself as one of the world’s best talents.
This 2014 World Cup, this one shot precisely guided off of Gotze’s boot, this exuberant German squad and exasperated Argentinian squad, illustrate just how quickly fortunes can change; how rapidly glory can vanish into a pit of unimaginable agony.
Gotze, the hero of this story, the hero that Germany so desperately needed, also saw his fortunes turn from World Cup legend to spectator for the 2018 World Cup. Some people believe that the immense pressure Gotze surely felt after clinching the World Cup was too much for him to bear. Maybe Gotze reached the pinnacle of his career at that exact moment his kick sailed into the net, and anything after that — any goal, any title, any team or personal success — would simply pale in comparison.
Or maybe it’s the result of the well-lubricated German soccer machine constantly producing top talent from a young age. Top talent that is eager to prove its worth and replace any player who isn’t playing at 100%. Maybe, Gotze’s downfall (and we are talking a relative downfall here) can be attributed to an illness — later revealed to be myopathy — which has caused him to miss games and play soccer with a cloud of fatigue looming over his head.
Whatever the reason may be, the result is clear and shocking: Germany’s hero and one of their brightest stars from four years ago is not going to Russia with the team, and the light that promised to shine so bright for Gotze has been severely dimmed. There is still hope for his career to be resurrected, especially with him and his medical team identifying the underlying health issues that plagued him these past few seasons. Even if Gotze never again does make it to soccer’s grandest stage, his impact will never be forgotten.
3. Karim Benzema
He’s a deft scorer, has a cannon for a leg and is a physical specimen who can take over the game in an instant. He’s also a massive distraction to his team and has been at the heart of numerous scandals and controversies. None of which has helped his reputation or gained him too many international supporters. Karim Benzema, however, is also excellent at ignoring them and playing it off in the most-excellent, nonchalant fashion.
What Karim cannot ignore is his ongoing feud with French national team manager Didier Deschamps. This feud, this public display of tension, has no doubt harmed Benzema’s reputation and most certainly was the nail in the coffin that saw him not receive a World Cup invite. Benzema’s snub shouldn’t come as a surprise to most, as his last appearance for the French national team came in 2015.
Originally a member of the French national team and participant in the 2014 World Cup, Benzema fell out of favor with the team and was temporarily suspended due to allegations of an internal harassment involving his former teammate Mathieu Valbuena. Obviously, this didn’t sit well with the national team or the general public. Apparently, this was no ordinary schoolyard-style bullying. This was a case of serious extortion, in which the French police found themselves involved. Not a good look, Karim.
As a byproduct of his suspension, Benzema, a devout Muslim, accused the national team’s head coach, Didier Deschamps, of racism — succumbing to the pressures from the French people to not play their star Muslim striker. This, without question, made their already fragile relationship even worse. Benzema, while playing for the national team, also failed to help his tattered reputation by refusing to sing along to France’s national anthem. Benzema claimed that the anthem, originally a fight song for the French, was too violent and opposed his political views.
Clearly, Benzema and the French have been butting heads (is this a French thing, Zinedine Zidane?) for quite some time and any chance for Benzema to smooth things over is as good as gone. While his French team flies to Russia in an attempt to conquer the soccer world, Benzema will watch from afar, nestling comfortably against his super model girlfriend Cora Gauthier.
Fortunately for Karim, he has found myriad successes playing alongside Real Madrid’s most lethal player and scorer, Cristiano Ronaldo. This high-scoring tandem has brought huge success to Real Madrid, and Karim seems very content playing alongside arguably the world’s best player.
4. Radja Nainngolan
The Belgian soccer team may have made the most head-scratching snub of the year by deciding to leave of Radja Nainngolan, a generational talent that fearlessly roams the field from box to box and plays the game with a tangible passion, on the sidelines. Seriously, this guy is the human form of the Tasmanian Devil, and for him to be sitting on the couch rather than shredding defenses and teams on the pitch is an absolute travesty. A first-rate travesty.
For Radja, however, this World Cup snub is an all-too familiar experience and is the second snub of his impressive, lengthy career. Back in 2014, Radja also fell short of playing alongside his Belgian brothers in Brazil. This time, however, would prove to be Radja’s final snub, as shortly after the news Radja promptly announced via his Instagram that he’d be retiring from international play and the Belgian national team. Apparently, and understandably, there’s only so much unwarranted disrespect Mr. Nainngolan can take.
Known as a player who leaves it all on the pitch, Radja has statistically been one of Europe’s best defensive midfielders who also flashes a propensity to score and create offense. When he’s not taking a drag of his cigarette — a highly-publicized issue between Belgian national coach Roberto Martinez and Radja — he can be easily identified on the pitch by his exotic haircut and eclectic collection of highly-visible tattoos, including a prominent rose that covers the vast majority of his neck.
These flashy tattoos aside, Radja has proven to be one of Europe’s most consistent players and was a key cog in Roma’s run to the Champions League semifinals. Seriously, this guy has a tireless work ethic and never stops. Now factor in that the guy’s a smoker and you have an absolute physical specimen.
Fortunately for Radja, although to him this may seem like no form of a silver lining, fans have displayed great amounts of displeasure with coach Martinez and can be seen at games unfurling massive banners supporting Radja and calling for Martinez’s head. Ok, not literally, but the Red Devil faithful are far from pleased with Martinez’s roster decision.
Yes, it has been well documented that the Belgian team has a logjam at midfield and there are players with almost as much skill as Radja without the age or off-field antics he possesses. But what those players don’t have is as much heart and determination as Radja, something he wears on his sleeve night in and night out. He’s a ball of energy and passion that knows how to raise the intensity and set the edge, two crucial X- factors that could decide games in the World Cup.
5. Mauro Icardi
Another player who was left off of his national team’s roster due to complications off the field rather than his on-field performance, Mauro Icardi has been able to rack up goals for Inter Milan but hasn’t been successful at avoiding the pitfalls of scandals and off-field drama.
Known as a gifted striker, Icardi is currently the captain of Inter Milan and led them to their first Champions League appearance in seven years by netting a league-high 29 goals. For Italian goalies, stopping a shot from Icardi was about as hard as finding a needle in a haystack. The guy was phenomenal and embarrassed some of the world’s top talent in net on a nightly basis and went on to win the Capocannoniere, or for those readers who are less fluent in Italian, the head gunner award, which is given annually to Italy’s Serie A’s top goal scorer.
Clearly, goal scoring isn’t something that Icardi struggles with, and most teams in the world would be salivating at the opportunity to have this coveted striker in their lineup. What Icardi does struggle with, however, is avoiding off-field controversies and has a somewhat tumultuous relationship with the world’s best soccer player and compatriot, Lionel Messi.
Making enemies with the almost god-like figure and international icon Messi just doesn’t seem to be the most advantageous of decisions. The reasons behind these two stars’ conflict is still up in the air and remains a relative mystery, but according to legendary Argentinian striker Hernan Crespo, “The [Argentinian] national team is now made up of a magic circle…Icardi is not part of the circle and therefore, unfortunately, he will not go to the World Cup in Russia.”
On one hand, you’ve got to feel bad for the 25-year-old star Icardi who, in the prime of his career, has been consistently neglected from the Argentinian national team. On the other hand, however, Icardi seems to have an inclination towards burning bridges with his teammates and fellow countryman, so scraping up any amount of sympathy for this guy may be hard to come by.
Fortunately for Icardi, he still has his age on his side and by the time the next World Cup rolls around, some of the tension between Icardi and his country may have subsided, as well as the play of superstar Messi. Only time will tell when this impressive talent will get his shot on the national stage again.
6. Marcos Alonso
Consistently ranked as one of the top defenders in England’s vaunted Premier League, Marcos Alonso remains a curious mystery that many soccer fans can’t seem to solve. Despite his success as an offensive-minded defenseman, Alonso can’t seem to break through onto the Spanish national team.
Despite being one of the impact players in Chelsea’s 2016-17 Premier League-winning season and being the top-scoring defender in the Premier League during the 2017-18 season, Alonso just can’t seem to capture the much-needed attention of the Spanish national team. To put things in perspective, fellow Spaniard and Premier League rival, Nacho Monreal, who was selected for Spain’s World Cup squad, was outscored and outplayed by Alonso during the 2017-18 season.
Alonso, 27, has played in only one match for his country’s national team and the future, at least in regard to his chances at playing for Spain, seems to be in a constant state of flux. Sure, he’s in the prime of his career and his future still looks very bright, but the inexplicable amount of times Alonso has been passed-up on really plants a strong seed of doubt in the minds of soccer fans worldwide.
Alonso, to his credit, has kept a level head and positive attitude through it all, suggesting that his lack of selection may be, in part, due to his election to play in England rather than in his native Spain. The Premier League, widely considered to be the world’s most competitive, exciting, and famous soccer league, clearly is the best of the best, the creme de la creme, yet for Spain and their coaching committee, there may be a special emphasis placed and slight bias towards those players who decide to stay in Spain and play for their country’s La Liga. At least that’s what Alonso believes.
Speaking about the Spanish team’s election to keep Alonso at home, Alonso said, “It isn’t that they are valued less [players not in La Liga], but it is true they aren’t known as well as those who play in Spain. In the end, it is natural to monitor local competitions more closely.” This seems like an awfully nice response from Alonso, considering there is no way on earth that Alonso’s play in the world’s top league wasn’t monitored closely.
If Spain does go onto win the 2018 World Cup, all will be well in Spain and the coaches and players will be hailed as national heroes. Their decision to keep the burgeoning star Alonso at home will not be questioned. If, however, Spain falters, the floodgates will open. The outcry of criticism and critique will poor in, and no doubt a good portion of that will be centered on the election to keep Alonso off the final roster.
7. Leroy Sane
Leroy Sane is another massive snub on this list due to a few complicated issues. So let’s get a bit nosy and dive right into why the leaving behind of Sane is just insane. Yes, there were two puns in that sentence and you will understand them more in a minute. Back to business now.
A gifted winger who holds dual citizenship with France and Germany, Sane has emerged as one of Europe’s most talented young players. In the 2017-18 German youngster was named the Professional Footballers’ Association Young Player of the Year award winner. In layman’s terms, the award given to the top player in England aged 23 or younger. En route to winning this prestigious award, Sane provided his club with a constant offensive spark that helped Manchester City capture the Premier League title. So far so good for the 23-year-old.
What wasn’t so sweet for Sane was a nasal congestion issue that perpetually blocked his airway and forced him to miss considerable playing time. To alleviate this problem and get back to full strength, Sane opted for surgery. The surgery was successful, but the timing of it couldn’t have been much worse for Sane. As Sane was on the couch icing his face, his German compatriots were battling in the FIFA Confederations Cup (they would emerge victorious in a 1-0 victory of Chile).
The Confederations Cup is the precursor tournament to the World Cup and his held in the host country one year before the World Cup kicks off. The tournament is essentially a testing ground for the host nation to iron out any kinks with their planning, stadiums, or any other logistics. The winner receives nothing more than some bragging rights and a chunk of change. Yet, this tournament provides something invaluable to the players and coaches, and that comes in the form of the time players get to spend on the pitch together, gelling as a squad, forming important chemistry, and hashing out roster decisions.
And for Sane, missing this tournament may have been the final straw to break the camel’s back. This could have been Sane’s shot at redemption, vindicating his reputation from previous disappointments while representing Germany on the international stage. Performances where the gifted scorer and ball handler severely underwhelmed his coaches and fans, failing to put the ball in the back of the net and garnering only one assist.
The silver lining for Sane is his age and high level of play at the club level, which, in theory, should eventually translate to success at the national level. Hopefully his nose issue has been resolved and any nerves that have prohibited him from playing well for Germany have calmed down and in 2022 Leroy Sane can display to all the world what he’s truly capable of.
One of the favorites to win the 2018 World Cup, Brazil is another one of those teams with an absolutely stacked roster. The goalie position on this team is no different, and for Valencia’s star goalkeeper Neto, this snub no doubt stings and comes as a big surprise.
Neto originally began his career in Brazil before moving onto Europe to play in Italy’s Serie A. He originally began his European career playing for Fiorentina before moving onto Italian powerhouse Juventus. Here, his athleticism and goalkeeping abilities weren’t properly showcased, as Neto found himself backing up Italian legend and World Cup winner Gianluigi Buffon. Yes, this was probably an amazing learning experience, but the student can only sit patiently in the classroom for so long. Finally, after two seasons of keeping Juventus’s bench nice and warm, Neto packed his bags and moved countries, changed leagues, and became a starter for Valencia in Spain’s La Liga. This moved proved to be wildly successful.
In his first season as Valencia’s starting netminder, Neto established himself as one of La Liga’s most productive goalies, all while playing for a less than stellar team. Let’s face it, La Liga is mainly composed of the Messi-Ronaldo show. This two headed monster gobbles up most of the media’s attention and their teams are primarily in position to win the league year after year. For some perspective, since the 2004 season, only one team not named Barcelona or Real Madrid has won the league. That honor goes to Atletico Madrid who claimed the title in the 2013-14 season.
During that impressive first season, Neto led his team to a surprising fourth place finish, which, considering the lack of talent outside of La Liga’s top three teams, is a feat on its own. Neto faced the third-most shots in the league and was tied for fifth in the number of clean sheets recorded (shut outs). For a guy who was on the receiving end of a barrage of shots, Neto never failed to impress and keep his team in the game. He also was third in La Liga for wins and sixth in minutes played. Work. Horse.
So, why won’t Neto be joining Brazil on their journey to Russia? The answer isn’t fully clear. Part of it can be attributed to Neto’s lack of experience on the senior level for his national team. He simply hasn’t logged enough playing time at that level and appears to be caught in a vicious cycle. He doesn’t have enough minutes so Brazil can’t call him up, which further reduces his chance of earning those much needed minutes and experience. Besides the experience factor, Neto was fighting for the third and final spot on the team against a goalkeeper who had a strong relationship with head coach Tite and plays in Brazil. It appears a bit of nepotism has sadly played into Brazil’s decision to keep Neto at home for this World Cup.
9. Anthony Martial
The French national team is full of talent. They are on a short list of team’s who are capable of winning the World Cup. Anthony Martial, a player with immense talent, surprisingly couldn’t secure his spot on the roster in what appears to be an all-too-familiar narrative. Like other players mentioned on this list, Martial just oozes with talent. Talent that sometimes goes into hibernation at just the wrong time. For reference, check out German striker Mario Gotze’s relative fall from grace. To say that Anthony Martial has fallen from grace would be untrue. To say that the timing of his scoreless streak, injuries, and demotion from starter to bench — as the World Cup approached and the French began to formalize their roster — was inopportune would be an understatement.
Martial came into professional soccer with guns-a-blazing. He started off at Monaco and proved to be worth every penny. This earned him a promotion (transfer) to English dynasty Manchester United. The transfer fee was astronomically high and was met with both fanfare stemming from the excitement and youth that Martial brought to ManU and criticism due to his unprecedented transfer fee.
Despite the noise and pressure a young Martial faced, he managed to lead a successful first year campaign at ManU and would go on to win the Golden Boy Award, given to Europe’s best under 21 soccer player. Martial’s success proved to be somewhat transient and his numbers began to decline and injuries began to pile up. These injuries caused Martial to miss considerable playing time in the season leading up to the World Cup, forcing the French manager Didier Dechamps to inevitably leave Martial off the squad.
Off the field, Martial has raised some eyebrows with controversies surrounding his personal life. Martial’s coaches also believe that these off-field controversies have contributed to the decline of his stellar on-field play. Surely, if Martial can resolve his off-field problems and stay healthy, he will be a force to be reckoned with in the future. At age 22, playing in a World Cup (or two) doesn’t seem to be so far out of reach, especially with a few of Martial’s issues not relating to his athletic abilities.
10. Alexandre Lacazette
The French keep on keeping on with the head-scratching moves. This time in the form of snubbing Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette, an absolute stud on the offensive side of the field who has performed well for the French national team throughout his career.
Lacazette put up impressive numbers for his 2017-18 campaign, leading Arsenal in goals during his first season playing in the Premier League. On the national side of things, Lacazette has appeared in 16 games for France, notching three goals. Under normal circumstances, or playing for a country that didn’t have so much explosive talent at striker, Lacazette would be a lock to make the team and would more likely than not be said country’s best player. The luck of the draw proved to be not so lucky, however. Coach Didier Dechamps was forced to make some tough calls and one of them was leaving this potent striker off the team.
If France does indeed falter during the World Cup due to a lack of offense or experience, fingers will undoubtedly be pointed at Dechamps. Leaving behind high-caliber players such as Lacazette, Martial, and Benzema can only prove two things: your team is so amazing that it should win the World Cup, or the manager is an idiot. Soon enough the world will know which of the two it was.