After Argentina’s World Cup triumph in 2022, football fans around the globe used this latest addition to Lionel Messi’s trophy cabinet as the final proof that he has become the greatest player of all time.
Meanwhile, this opinion brings an interesting phenomenon into the conversation – some of the greatest players to have graced the football pitch have never won any title or silverware with their national team.
Indeed, Messi’s achievements with Argentina were fairly sparse before winning the World Cup, but not non-existent.
Read on to discover six of the sport’s best players to never win a tournament with their country.
1. Gareth Bale
Arguably one of the best footballing talents to emerge from Wales, Gareth Bale certainly had a tough time dragging the rest of his national team to victory in any international titles before his retirement in early 2023.
An outstandingly fast and technically capable footballer, Bale’s international career saw him help his nation to the greatest sustained period of success in their history, including:
- The Euro 2016 semi-finals
- The Euro 2020 knockout stage
- World Cup qualification in 2022
With a highly respectable collection of stunning goals and blistering runs down the side of the pitch burned into the memories of fans, a quiet hope was often reserved for Bale to win an international title of some kind, though this never came true.
2. Johan Cruyff
Like Messi, Johan Cruyff’s name is a mainstay in the conversation for the best player in history.
Also, like Messi, Cruyff’s enormous collection of silverware won through club football significantly outweighs his international achievements.
The Dutchman had an extremely decorated career in football that saw him become a three-time winner of the Ballon d’Or, and a nine-time champion of the Dutch league’s top tier. These accolades surely sealed his fate as one of football’s best adherents, along with his famous, chopping skill move eponymously named the “Cruyff Turn”.
Regardless of his monumental stature in the game, Cruyff never won any titles or silverware with the Dutch national side, despite scoring and assisting three goals respectively to reach the 1974 World Cup final – a performance that won him the Golden Ball.
3. Luka Modric
Only in the world of football does someone start to realistically consider retirement as early as 30 years old.
Luka Modric was certainly not one of those players, as his footballing ability has done nothing but age like a fine wine the older he gets.
The Croatian midfield maestro is highly regarded for his technical ability and vision – the partnership of which has given him his famous ability to register the most creative of assists, and in large numbers.
Since joining Real Madrid in 2012, Modric has won almost every club-level accolade a player could dream of, including:
- Five Champions League titles
- Five FIFA Club World Cup titles
- Three La Liga titles
Modric even won the prestigious Ballon d’Or in 2018 but has never managed to win any silverware with the Croatian national team, despite reaching the World Cup final in 2018 and semi-final in 2022.
4. Andriy Shevchenko
Scoring a respectable 26 goals in 40 World Cup qualification games, Andriy Shevchenko is another example of a player who failed to drag his national team of Ukraine to any international titles.
Shevchenko is one of Ukraine’s best footballers of all time, showing himself as a fearsome striker throughout his career.
He’s most known for his time at AC Milan, where he racked up achievements such as:
- 2004 Ballon d’Or winner
- 2003/04 Champions League title with AC Milan
- Top scorer during Milan’s 2003/04 Serie A championship season
- 2003/04 Italian cup winner
Despite the Ukrainian’s illustrious club career, his success never translated to the national side, and he retired empty-handed in this regard.
5. Gary Lineker
Gary Lineker was a player who shone in the league and for the England national team, yet never won anything to show for the latter.
Although Lineker has scored more World Cup goals than any other Englishman (10), neither the Euros nor the World Cup ever provided him with silverware.
His pace, finishing, and movement in the box kept him at the top of his game and led him to score 38 goals in his first and only season at Everton, in 1986/87, before heading off to the World Cup to continue his prolific scoring regimen.
Overall, Lineker scored 48 goals for England in a total of 80 appearances while making it all the way to the World Cup semi-final in 1990 without winning anything at the international level.
6. Robin Van Persie
Another legend of Dutch football to make the list, Robin Van Persie was one of the greatest strikers to play the game and, surprisingly, never won a title with his national team.
Van Persie had an extremely productive football career that spanned almost exclusively English and Dutch football clubs. During this time, he was defined by his unique ability to strike a football, immaculate volleys, and creative finishing – every fan knows that header from the 2010 World Cup.
Painfully, Van Persie has stood in every place on the World Cup’s metaphorical podium except the victors’ spot – he played in the Dutch teams that were runners-up in the 2010 World Cup, as well as third in the 2014 tournament, without ever lifting the trophy.