World Cup 2022 is almost upon us. Regardless of what you might think of the timing of the tournament or the issues of where it’s being played, if you look at it through a purely sporting lens (like FIFA president Gianni Infantino wants you to) the next month is likely to bring us the smorgasbord of footballing excellence that we expect from a World Cup.
The world’s biggest and brightest stars will be plying their trade in Qatar. There will be young and hungry players looking to make their mark on the global stage, like Serbia’s Dusan Vlahovic. There will be established superstars looking to cement their legacies, like Kylian Mbappe or Neymar. And, of course, there will be Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the two gods of the game for the last two decades, who will make one last run at immortality.
But for all this immense amount of talent, there’s just as much that won’t be at the tournament. Whether because their country didn’t qualify, they aren’t fit, or they simply weren’t picked to represent their team on the biggest stage, the group of players who will miss the world’s showpiece is as good as any group you could make from the ones that will be there.
Who are some of the biggest names to miss out? Here’s a sampling of the best.
We begin with the most in-form footballer in the world.
Erling Haaland is on a goalscoring pace that few in the sport have ever experienced. In 13 games for Manchester City in the Premier League this year, he’s scored a whopping 18 goals. That’s good for one every 57.8 minutes. It’s a blistering pace that puts him within shouting distance of Mohammed Salah’s record of 32 in a 38-game season — and perhaps even Andy Cole’s record of 34, which was achieved in a 42-game season. Add in five goals in four Champions League games, and the stats get even more dizzying.
Haaland is simply a force of nature. He finds every space that a defense gives him and can make finishes that would make your head spin. He’s already nabbed three hat tricks this season, including a magical performance in the Manchester Derby in which he tacked two assists onto his hattie.
The 22-year-old may truly be the best player in the world at the moment — but for all his greatness he couldn’t get Norway through qualifying. While he finished tied for second in his group with five goals, the Norwegians ultimately finished third, three points shy of Turkey for a spot in the playoff round. That will leave one of the more magical players in the world home for the tournament, perhaps in the hope that next cycle’s expanded tournament will afford him more of a chance to play on the game’s biggest stage.
Speaking of Salah, it’s been a heartbreaking year for him at the international level.
In February, Egypt worked their way through the African Cup of Nations to the final against Senegal. After 120 scoreless minutes, the Pharaohs fell in a shootout. Salah was likely assigned the fifth kick, but we’ll never know, because Senegal clinched the trophy before Egypt’s fifth taker stepped up. A month later saw a rematch between the two teams in the final round of CAF qualifying. After a flat-footed tie over two legs they again went to a shootout. This time Salah took his team’s first penalty — and missed. Senegal again came away victorious.
Salah’s had a mixed bag of a season. He’s only scored six times in the Premier League this year, but he also put up seven in the Champions League group stage. Either way, this is the last World Cup cycle of his prime, and he’ll be sitting home, which is a real shame for the neutral who could get to see the magic the winger can produce.
Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante were one of the driving forces behind France’s win at World Cup 2018. Pogba scored a goal in the final and was a creative force in midfield throughout the tournament. Kante brought constant energy and ball-winning ability, freeing Pogba to do his work.
Both midfielders will miss the tournament through injury. Kante has only played two games this year and hasn’t seen the field since August thanks to a hamstring issue. Pogba, in his zeal to get to Qatar to help defend the crown, ultimately cost himself a shot at a roster spot. After his much-ballyhooed return to Juventus as a free agent this summer, he tore his meniscus after the team’s first pre-season contest.
After weighing his options, he opted against immediate surgery, instead trying a more conservative rehab process. After five weeks, it took all of two training sessions to determine what one could’ve told him from the beginning — the rehab wasn’t working. He immediately went under the knife, but it became a race against time to get him ready for the tournament. He was never favored to win that race, and it became a foregone conclusion when he suffered a muscle injury during rehab a couple of weeks ago. Had he had surgery immediately he’d have had a much bigger margin for recovery, and might be the only person on this list who’s on it due to his own mistakes.
Maignan, on the other hand, spent last season proving himself one of the best goalkeepers in Europe as an integral part of AC Milan’s scudetto-winning squad. But he suffered a calf injury during the last international break and hasn’t played since, missing out on the chance to go to Qatar as Hugo Lloris’ understudy — and probable successor.
The failure of the reigning European champions to qualify for the World Cup for the second consecutive cycle was perhaps the biggest shock of the entire qualifying cycle. It leaves a lot of talented players on the couch this winter, but these three stand out the most.
Donnarumma is just a year removed from being named player of the tournament at Euro 2020. The year that followed was a bumpier one. He had a difficult time finding a team that would match his demands in free agency, and ended up having to split time with Keylor Navas at Paris Saint-Germain. He was very shaky at times, none more so than the Champions League Round of 16, when he made a critical mistake that helped kickstart Real Madrid’s second-leg comeback to eliminate PSG. He’s perhaps not quite the Buffon-level keeper some portray him as, he’s as solid a shot-stopper as you can find in the world. Just don’t ask him to kick the ball.
His PSG teammate Verratti continues to be one of the most understated midfielders in the world. He’s been making the Parisiens’ midfield tick for years now, justifying their decision to buy him straight out of Serie B in 2012. It’s incredible to think that he’ll only ever play in one World Cup after playing an important role in the midfield of Cesare Prandelli’s 2014 squad in Brazil.
Hopefully the same won’t be said about Chiesa when it’s all said and done. Even if Italy had qualified, it would’ve been a question whether or not the Juventus man would’ve been in the tournament. He’s only just come back from a grueling 10-month rehab after tearing his ACL in a game against Roma in January. He’s only had three sub appearances to get his legs under him since returning. When healthy, though, he’s one of the game’s most dynamic wingers, as he showed in a breakout performance at the Euros. He’ll be instrumental in Italy’s efforts to finally end their World Cup drought four years from now in North America.
We finish our list with the only player who’s been left out by coach’s decision.
Since leaving Chelsea for AC Milan, Tomori has blossomed into one of the best defenders in Serie A. A constant presence for the Rossoneri, He was a huge part of Milan’s first title in 10 years.
But his rise seems not to have intrigued England manager Gareth Southgate, who has declined to call up the 24-year-old not just for the World Cup, but hardly ever. Tomori only has three caps to his name, while players like Harry Maguire and John Stones continue to control the playing time at centerback.
Those two have 107 caps between them, but whether or not they deserve any more is highly debatable. Maguire’s transfer fee — Manchester United paid more for him than Juventus did for Matthijs de Ligt in the same window — has become something of an albatross, while Stones has never reached the heights expected of him when he arrived at Man City and was one of the main culprits in England’s embarrassing 4-0 home loss to Hungary inthe UEFA Nations League this summer.
And yet, Southgate insisted when he chose his side that England’s younger centerbacks haven’t “quite done enough to push the experienced ones out.”
That explanation straight-out ignores Tomori’s last three seasons, to say nothing of the extreme shortcomings of the defenders he did pick. If England fail to follow up their runner-up performance at the Euros with a similarly deep run in this World Cup, this defense will be one of the biggest reasons why — and Tomori could have given them a lot of help.
For a lot of players, the idea of getting injured in the last game or two before the World Cup break was the nightmare scenario. Unfortunately for Sadio Mane, that nightmare has become reality.
Mane was forced from Bayern Munich’s win over Werder Bremen on Nov. 8 with a leg injury. He was included on Senegal’s original roster regardless, and Senegal originally indicated that their star man would miss the “first games” of the tournament. But further scans have now ruled him out of the tournament entirely.
It’s a harsh blow for Mane, who in the last year has been instrumental for the reigning African champions. He scored the deciding penalty in both of Senegal’s shootouts against Egypt earlier this year, first to win AFCON and then to send his country to the World Cup. After winning everything he could at Liverpool, he moved to Bayern this year and has registered nine goals and four assists in 20 games between the Bundesliga and Champions League.
Without him, Senegal’s attack takes a huge step back, and the world misses out on seeing one of the best players in Africa — and the world — on the biggest stage.