The 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign has not yet reached its conclusion, but we are close to finding out the identities of all 32 nations that will contest for sport’s biggest prize in Russia next summer.
Twenty-three teams have sealed their passage, and the final nine spots will be decided in November. While that means we must wait until we know the full platter of participants, we do have a pretty long list of nations definitely not going.
We’ve perused that list of unfortunate countries and picked out the 20 best players you won’t be seeing sparkle in Russia come June. Any player who is still involved in the playoffs or still has a shot at making it via a group game is not eligible.
20. Hakan Calhanoglu, Turkey
Turkey were given a tough group to deal with, and their failure to emerge from it means Hakan Calhanoglu—one of the finest set-piece takers in world football—will be relaxing at home this summer, not participating at the World Cup.
19. Riyad Mahrez, Algeria
Shockingly, Algeria have accrued just one point from five qualifying games, meaning the Desert Foxes have never been in contention to reach Russia. It also means there’s no chance to build on 2014’s successes and no chance for Riyad Mahrez to put himself in that shop window.
18. Georginio Wijnaldum, Netherlands
Georginio Wijnaldum will never be the star on any team he plays on, but a guy such as the Liverpool man—who works incredibly hard, has a habit of showing up in big games and stands incredibly versatile—can quickly become a key man at a short-term tournament.
17. Stefan de Vrij, Netherlands
The 2014 World Cup kickstarted Stefan de Vrij’s career, as his magnificent performances for the Netherlands caught Lazio’s attention, allowing him to hop on up the ladder. He’s developed into a brilliant player whose quality will be missed next summer.
16. Christian Pulisic, USA
The United States’ remarkable failure to qualify for World Cup 2018 robs us of the chance to watch Christian Pulisic make his tournament bow and denies him the chance to make an important step in his maturation.
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Given he’s developed into a rather special player, taking on important roles for both his nation and Borussia Dortmund, that’s a real shame.
15. Andriy Yarmolenko, Ukraine
Pulisic’s new team-mate and wing-mate, Andriy Yarmolenko, will also miss next summer’s showpiece event, after Ukraine lost 2-0 to Croatia in their final group game and surrendered a playoff spot in the process.
14. Antonio Valencia, Ecuador
Ecuador have developed into a handy team and have impressed in recent Copa Americas, so to see them fall well short of qualification for the World Cup—thanks to a late nose-dive in form—was a real shock.
Even captain Antonio Valencia, who is still at the top of his game for Manchester United, couldn’t shake them out of their funk.
13. Virgil van Dijk, Netherlands
The eight months of 2017 that Virgil van Dijk has spent injured have hurt the Netherlands. The two losses sustained during the time he’s been injured—one of which was to Bulgaria—have essentially cost them a spot at the finals.
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The Dutch have big issues to sort out and Van Dijk’s absence during that stretch is not the sole reason the campaign fell apart. However, even in their unsteady state, having a player of his quality at the back could have been the difference between being eliminated and pipping Sweden to the playoffs.
12. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Armenia
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was always destined for this list as Armenia simply do not have the quality to compete over a long span in the UEFA zone—particularly when they land Poland, Denmark, Montenegro and Romania in their group.
11. Naby Keita, Guinea
There will be no sneak peak of new signing Naby Keita at the World Cup for Liverpool fans. Guinea have been eliminated from contention with a spare game, managing just three points from five outings, and that means the RB Leipzig man gets the summer off.
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The central midfielder has top-scored for his country in those five matches, netting twice, but he is battling impossible conditions as Guinea lack stars in most areas. He’s a complete, well-rounded presence in the centre, but he can only do so much.
10. Edin Dzeko, Bosnia & Herzegovina
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Edin Dzeko has spent the last year-and-a-half scoring at will for AS Roma, but he’s been unable to transfer that to the international stage for Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Five goals from 10 games in Group H seems alright on paper, but when you compare it to group-mate Romelu Lukaku’s 11, it becomes clear how far short he ended up.
9. David Alaba, Austria
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Austria’s propensity to disappoint and underwhelm seemingly knows no bounds. At no point were they in contention to qualify from Group D despite a late run that took them to a more acceptable points tally.
After failing to impress at Euro 2016 under the weight of expectation this won’t surprise too many, and it means their stars won’t experience a World Cup finals until at least 2022.
Chief among those names is David Alaba. He’s not been at his best for a while and that’s been problematic for his nation. Perhaps new Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes can restore him to his former glories.
8. Marek Hamsik, Slovakia
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Slovakia finished their qualifying campaign in second place in Group F with a respectable 18 points, but that wasn’t enough to secure a playoff spot; they ended up as the weakest second-placed team across all nine groups in the zone, so their journey ends here.
That means no spike-haired Marek Hamsik driving forward from midfield, splitting defences with long through balls and piercing top corners with venomous long-range strikes.
He’s long been by far the best player in the Slovakia setup and plays in the ideal position to make the difference for them. This time, they were a point shy.
7. Jan Oblak, Slovenia
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One of Jan Oblak’s final acts of this World Cup qualifying process was to chuck the ball carelessly to Kyle Walker deep into added time at Wembley Stadium and watch as his cross was bundled over the line by Harry Kane.
Slovenia only had an outside shot of reaching the play-offs going into the game and a draw wouldn’t have got them anywhere, but that’s a seriously sour note to end things on.
That act belies what a fantastic goalkeeper the Atletico Madrid man is, and the fact he’s not going to be in Russia next year robs the tournament of one of the world’s three best goalkeepers.
6. Miralem Pjanic, Bosnia & Herzegovina
One of the cheat codes available in international football is to have a world-class central midfielder. In fact, it’s half the battle, so if you have one you’re automatically in a good spot.
But Miralem Pjanic and Bosnia & Herzegovina failed to qualify from a difficult group (including Belgium and Greece) and that means we won’t witness the Juventus man’s wizardry in Russia.
5. Arturo Vidal, Chile
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One big name was destined to fall in the South American qualifying stage, and it turned out to be Chile.
Missing the World Cup is a horrific reality for the Copa America champions to face up to, and it means we won’t get to see their effervescent, exciting play on show next summer.
The centrepiece to that was Arturo Vidal; he was the heartbeat of an aggressive, yet incredibly intelligent, midfield with multiple moving parts.
Over the past 24 hours there’s been some confusion as to whether the 30-year-old has retired from international duty, with the latest suggestion being he’s still willing to answer the call.
Perhaps that means we will get one last blast of Vidal in 2022.
4. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Gabon
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It’s hardly a surprise that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang won’t be gracing a World Cup next summer, as the African qualifying section is brutal (and a touch unfair, in truth) and Gabon are not one of the four or five powerhouses on the continent.
In fact, their limitations were laid bare on home soil during the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, where they failed to clamber out of a group containing Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau.
Aubameyang is an elite striker, but without appropriate service, there’s only so much he can do.
3. Arjen Robben, Netherlands
Arjen Robben is still a phenomenal, top-tier player at age 33, but by the time the next World Cup rolls round in 2022, he most certainly won’t be.
This means Robben and World Cups are done; what a massive shame he wasn’t given the chance for a final flourish in Russia.
That he is still arguably the Netherlands’ best player is an indictment on their development of youth. Dutch football hasn’t felt this weak in decades, and they’re still relying on the older generation to dig them out of the gutter.
Even Robben couldn’t save them this time.
2. Gareth Bale, Wales
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Gareth Bale could only watch and wince on Monday evening as Wales lost to the Republic of Ireland 1-0 and forfeited their place in the play-offs to them. It was the worst month for the Real Madrid man to pick an injury up in.
This means no potential for a repeat Euro 2016 fairytale in Russia for the Dragons, who have the ideal makeup for tournament football: a stubborn defence, a workmanlike midfield and a world-class difference-maker in Bale up top…plus enough heart for a whole continent, never mind a country.
1. Alexis Sanchez, Chile
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No Arturo Vidal and no Chile also means the World Cup will be missing one of the world’s finest attacking stars in Alexis Sanchez.
He used the 2014 edition in Brazil to relaunch his career to an extent, winning the hearts of Arsenal fans and convincing the Gunners to spend what was, at the time, quite a sum of money on him.
Three-and-a-half years later, he’s held in such high esteem that many were shocked he didn’t get a Ballon d’Or nomination earlier this week. An exciting watch, a consistent performer and a passionate player when stepping on to the turf in Chile red, he’ll be perhaps the biggest miss of all in Russia.
All statistics via FIFA.com