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The 9 Biggest Underachieving Superstars in the History of the World Cup

by: Esteban On  Tuesday, June 3, 2014

world cup underachievers

Every World Cup has its share of breakout stars. In South Africa in 2010, for example, Uruguay’s veteran forward Diego Forlán established himself as one of the greatest players in the world, and Thomas Müller made it clear that he was the future of German soccer.

However, for every unexpected brilliant performance, there is always at least one epic disappointment. Every four years, country’s place all their hopes on one star player only to be let down. Maybe the pressure gets to them, or maybe the superstars get worn down by the long club season. But it always happens.

Today, as we get ready for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, we present you this list of the most underachieving superstar players in the history of the prestigious tournament. Shockingly, it includes some of the biggest names in the history of the game.

Like who? Well, take a look.


9. Tie: Alan Shearer & Ruud van Nistelrooy

van nistlerooy alan shearer

Coming in at #9 we have…a tie? Seriously?

Yes, seriously. I’m not trying to cheat and squeeze in an extra player. Alan Shearer and Ruud van Nistelrooy really do have similar histories. Both are among the greatest strikers their respective countries ever produced, and had their opportunities to appear in the World Cup limited by forces beyond their control.

However, both also failed to impress when they actually did play. And for that reason, I’ve put them on the list, together, at #9.

Shearer, of course, is the Premier League’s all-time leading goal scorer. In fact, his 260 career goals put him 72 ahead of the guy in second place. Which is a lot. However, England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, when Shearer was 24. And in 1998, when he was 28 and presumably still in his prime, the legendary English striker netted just two of his team’s seven goals in four games. And after that he never played in the tournament again.

As for Van  Niestelrooy, he scored 249 goals in his club career, which included stints in the EPL (Man U), Liga (Real Madrid), and Bundesliga (Hamburger SV). More impressively, he is the fourth-highest scorer in the history of the UEFA Champions League, with 56 tallies. However, the Dutch failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup when he was 26, and he got left off the 2010 squad when he was 32. So his only World Cup appearance came in 2006…and he scored just once for the offensively challange Oranje.

So to sum things up on Shearer and Nistelrooy: 523 total club goals between them, but just three goals in limited opportunities at the World Cup.

Talk about disappointing.


8. Hugo Sanchez

8 hugo sanchez mexicao - world cup all-time underperformers

Coming in at #8 we have Hugo Sanchez, easily the greatest Mexican player of all time. From 1981 to 1992, with Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid, the guy racked up 272 goal (253 in league play), and in 1989-90 he tied the single season record with 38—all scored with just a single touch.

Unfortunately, Sanchez was just never as effective in the World Cup.

To be fair, like Shearer and Niestelrooy, Sanchez had his opportunities limited for forces beyond his control. Mexico did not qualify for the World Cup in 1982 and 1990, and he most certainly would have been on those teams if they had. However, he did play in 1978 (age 20), 1986 (age 28)—on home soil—and again in 1994 (age 36), for a total of eight games. And in those eight games, he scored just one goal.




7. Kaka

7 kaka brazil - world cup all-time underperformers

Kaka in his prime was one of the most dangerous players in the game. An attacking midfielder by trade, he was just as likely to set goals up as score them. He scored 70 goals in 193 games with AC Milan and won the Ballon d’Or as the best player in the world in 2007. Then he transferred to Real Madrid and scored 23 goals in 80 games before moving back to Milan again.

Unfortunately, Kaka is part of a “lost generation” for Brazil. Sure, he was on the 2002 team that won the World Cup, but he was only 20 and played just 25 minutes. In 2006 he was the heart of a team many expected to repeat as champions. However, he scored just one goal the entire tournament, and Brazil was held scoreless by the French in the quarterfinals. In 2010 Kaka had three assists…but zero goals. And again, Brazil lost in the quarterfinals.

For a guy who was supposed to be the engine of Brazil’s offensive minded teams, those are some bad results.


6. Robin van Persie

Robin van Persie

Since 2004, Holland’s Robin van Persie has established himself as one of the world’s premier strikers. In 2011-12 and 2012-13 he was the EPL’s top goal scorer, and in 253 total appearances with Arsenal and Manchester United he has 134 goals, which is good for 10th all-time. Moreover, Van Persie has 42 goals in 83 games for the Netherlands, making him their all-time top scorer.

Unfortunately, only two of those goals have come in the World Cup—one in 2006, one in 2010.

Thankfully, in 2010, the Dutch finally got some offensive production from Wesley Sneijder. The midfielder with just 83 career club goals notched five during Holland’s second-place run in South Africa.


5. Franck Ribery

5 franck ribery france - world cup all-time underperformers

Franck Ribery was one of the three finalists for the 2013 Ballon d’Or after leading Bayern Munich to both the league title and Champions League title that year. You can’t really judge his performance by the goals, because he’s not a pure goal scorer. However, he does score them. Since 2007, in 178 appearances with Bayern Munich, he has 63.

At the World Cup, however, Ribery just hasn’t been the same player. Much of that isn’t his fault, mind you. On the French national team he has not been able to play left wing, which is where he is best. However, the 2010 squad was just a total disaster—remember their player strike in the middle of the World Cup?—and if Ribery wasn’t part of the problem he certainly wasn’t part of the solution.

To this day, Ribery still just has one World Cup goal, scored in 2006.


4. Ronaldinho

4 ronaldinho brazil - world cup all-time underperformers

Remember when I said Kaka was part of a “lost generation” for Brazil? Well he wasn’t alone. Ronaldinho was also a pretty huge disappointment at the World Cup.

In fairness, he was great in 2002…when he played alongside Ronaldo and Rivaldo. That year in scored two goals en route to World Cup glory.

But in 2006? After winning FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005, he and Kaka were expected to combine with Adriano and an elderly Ronaldo to make Brazil an offensive juggernaut. Instead, they flopped. Ronaldinho had zero goals and just one assist, and the Brazilians were ousted by the French in the quarters.

How bad was it? Well, after Brazil was eliminated, vandals set a 23-foot tall Ronaldinho statue on fire. Then he didn’t even make the 2010 squad.


3. Cristiano Ronaldo

3 cristiano ronaldo portugal - world cup all-time underperformers

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the three best players in the world. There’s really no doubt about it. He has 261 goals in 361 appearances with Manchester United and Real Madrid, and, almost unbelievably, it seems like he’s still getting better.

Let’s hope that is the case for Portugal’s sake. Ronaldo has played for Portugal in two World Cups now—2006 and 2010—and this unstoppable goal scoring machine has just one tally in each of them. And in 2010 his goal came in a 7-0 blowout of North Korea.

This is beyond disappointing. It’s almost unbelievable.


2. Lionel Messi

2 lionel messi argentina - world cup all-time underperformers

When healthy, Lionel Messi is the greatest soccer player in the world. He won four straight Ballon d’Or awards from 2009 through 2012, and in 276 games with Barcelona he has 243 goals. The man’s dribbling skills are absolutely unmatched, and he may just go down as the greatest player of all-time…if he can perform respectably at the World Cup.

So far, he has not. In 2006 he scored one goal, which was pretty good considering he was only 19 years old. But in 2010, in the peak of his abilities, having conquered the soccer world, he was unable to score a goal. Then Argentina got embarrassed by Germany in the quarterfinals, losing 4-0

To be sure, Messi set up goals. In fact, he was part of almost all Argentine scoring players, and he was probably one of the 10 best players in the tournament. But Messi isn’t supposed to be good. He’s supposed to be transcendent. One goal in two World Cups for a player like Messi is disappointing.


1. Wayne Rooney

1 wayne rooney england - world cup all-time underperformers

Wayne Rooney never gets included in the “best player in the world” discussions because he’s a little one-dimensional. However, he is clearly the best player in England, and that he’s damn good at that one dimension–scoring goals.

Right now, at the age of just 28, Rooney sits fourth all-time with 173 Premier League goals, and by the end of next season, barring injury, he’ll be all alone in second place behind Alan Shearer.

Unfortunately, his World Cup career is just depressing. You can forgive him for not scoring a goal in 2006 because he was coming off a foot injury and simply could not get into game shape. But 2010 is a different story.

In 2010, England was grouped with the United States, Slovenia, and Algeria and scored just two goals in the group stage. They tied USA 1-1, then tied Algeria 0-0 and got booed off the field by their fans, and then just barely escaped the first round with out a 1-0 win over Slovenia.

Of course, in the round of 16 they got clobber by Germany, 4-1. And by the end of it, Wayne Rooney’s career World Cup goal total was the same: zero.