It used to be the World Cup that was the marker of how good a football really was. Just look at Pele and Diego Maradona: legends of the game whose roles in lifting the biggest prize in the sport has elevated them to a mythical level.
Now, it's all about the Champions League. The likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were born between Golden Generations for their respective nations, meaning that domestic dominance is the best metric for how to judge them. There are those that say players have to have won the biggest competitions to be considered the best – and Old Big Ears is a fair enough way to judge, given that it's the headline event every year.
But how about those that have never won the competition? Some of these names may surprise you, given the continental giants that they represented in their careers, while others are famous for being at the right places at precisely the wrong times.
The best players never to win the Champions League:
15. Gabriel Batistuta
Batistuta would probably have had a better chance of winning the Champions League had he left Fiorentina earlier than the year 2000, by which time he was 31. But the Argentine remained loyal to La Viola despite the fact they only participated in Europe’s foremost competition once during his time at the club.
When he finally left Florence, Batigol spent three campaigns at Roma, winning the Scudetto alongside fellow forwards Francesco Totti and Vincenzo Montella in 2000/01. He played in the Champions League in each of the following two seasons, but the capital club failed to make it beyond the second group stage on either occasion.
14. Hernan Crespo
Argentina’s third-highest goalscorer of all time, Crespo played for some of Europe's best clubs and even netted two goals in a Champions League final.
Unfortunately for the striker that brace came in 2005, when Liverpool famously came back from 3-0 down to beat Milan on penalties. The Rossoneri won it two years later, but by then luckless loanee Crespo was at city rivals Inter – who also clinched the Champions League… the year after the Argentine had departed. Right man, right places, wrong time.
13. Cesc Fabregas
Fabregas has made over 100 appearances in the competition, but the Spaniard was a runner-up with Arsenal in 2006, before earning his dream move back to boyhood club Barcelona five years later – just after they had won their fourth Champions League in its current format.
He left for Stamford Bridge in 2014, the summer before the Catalans' fifth and most recent success. Cesc would not have been amused.
12. Michael Ballack
Finishing runner-up with one team is bad enough, but to do it with two must be galling. That's exactly the fate which befell Ballack: first in 2002 with Bayer Leverkusen, then six years later with Chelsea.
The midfielder was on the wrong side of one of the competition's greatest ever goals in his first final defeat, as Zinedine Zidane converted with a magnificent volley; in 2008 he was forced to watch on as John Terry and Nicolas Anelka's fluffed spot-kicks handed the trophy to Manchester United. The German at least scored his own penalty that night.
11. Ruud van Nistelrooy
With 56 Champions League goals to his name, Van Nistelrooy is the highest-scoring player never to have won the tournament.
The striker joined Manchester United two years after their historic 1999 treble and left two years before their next European win. He also failed to achieve any continental glory during his four years with Real Madrid.
To make matters worse, the Dutchman has been the top scorer in the tournament on three different occasions, while his return of 56 strikes in 73 appearances gives him a better goals-per-game rate than Cristiano Ronaldo. Where's the justice?
10. Pavel Nedved
Nedved was part of a team that reached the Champions League final, but Juventus were edged out by Milan in an all-Italian clash in 2003.
The Czech Republic international played no part in the dour Old Trafford showpiece, though, as suspension prevented him from appearing. That was the closest he ever came to winning the tournament, having also represented Sparta Prague and Lazio in Europe’s premier competition earlier in his career.
9. Lilian Thuram
Like Nedved, Thuram was also a runner-up in 2003, although the Frenchman did actually play for Juve in that game.
The right-back did his job, keeping Milan at bay for 120 minutes in a 0-0 draw, but misses from David Trezeguet, Marcelo Zalayeta and Paolo Montero in the shootout led to the Old Lady losing on penalties.
Thuram was also a member of the Parma team that lifted the UEFA Cup in 1999, while he later joined Barcelona just after they won the Champions League in 2006. The Frenchman did, however, win the World Cup in 1998, scoring an unlikely double in the semi-final for Les Bleus.
8. Francesco Totti
A one-club man who made 786 appearances for his boyhood side, Totti made his Roma debut in March 1993, before Harry Kane was born. In October 2014, he became the oldest goalscorer in Champions League history when he bagged against CSKA Moscow at the age of 38 years and 59 days.
The World Cup winner made his debut in the competition in 2001/02 but didn’t take part in a knockout tie until 2006/07, the season in which Roma were thrashed 8-3 on aggregate by Manchester United in the quarter-finals. The Giallorossi also reached the last eight the following year, but Totti never made it beyond that stage in the Champions League.
7. Fabio Cannavaro
One of the all-time greats for Italy, Cannavaro won the 2006 Ballon d'Or and amassed a haul of 138 international caps, second only to another name on this list. At 5'9, he's also a standard riposte to anyone who insists that a centre-back needs to be tall enough to threaten the average door frame.
Yet despite playing for Parma during the peak of their European powers in the late 1990s, and subsequently Inter, Juventus and Real Madrid, a Champions League medal is missing from the World Cup winner's collection.
6. Eric Cantona
The catalyst behind much of Manchester United's success in the 1990s, Eric Cantona had hung up his boots by the time Alex Ferguson finally got his hands on the trophy in 1999. The Frenchman had only just turned 33 when United beat Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou – and it's curious to wonder whether the Red Devils would still have triumphed in Europe with Cantona in their squad.
Despite his brilliance in the Premier League, the enigmatic attacker largely struggled to translate his domestic form to the continental stage. He scored twice in four games in 1993/94 but then failed to find the net the following campaign, before striking three times in 10 matches as United reached the semi-finals in 1996/97, his final season as a player.
5. Patrick Vieira
Patrick Vieira is widely regarded as one of the greatest midfielders of all time: a stalwart for Arsenal across three titles wins – one of which was an unbeaten league win – not to mention a World Cup and European Championship for his country.
The former France international was a nearly man, though, in European football. He left the Gunners 12 months before they reached the 2006 final and then departed the January before Inter won it in 2010. He wasn't eligible for a medal – it remains a great injustice that he never tasted glory in this competition.
4. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
The Swede holds the unwanted record of making the most Champions League appearances (124) without ever lifting the trophy. Now 41 years old, though, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has run out of time to get his hands on Europe’s biggest prize.
He's therefore another nearly man: he left Inter a year before they won it in 2010, before doing exactly the same thing at Barcelona the following summer. He also represented Ajax, Juventus, Milan, PSG and Manchester United – winning the Europa League with the latter – but never got his hands on the big prize.
3. Gianluigi Buffon
Signed from Parma for a world-record fee for a goalkeeper in 2001, Gianluigi Buffon is second only to Alessandro Del Piero in Juventus' all-time appearance list.
The goalkeeper was on the wrong end of three final defeats with the Turin-based giants, making two penalty shoot-out saves in 2003 and then watching Barcelona run out 3-1 winners in 2015 and Real Madrid triumph two years later. He even moved to PSG in a bid to win the trophy – but returned home a year later. Now back at Parma, it seems his chance has passed him. Poor Gigi.
2. Dennis Bergkamp
The final Arsenal game before Dennis Bergkamp’s retirement was the 2006 Champions League final, when the Dutchman was an unused substitute in the Gunners’ defeat by Barcelona. He was also part of the Arsenal side that reached the last eight in 2003/04, when Chelsea ran out 3-2 winners on aggregate in a London derby.
By that stage, Bergkamp had already tasted success on the European stage at both Ajax and Inter, with whom he won the UEFA Cup in 1992 and 1994 respectively. Yet the continent’s biggest prize proved elusive for a player who frequently sat out Champions League away games due to his fear of flying.
His namesake Cristiano has five winner's medals – but Brazilian Ronaldo never won the Champions League despite playing for some of the most illustrious clubs in Europe.
PSV, Inter, Barcelona, Madrid and Milan are among the forward's former teams, but the man who was named the best player in the world in 1997 and 2002 was never able to scoop European club football's top prize. R9 managed to win the Cup Winners' Cup with Barça and the UEFA Cup with Inter Milan and with stunning performances for Real Madrid – including that hat-trick against Manchester United at Old Trafford – you may assume that the big man had lifted Old Big Ears.
It's the one blot on quite a copybook though. He's the second-top scorer at World Cups, lifted the trophy in 2002 took home the Golden Ball in 1998 – but he never had nearly the same success in the Champions League.
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