Tears, tantrums and phone bills: 14 high-profile superstars who suffered injury agony before a World Cup
Alfredo Di Stefano (Spain, 1962)
Di Stefano is arguably the greatest player never to feature at a World Cup – despite representing no fewer than three national teams during his career. Born in Argentina, he turned out for the nation of his birth six times until a move to the much-vaunted Millonarios led to him pulling on a Colombia shirt between 1951 and 1952. It was in 1962, after almost a decade with Real Madrid, that Di Stefano came closest to playing in international football’s showpiece event, having helped his adopted nation of Spain to qualify for the tournament in Chile.
He would have joined Ferenc Puskas, Jose Altafini and Jose Santamaria in representing adopted nations at the World Cup - but for a muscular injury picked up during preparations for the tournament.
Spain had a magnificent team, boasting the likes of Inter’s Luis Suarez, legendary Barcelona captain Joan Segarra and, of course, Di Stefano’s club-mates Puskas and Santamaria. It didn’t stop them coming rock bottom of the group, though, as Brazil won their second World Cup.
Laszlo Kubala (Spain, 1962)
Kubala’s story is a compelling one. He escaped from post-war Hungary into American-occupied Austria dressed as a Russian soldier on the back of a truck, and cheated death when he pulled out of a commitment to play for Torino in a testimonial against Benfica when his son, Branko, fell ill. The plane carrying the team crashed into the Superga Hills on its way back from Lisbon, killing all 31 people on board and bringing a tragic end to Il Grande Torino.
Kubala played for both Hungary and Czechoslovakia before his escape to the West, where he later represented Spain on 19 occasions and scored 11 goals. Despite six caps for Czechoslovakia, three with Hungary and an eight-year association with Spain, Kubala never played in the finals of a major international tournament. He was named in the squad for the 1962 World Cup alongside Di Stefano and Puskas but missed out through injury.
Roberto Bettega (Italy, 1982)
Bettega played with hometown club Juventus for 13 seasons, making more than 500 appearances in all competitions and helping the Old Lady to seven Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup triumph. He went to the 1978 World Cup and was named in the Team of the Tournament, scoring group stage goals against Hungary and hosts Argentina as Italy topped the group and ultimately came fourth.
Four years later, Bettega should have been at his absolute peak. He was 31 years old with two major tournaments under his belt, having also played at Euro '80, and fresh from his seventh league title. Unfortunately for Bettega, however, an almighty collision with Anderlecht goalkeeper Jacques Munaron in a November 1981 European Cup match caused a serious knee injury and ruled him out for the rest of the season.
Before that fateful evening in Turin, Bettega had been on course for his best season ever: he’d scored five league goals in seven appearances, eight in all competitions, and was on to break his best ever goalscoring season two years previously when his 16 in the league won him the Capocannoniere award.
Italy went on to win the 1982 World Cup in style, with the previously-disgraced Paolo Rossi scoring the goals that won the Azzurri their third World Cup – fresh from serving a two-year ban for his part in the Totonero betting scandal.
Kenny Dalglish (Scotland, 1986)
Dalglish had played in the first leg of the intercontinental play-off between Scotland and Australia ahead of the 1986 World Cup, shortly after guiding Liverpool to the First Division-FA Cup Double in his first season as player-manager, having scored the volley against Chelsea which sealed the league title.
Scotland had qualified for that play-off against the Socceroos on a bittersweet night in Cardiff. Needing a point against Wales to keep their dreams of Mexico alive, the Scots were a goal down when they won a penalty with nine minutes remaining. Davie Cooper scored it, but at the end of the match, legendary coach Jock Stein had a heart attack and died in the medical room at Ninian Park.
Alex Ferguson led Scotland into the play-off, where they beat Australia, and remained in charge for the tournament in Mexico. But Scotland had to do it without their best player Dalglish, and with the original Group of Death awaiting their arrival too. King Kenny was named in the original squad of 22 but pulled out with a knee knack, although rumors at the time suggested he had done so in protest at the non-selection of Alan Hansen, his Liverpool teammate.
Daniel Passarella (Argentina, 1986)
Passarella captained Argentina to World Cup success on home soil in 1978, and was named in the squad for Mexico '86 eight years later amid a fractious relationship with Diego Maradona. Argentina coach Carlos Bilardo had brought Maradona back into the fold – and named him captain – after two years in the wilderness following his red card against Brazil at Spain '82.
Passarella accused Maradona of taking drugs before the tournament; El Diego hit back with claims that Passarella had racked up a huge phone bill to his mistress in Monaco but wouldn't admit it, despite his number showing up on the bill. “What Passarella didn’t know was at that time telephone bills in Mexico were itemized,” Maradona wrote in his autobiography. “And it was his number, the bastard! He was earning like $2m a year and he played dumb about the phone bill for 2,000 peso. He was making us all pitch in to pay for the calls, and he thought it would never come to light.”
A difficult decision was avoided, though, when Passarella – a bona fide legend of the Argentine game and held in much higher regard at home than Maradona – contracted a bout of enterocolitis that left him bed-ridden and unable to train. His replacement in the squad, Jose Luis Brown, scored the opening goal in the final as Argentina won their second World Cup in three tournaments.
Marco van Basten (Holland, 1994)
There was a time when Van Basten was the greatest striker on the planet; a supremely elegant striker capable of the spectacular. In reality, the Dutchman played his last game for Milan a whole year before USA '94 – the 1993 Champions League Final defeat to Marseille. He had rushed back from a previous injury to be involved, but a terrible challenge from Basile Boli didn’t just end Van Basten’s involvement in the match, it effectively ended his career.
Van Basten did play at a World Cup – Italia ’90 – but never scored a goal and his Holland side didn’t win a game, drawing each of their group matches against the Republic of Ireland, England and Egypt before being knocked out in the first knockout stage by eventual champions Germany.
The striker struggled even in qualifying for international football’s flagship tournament but excelled at continental level, with his goals firing the Netherlands to their only trophy to date: Euro '88.
Romario (Brazil, 1998)
Romario was USA ’94's best player, his goals and excellent form winning him the Golden Ball and propelling Brazil to World Cup victory. Four years later, a muscular injury prevented him from helping the Selecao defend their title, with the news breaking on the day that final squads were submitted to FIFA.
The striker held a tearful press conference in Rio that day, telling the world that his calf injury wouldn’t heal in time. Not even the unconventional intervention of his mother, who sought the help of a departed Spanish physician through a medium, could hurry along Romario’s recovery.
He played on with Brazil until 2005 and finished with a record of 55 goals in 70 caps; enough for third in their all-time top goalscorers list. Soon he'll be nudged down to fourth by Neymar.