One day, FIFA’s grand plan will be realised, and all 211 national associations will qualify for the World Cup. But until then, we have to deal with the hard reality that not all of the world’s best players will be going to the World Cup.
Fortunately, where reality lets us down, our imaginations can step in. Here, then, is the SB Nation Soccer invitational XI picked from those countries that failed to make the big tournament. We’ve restricted our picks to one player from each country, because otherwise we’d end up with eight or nine Wales players, and nobody wants that. Please note that while these choices maybe appear to be subjective and up for discussion, they are in fact objectively correct.
Jan Oblak, Slovenia
The world of goalkeeping is currently divided into David de Gea, all on his lonesome at the top, and then a ferocious scrum behind him for second place. Of those, Oblak has as good a claim as any: he’s big, he’s exceptionally agile, and like every other part of Diego Simeone’s Atletico side, he seems to have steel in his blood. Pity he chucked one in against England, really.
Anyway, with Manuel Neuer only just back from injury, there’s finally some competition for the title of Best Goalkeeper Who Looks Like a Simple Farmhand (Who Can Lift a Hay Bale With His Bare Hands, and Will Die a Futile Death in a Far Away War). Now is Oblak’s time.
David Alaba, Austria
He may play in midfield for Austria, but we need a left back and so we’ve gone for Bayern Munich’s. Seems a reasonable call. In truth, Alaba is irritatingly perfect at almost everything, and you suspect he’d be a perfectly decent striker if the mood took him. For he is one of those players blessed with a rare and strange power: the ball just does what it’s told.
Fun fact: Austria were the best team in qualifying for Euro 2016. Second fun fact: since their failure to qualify for Russia was confirmed, with a 1-1 draw against Georgia, they’ve won seven games in a row, including wins over Uruguay and Germany. Timing is everything.
Virgil van Dijk, Netherlands
He’s massive, he’s strong in the air, he’s hard in the tackle, he can pass long and short, he cost Liverpool millions upon millions of pounds, he played in the Champions League final … and he’s not going to Russia because Dutch football is a big orange mess.
Eric Bailly, Cote d’Ivoire
We’ll level with you: we mostly picked Bailly here because we want to revisit Jose Mourinho’s deeply weird excuse for leaving Bailly out of Manchester United’s side towards the end of the season. Apparently players that aren’t going to the World Cup don’t get selected, even when they’re really good. We look forward to Mourinho’s eventual move into international management, and the moment when Portugal fail to qualify and so he just refuses to pick anybody ever again.
Antonio Valencia, Ecuador
As with Alaba, Valencia has played a number of positions for Ecuador, but we’ve had to bounce him back to full-back for the sake of this team. And unlike all the players we’ve had so far, Valencia’s age — he’s 32, and he’s definitely tiring — means that this World Cup would likely have been his last. Yes, we’re on to the Those We Have Lost section of the exercise, and this exemplary international servant, almost ever present in a consistently okayish side, is our first.
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Perhaps Valencia’s biggest contribution to the World Cup came in 2006, when he finished top of an online poll to determine the Young Player of the Tournament. The favourite, Cristiano Ronaldo, could only finish second, after what appeared to be an organised effort by England fans angry that Ronaldo had cynically assaulted Wayne Rooney’s foot with his testicles. In the end, Lukas Podolski won. Hooray?
Daniele De Rossi, Italy
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Limited to just one Italian, we’ve gone with De Rossi, because he exists at the precise intersection of technical excellence, cynicism, and barely-fettered fury that defines the Italian national team. At least, defines what the Italian international team should be; this current lot were a bit weird and rubbish, which is why they didn’t make it.
Arturo Vidal, Chile
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Sniff. If Italy are missed for reasons of familiarity and tradition, then Chile and Vidal will be missed for reasons of good, solid, honest fun. Chile’s emergence as a genuine force has been one of the most delightful stories in the last couple of cycles of international football, and Vidal’s been the energetic, dynamic heart of it all.
Naby Keita, Guinea
Look, if we can’t all use the World Cup as a cheat sheet ahead of a promising young player’s big-money move, then what even is the point of the competition? What are we supposed to go on, Youtube compilations and half-watched Bundesliga highlights? The Europa League? It’s just not fair.
Gareth Bale, Wales
New rule: if a nation’s best player scores an overhead kick in the Champions League final, then that nation is immediately placed into the World Cup, on the understanding that they spend the entire tournament attempting to recreate that goal. Three glorious games of Aaron Ramsey attempting to tee up Chris Gunter, so that he can tee up BALE! Oh, he’s missed and landed on his topknot.
Call us, Gianni. Our rates are reasonable.
Edin Dzeko, Bosnia & Herzegovina
What do you want your no. 9 to do? Score goals. Hold the ball up. Annoy defenders into mistakes. Have a first touch that looks weird, given their angular frame. Score some more goals. Have a really good angry-celebration-face. Score different kinds of goals. In decent numbers.
Congratulations! You want Edin Dzeko. Here he is.
Christian Pulisic, USA
Look, the kid’s 19. It would be unfair to expect him to win a whole World Cup at such a tender age. And it would be even more unfair, on everybody else, to have him win the competition at such a tender age. Better to keep him back for four years. Let him get a bit older. It’ll make it less embarrassing for everybody else, when it finally happens, as it certainly will.