Now that we know which 32 countries are going to next summer’s World Cup tournament, let’s compile a list of the best players who definitely won’t be there. Since USA crashed out, it has been joined by Chile and Italy on the sidelines. The latter will come as a big shock to casual fans, but those of us who’ve been following the situation over there have seen this coming. Just like when I made this list four years ago, the players here are only from already-eliminated countries, because it’s too early predict who will miss the tourney due to injury or being left off their national team.
GK — Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
Even the Italy-hating corners of the soccer world are sad about him missing out. One of the all-time great goalkeepers is not only capable of adapting to any defensive style his team might employ, he’s still playing at a high level at age 40 and is by all accounts a consummate sportsman and a good guy. The world won’t get to say goodbye to him at the World Cup, but at least he won the tournament in 2006.
CB — Kostas Manolas (Greece)
He plays at AS Roma, where the fans call him “Il Muro Greco,” or “The Greek Wall.” Strong enough to go toe to toe with physical strikers, he’s also deceptively quick for a defender his size. When he gets the ball back, he can start up attacks with his passing to the midfield. Both the offensively limited Greek team and the more enterprising Roma have come to rely on this defensive rock.
CB — Stefan Savić (Montenegro)
After flaming out at Manchester City, the center back went to Atlético Madrid and ironed out the mistakes in his game to become one of the world’s best. Atlético coach Diego Simeone is an uncompromising judge of defenders and kept him a regular starter through 33 straight shutouts in the Spanish league.
RB — Elseid Hysaj (Albania)
Maybe the best fullback in the Italian league gets the nod over Antonio Valencia for this spot. The reliable and durable Napoli player offers a ton in attack while seldom being caught out defensively. His tiny country works against his qualifying for a major tournament, but he is only 22, so there’s time for him to get there.
LB — David Alaba (Austria)
I tried to find someone else because I put him at this position in 2014, but good left backs are hard to find, whether on a fantasy team like this or in real life. The Bayern Munich stalwart continues to do everything for both club and country, with his skills such that he often plays in central midfield.
CM — Victor Wanyama (Kenya)
Historically, East Africa has lagged behind the rest of the continent when it comes to producing soccer players, as the best athletes in that part of the world tend to prefer distance running. However, this tireless midfield enforcer has allowed his Tottenham Hotspur team to shine in the Champions League and England.
CM — Naby Keita (Guinea)
Like Wanyama but even more frenzied, this RB Leipzig dynamo wreaks havoc at both ends of the pitch, making countless steals on the defensive side while getting forward and creating chances for the offense. Despite his lack of size, he manages to intimidate his opponents through sheer stamina, and always seems to be around the play.
SM — Riyad Mahrez (Algeria)
One of the keys to Leicester City’s unlikely run to the English Premier League title was this electric winger pinging passes to Harry Kane breaking into the clear. When he and his strikers aren’t on the same page, he can do the damage himself by dribbling through the defense and shooting. He and Leicester seem to be on the outs, so other clubs will come calling.
SM — Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
He’s going to take the ball on the right side of the pitch, cut inside onto his preferred left foot, run past a defender or two, and then shoot on goal. The whole soccer world has known this for the past 10 years, and yet no one has been able to stop him. The bald Bayern Munich wonder is a dirty cheater (just ask any Mexican fan about this), but he’s magnificent to watch.
SS — Alexis Sánchez (Chile)
He’s that rarest of things, a dazzling playmaker who doesn’t stop working when the magic isn’t flowing. He has great burst and vision, plus the knack for snapping up rebounds and defensive mistakes and turning them into goals. Still, it’s his ceaseless effort and unquenchable will to win makes him a hero to Arsenal fans.
CF — Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon)
Our focal point is a decent finisher with his head or his weaker left foot, but it’s his hot, nasty, badass speed that makes him so terrifying to opposing defenses. German fans have gotten used to seeing the Borussia Dortmund striker run through the most tightly packed units, and at 6’1”, he’s not small, either.
Bench — Jan Oblak (Slovenia), Giorgio Chiellini (Italy), Virgil van Dijk (Netherlands), Antonio Valencia (Ecuador), Arturo Vidal (Chile), Nuri Şahin (Turkey), Marek Hamšik (Slovakia), Yevhen Konoplyanka (Ukraine), Christian Pulisic (USA), Gareth Bale (Wales), Edin Džeko (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Tim Krul (Netherlands).