Günter Netzer, 21 minutes

An outrageous genius, probably the most exquisite artist of long-range passes in football history, it’s amazing that Netzer’s part in the World Cup is limited to 21 sorry minutes in the defeat to East Germany in 1974. He clearly deserved to star at more than one tournament, but fate decided differently — the maestro was unlucky on three occasions.

Netzer made his debut for the national team in October 1965, aged 21 and excelled in a 4-1 win over Austria, but Helmut Schön didn’t take him to the 1966 World Cup, preferring the slightly more experienced Wolfgang Overath. As the FC Köln midfield general became integral to the national team, his rival from Borussia Mönchengladbach found opportunities limited, even though he played superbly for his club.

Some pundits suggested that the coach should combine their talents in midfield and such a formation was indeed tested in a European Nations Cup qualifier in Albania in December 1967. West Germany needed a win to qualify for the quarter-finals, but Schön was so confident that he left the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller at home. The result was disastrous, a goalless draw regarded as one of the worst results in German history. After that, it was felt that Netzer and Overath couldn’t play together, with profound consequences for the former.

In 1970 Gladbach won their maiden Bundesliga title, with Netzer the undisputed player of the season. Schön tried to use him in a friendly against Spain and then harshly criticised the midfielder following his poor performance in defeat. Netzer reacted furiously and the conflict was only settled by the intervention of the Gladbach coach Hennes Weisweiler. His chances of going to the World Cup in Mexico looked decent but Netzer was injured in a league game at Aachen, finished the season using painkillers and was deemed unfit for the tournament.

Netzer’s time finally came in 1972. With Overath injured, he took centre-stage and participated in what remains arguably the best ever performance by West Germany — the 3-1 win over England at Wembley in the European Nations Cup quarter final. After lifting the trophy in the summer, the Gladbach star was named player of the year in Germany and lost out narrowly to Beckenbauer in the voting for the Ballon d’Or, but his run in the national team proved short-lived.

He was partly the author of his own misfortune. While Schön demanded that all his stars remain in the Bundesliga ahead of the World Cup, Netzer signed for Real Madrid in 1973 and didn’t even tell the national coach himself; Schön first heard the rumours while at a theatre. In addition, Beckenbauer, who called the shots in the team and had huge influence over Schön, made it clear that he preferred playing with Overath. Thirdly, Netzer was frequently injured ahead of the tournament. Eventually, he was included in West Germany’s World Cup squad for the first and only time, but remained on the bench throughout the tournament that took place on home soil in 1974.

He got his only chance in that dismal performance against East Germany, replacing Overath. Beckenbauer apparently decided to ignore him, to show Schön who should be playing in midfield, and Netzer rarely touched the ball. As the Germans celebrated lifting the trophy a couple of weeks later, Netzer admitted he never really felt a World Cup-winner.

Kevin Keegan, 26 minutes

The sad story of Keegan is well known: his best years coincided with the worst decade for England. A huge favourite at Liverpool and twice a Ballon d’Or winner while at Hamburg, Keegan missed two World Cup tournaments because his country failed to qualify. The fiasco against Poland and their famous keeper Jan Tomaszewski in 1973 wasn’t his fault, as the young Keegan had played only in the two games against Wales in that qualifying tournament — his first matches for England. Later, however, it was his responsibility, especially after he’d taken over as captain in 1976.

Luck was definitely not on his side, though, as England were drawn against Italy to fight for a ticket to Argentina in 1978. Having lost 2-0 in Rome, Keegan did his best against the Azzurri at Wembley, scoring the opener in a 2-0 win, but they eventually finished second on goal difference. England failed to qualify because they hadn’t scored enough goals against Finland and Luxembourg.

So the 1982 World Cup was Keegan’s last chance. The striker, who played for Southampton at the time, scored a personal best 26 league goals that season, but a chronic back injury put his chances of taking part in the tournament in jeopardy. The manager Ron Greenwood decided to take him to Spain and he even kept the armband but he wasn’t fit enough to until it was too late.

Or was it? England strolled through the group stage without him, then drew 0-0 with West Germany, leaving them needing to win by two goals against Spain at the Bernabéu to advance to the semifinals. Greenwood sent him on with 26 minutes left, when the game was still goalless. Keegan soon had a superb opportunity to put his team in front. Paul Mariner released Bryan Robson on the left and his cross found Keegan unmarked in front of goal. His header went wide, though, and that was the end of his — and England’s — World Cup.

Allan Simonsen, 19 minutes

The only Dane to lift the Ballon d’Or, the only player ever to have scored in the finals of all three European competitions (European Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup and Uefa Cup), one of the most important Borussia Mönchengladbach stars of the seventies when they won the Bundesliga title three times in succession, Simonsen was simply born a bit too early as far as his national team was concerned. The diminutive forward, just 1.65m tall, didn’t have sufficient quality teammates to play with for Denmark when he was in his prime.

Considered too young and inexperienced, Simonsen wasn’t used in the winless qualifying campaign for the 1974 World Cup. Denmark were considered a minnow in those days and stood very little chance in the 1978 World Cup qualifiers either. They began with two easy wins over Cyprus, with Simonsen scoring in Nicosia, but thereafter things became difficult. He was kept quiet in Lisbon when Portugal beat Denmark 1-0 and Denmark were outplayed by Poland in Copenhagen in May 1977. Simonsen found the net early in the second half, but his effort came between two goals by Włodzimierz Lubański. With any hope of qualifying gone, the Gladbach star didn’t even play in the remaining fixtures. He won the Ballon d’Or in 1977 and was top scorer in the European Cup 1977-78, but he watched the world’s biggest tournament on TV.

Things started to change when the German Sepp Piontek was named as Denmark coach in 1979. Under his leadership, the team made steady progress, but it wasn’t significant enough to help them through a tough qualifying group for the 1982 World Cup. The famous Danish Dynamite team started to make headlines only when Simonsen was past his best. Disillusioned when Barcelona signed Diego Maradona in 1982, he asked to leave and eventually returned home to his beloved Vejle after a short spell at Charlton Athletic. As Vejle captain he enjoyed his best spell in the national team, scoring the all-important penalty at Wembley that brought Denmark a famous win over England and enabled them to qualify for Euro 84.

Piontek’s team did brilliantly in France, but Simonsen was desperately unfortunate. In the opening game against the hosts, he broke his leg in a challenge with Yvon Le Roux and never really recovered. He played only once in the 1986 World Cup qualifiers and was no longer an important part of the team that rewrote history and made it through to the tournament for the first time. Nevertheless, the 33 year old was included in the squad when the Danes made their trip to Mexico. “Allan wasn’t the same player after breaking his leg in 1984, but I took him to the World Cup because I wanted to thank him for his service to the national team,” said Piontek. “He scored some very important goals for Denmark, especially at Wembley, and he deserved to be there. Simonsen knew only too well that he was not going to play, but was happy just to be part of the adventure. We won against Scotland and Uruguay and the last game in the group stage, against West Germany, was less important. We were leading 2-0 anyway, and that was a perfect opportunity to give Allan his debut.”

Simonsen entered the field for the last 19 minutes, replacing Jesper Olsen. That was his last game for his country.

Ricardo Bochini, 5 minutes

Bochini, one of the greatest playmakers Argentina has ever witnessed, had a huge influence on the game, not least because he was Diego Maradona’s childhood idol. “I was in love with Bochini and his style seduced me,” Maradona wrote in his autobiography. A one-club man, Bochini was at the heart of everything Independiente did for almost two decades. At the very beginning of his illustrious career, he helped them to the last three of their four successive Libertadores Cup trophies, as well as scoring a delightful winner against Juventus at the Stadio Olimpico in the Intercontinental Cup in 1973, just before his 20th birthday.

Just 1.68m in height and not particularly strong physically, Bochini possessed a magical touch: his precise through balls were known as pase bochinesco and he was also the master of la pausa, the ability to wait with the ball before providing the best pass possible. The man who received more bochinescos than anyone else was Daniel Bertoni, a winger with whom Bochini had almost telepathic understanding.

Both Bochini and Bertoni were deemed too young by the coach Vladislao Cap to be included in the World Cup squad in 1974, but in 1978 it should have been a different story. With El Bocha in his prime, he could become one of the brightest stars of the tournament that took place on his home soil. When Independiente won the title there seemed little doubt that he should be included, especially with Bertoni and other teammates, Luis Galván and Omar Larrosa, playing an important part for La Albiceleste.

César Luis Menotti had other plans, though. From a tactical point of view, the coach preferred to play Mario Kempes as a second striker behind Leopoldo Luque, with Bertoni and Oscar Ortiz covering the wings. That left room for only two central midfielders, and they both needed to be more defensive-minded than Bochini: Osvaldo Ardiles and Américo Gallego filled those roles. Bochini, deemed too slow by Menotti, didn’t even make the squad, overlooked for Beto Alonso, who played twice as a substitute before being injured — and whose selection may have owed something to the fact he was the favourite player of Admiral Lacoste, the head of the junta’s World Cup committee.

Any hope of going to the 1982 World Cup was dashed by an injury, although there was no reason to believe Menotti had changed his mind about his lack of pace. In the end, he was recalled by Carlos Bilardo for the 1986 World Cup at the insistence of Maradona. With five minutes to go in the semi-final against Belgium, Argentina led 2-0 and Bilardo decided it was a fitting opportunity to give Bochini his only World Cup appearance. As he made his way onto the Azteca pitch, Maradona approached him and said, “Maestro, we have been waiting for you.” Those were El Bocha’s final minutes in the striped jersey.

Was it a consolation for Bochini for everything he has missed? “I cannot feel like a champion,” he said after Maradona lifted the trophy. The man who scored more than a hundred goals for Independiente, ended his career without scoring even once for his country in just 28 games.

Ronnie Whelan, 43 minutes

Whelan’s case is unique on this list, as he is the only footballer in history to have made a single substitute appearance each at two World Cup tournaments, playing 28 minutes against the Netherlands in 1990 and 15 minutes against Norway in 1994. The Liverpool midfielder, who won six league titles, three FA Cups and the European Cup in 16 years at Anfield, suffered because of significant differences with Jack Charlton, who masterminded the most successful spell in Irish football history, using a direct style that didn’t suit Whelan.

Had Whelan been luckier, he would have qualified for his first World Cup under Eoin Hand. After all, he played in the famous 3-2 win over France at Lansdowne Road in October 1981, but Ireland eventually missed out on goal difference. They stood little chance in the 1986 World Cup qualifiers in a very tough group, even though the Soviets were beaten in the opening fixture, with Whelan playing an important part alongside Liam Brady. “Whelan was the number one midfielder when I took over,” Charlton said and the Liverpool man was immensely influential, a source of improvisation with the likes of Paul McGrath and Ray Houghton around him. He was superb on the way to the historic qualification for Euro 88 and scored a brilliant volley against the Soviet Union during the tournament.

A year later, Andy Townsend made his debut for Ireland, even though he was only eligible thanks to his grandmother. Charlton admired his endless energy and, from then on, Whelan’s contribution dwindled. “We had many options in midfield, and Ronnie drifted down a little bit,” Charlton explained. Charlton took Whelan to Italia 90, but he was never first choice and was limited to those minutes against the Dutch. By the USA in 1994, Whelan was 33 and had just had three disappointing seasons at Anfield. “My international career could have been better and I should have played a lot more games,” Whelan said. “I had a few problems with Jack Charlton which eventually came to a head. I wasn’t sure if he trusted me. I was taught at Liverpool to try to keep the ball but with Ireland we tended to give it back to the opposition by kicking it into touch near their corner flag. It was hard for me to enjoy because as a central midfielder the ball was going over my head a lot,” Whelan said. “Having said that, you can’t argue with results and Jack certainly got them when he was in charge.”

Mario Basler, 30 minutes

Basler was one of the most talented footballers in the world in the nineties. He had almost everything — lightning speed, great dribbling, supreme vision, a fierce shot, outstanding passing skills, finesse, an ability to improvise and outrageous ability at free-kicks and corners. Basler was so versatile that Otto Rehhagel used him in almost every position during the two years they spent together at Werder Bremen. Excellent as a right-sided midfielder, he also played in central midfield, as a striker, at left-wing, at right-back, and occasionally — as in a Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Feyenoord in 1994 — as a sweeper.

Super Mario could become the brightest star of German football, but his attitude wasn’t always as professional as it might have been. A heavy smoker, a beer lover and an unpredictable and outspoken personality, he arrived in the Bundesliga at the age of 24 with a troublesome reputation. While enjoying a great relationship with Rehhagel, who gave him freedom that was rewarded with outstanding performances, Basler found it much harder to get along with the national team coach Berti Vogts.

“I’ve been waiting for such a player for a long time,” Vogts said after Basler spectacularly burst on the scene during the 1993-94 season, and it initially looked as though he intended to build the team around him ahead of the 1994 World Cup. The reality was different. An injury suffered in the last warm-up game against Canada didn’t help, as Basler missed a few days of training. He was fit for the opener against Bolivia in Chicago, but only sent on as a substitute with 30 minutes to go. Thereafter, Vogts discarded him.

“After the game against Bolivia, the coach told me that I didn’t meet his expectations and that I’d wasted my chance,” Basler said. “I trained hard all the time, but never played, and that was also the case with Maurizio Gaudino, who was always the best in training.” Without him, Germany crashed out against Bulgaria in the quarter finals.

Basler was desperately unlucky with injuries at major tournaments. At Euro 96 he hurt his foot when colliding with Christian Ziege in training and was forced to have surgery, without playing a single minute. Despite having some fitness problems during the 97-98 season, he nevertheless had high hopes of making the squad for the 1998 World Cup. His form for Bayern Munich was good and he scored the winner in the Cup final against Duisburg with a brilliant free-kick.

However, Vogts decided against taking Basler to France and left out another creative Bayern midfielder in Mehmet Scholl, who never experienced a World Cup at all. It is sometimes said that Basler wasn’t fit enough for the tournament, but the player himself is adamant that he was fine. Whatever the truth of that, Basler’s international career ended when he got drunk ahead of a friendly against the Netherlands later that year. Even being named the best player at the Champions League final against Manchester United, when he scored what so nearly became the winner, didn’t change his fate. Basler only played 30 times for his country, scoring just two goals, while that game against Bolivia remains his only appearance at a major tournament.

Gianfranco Zola, 12 minutes

It would be hard to imagine a bigger injustice. Zola, a diminutive midfield genius who learned his football from Diego Maradona at Napoli, waited patiently to be given his chance by Arrigo Sacchi at the 1994 World Cup. That wasn’t easy. In spite of Zola’s popularity among Italian fans, which further increased after his move to Parma in the summer of 1993, he had an almost impossible task on his hands in the national team. Roberto Baggio in his prime was Sacchi’s preferred option and his system didn’t allow for two playmakers on the pitch at the same time. So the Sardinia-born star was only taken to the United States as a substitute and wasn’t used at all during the group stage.

Finally, though, his time arrived on his 28th birthday. Nigeria took the lead in their second-round game and, facing elimination, Sacchi gave Zola his chance, albeit not in his favourite role. The Parma star replaced Giuseppe Signori, who himself was played out of position on the left wing, and was instructed to stay there. He had 25 minutes to prove himself on the big stage. At least, that’s what he thought.

Just 12 minutes after stepping onto the Foxboro Stadium pitch, Zola got the ball from Antonio Benarrivo, and lost it to Augustin Eguavoen. The playmaker fought to get the ball back and succeeded, but the Nigerian defender suddenly fell to the ground, a terrible dive. Arturo Brizio Carter, the Mexican referee, who was standing very close to the incident, somehow decided Zola had kicked him and got out a red card.

A shocked Zola fell on his knees in disbelief, then burst into tears as he left the field, whereas Eguavoen was taken off on a stretcher, only to re-enter the game immediately. Eventually, Nigeria were punished when Baggio equalised in the 89th minute and then lost the game in extra-time after Antonio Benarrivo was fouled in the box — by Eguavoen.

“He deserved that,” Zola said. “He has never apologised to me. I was chosen to take the drug test after the match and the Nigerian players who were there with me were very apologetic. Not Eguavoen though — I didn’t hear from him at all.”

Zola was suspended for the next two games, against Spain and Bulgaria, both won by Baggio, but Roberto hurt his right hamstring and his participation in the final was in serious doubt. Had the Divine Ponytail been unfit, Gianfranco would have probably have taken his place in the starting lineup. Baggio did make it in the end, and played the 120 minutes against Brazil, only to miss the last penalty in the shoot-out.

Zola finally got his chance at Euro 96, where he missed a crucial penalty of his own against Germany as Italy crashed out at the group stage. Sacchi left and Cesare Maldini was named as his successor. The new start was promising for Zola, who scored the famous winner at Wembley against England in the World Cup qualifiers. In fact he was almost ever-present in that campaign, but during the first months of 1998 it became clear that Maldini had changed his mind about his final squad.

Zola had moved to Chelsea, forced out of Parma by Carlo Ancelotti, and became one of the biggest stars in the Premier League, adored by the Stamford Bridge fans. He scored the winning goal in the Cup Winners’ Cup final against VfB Stuttgart in May 1998, just 22 seconds after entering the field, and remarked, “Maybe Cesare Maldini was watching and maybe he’ll pick me.” 

But it was Alessandro del Piero and Baggio who got the nod. “Those are decisions the coach must take,” Zola said. “It was unfortunate for me, but the competition was strong, and Italy had a lot of good players in my position.” Disappointed, Zola announced his retirement from the national team at the age of 32, with just 35 caps to his name. Sacchi and Maldini might have done things differently, but the Nigerian defender is the man most to blame for his lack of playing time at World Cups. “I don’t think about him anymore,” Zola said. “It’s in the past. These things happen, and I am not the only player to have been wrongly sent off.”

Martín Palermo, 10 minutes

Boca Juniors’ all-time leading scorer, El Loco Palermo will forever be remembered for missing three penalties in a single game, against Colombia at the Copa América in July 1999. That fiasco ended his international career for Argentina before it had really started. Something of a late bloomer, the striker was 25 when Marcelo Bielsa called him up for that tournament and despite netting three times during it, he was made a scapegoat. Injuries didn’t help his cause, and they were plentiful, the worst of them a broken leg suffered when a wall collapsed under his weight as he celebrated a goal during his ill-starred spell at Villarreal.

Bielsa recalled the striker briefly in 2000, but by the time the 2002 World Cup came along he was out of form and wasn’t even considered. Boca fans continued to campaign for their idol from time to time after his triumphant return to Buenos Aires in 2004, but the rest of the country wasn’t interested. A superb penalty area predator, the burly Palermo could be slow and awkward and many assumed he lacked true international class. There was little chance of José Pekerman thinking of him ahead of the 2006 World Cup, and injury prevented him from being recalled by Alfio Basile in 2008.

Then, with the dream seemingly over, everything suddenly changed. Diego Maradona, who replaced Basile, was not only a Boca man through and through, but also a personal friend of Palermo — they even played together at La Bombonera before Maradona retired. Argentina struggled in the qualifying campaign under Maradona, who came under huge pressure. One of his most controversial decisions was to recall El Loco as things became desperate towards the end of 2009. 10 years after his previous cap, Palermo took the chance and scored a crucial injury-time winner in vital game against Peru.

Maradona called it “the miracle of San Palermo”, and promised the striker he would take him to the World Cup in South Africa, no matter what. He remained true to his word, omitting in-form stars like Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lisandro López for the 36 year old, even though it was clear that his contribution to the team would be minimal. Palermo himself was delighted to fulfil his old dream and wasn’t expecting to get significant playing time. Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín and Carlos Tévez were the starting forward trio, with Diego Milito and Sergio Agüero waiting on the bench.

Palermo got lucky, though. With Argentina winning their first two games in the group stage, Maradona could afford to use him in the last one against Greece when qualification was already assured. The veteran entered the field after 80 minutes, shortly after his team took the lead, and had enough time to score a historic goal after the keeper Alexandros Tzorvas parried a Messi shot towards him. El Loco almost cried from joy, as he ran towards Maradona, who went wild on the bench, and the two friends shared a hug.

Palermo became the oldest player to score for Argentina and, quite remarkably, the first Boca Juniors player to score at the World Cup since Mario Evaristo in 1930. As he didn’t play again in the tournament, he also has the best goals-per-minutes ratio of any player in World Cup history.