Quartz’s World Cup fantasy team—manned by qualifying-nation rejects—would win it all

The best of the missing players.
The best of the missing players.
Image: Reuters/Phil Noble
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The 2018 World Cup is finally here, but without traditional soccer superpowers like Italy and the Netherlands qualifying this year, we’ll miss out some of the world’s best players including Gianluigi Buffon, Arjen Robben, and Alexis Sanchez.

Aside from that, there are more big names absent from Russia, despite their countries qualifying. We take a look at the players who are healthy and available to play, but were snubbed by the 32 teams at the tournament that kicks off June 14. Quartz’s fantasy 23-man squad—including the starting 11—would have a good chance to crush the competition.

Goalkeeper: Bernd Leno (Germany)

Football Soccer - Bayer 04 Leverkusen v CSKA Moscow - Champions League - BayArena, Leverkusen, Germany - 14/9/16. Bayer Leverkusen's goalkeeper Bernd Leno reacts.
Bernd Leno
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

The Bayer Leverkusen No. 1 made a string of impressive performances this past season, and is now a top target for Arsenal during the summer transfer window. But due to Manuel Neuer’s timely recovery from a foot injury, the 26-year-old didn’t earn a place with the defending champion.

Defender: Marcos Alonso (Spain)

Soccer Football - FA Cup Fourth Round - Chelsea vs Newcastle United - Stamford Bridge, London, Britain - January 28, 2018 Chelsea's Marcos Alonso celebrates scoring their third goal
Marcos Alonso
Image: Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley

The Chelsea left back scored eight goals, including some superb free kicks, last season, but still failed to win former Spanish coach Julen Lopetegui’s favor. (News just came in that Spain sacked Lopetegui after he was named Real Madrid’s new manager to start work after the Russia tournament.) As an all-rounder, Alonso is arguably more suitable for Antonio Conte and his 3-5-2 formation, but less so to Lopetegui, who prefers to play with four defenders.

Defender: David Luiz (Brazil)

Soccer Football - FA Cup Third Round - Norwich City vs Chelsea - Carrow Road, Norwich, Britain - January 6, 2018 Chelsea's David Luiz waves to fans after the match
David Luiz
Image: Reuters/Darren Staples

Another Chelsea star missing out on a ticket to Russia, but perhaps less surprisingly, given that the Brazilian has struggled to cement his place in both the Blues and his national team. The disgraceful 1-7 defeat to Germany in Belo Horizonte four years ago may still haunt Luiz, but he won’t have a chance to prove himself again.

Defender: Javi Martinez (Spain)

Soccer Football - Champions League - Celtic vs Bayern Munich - Celtic Park, Glasgow, Britain - October 31, 2017 Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez with a plaster on his head
Javi Martinez
Image: Reuters/Russell Cheyne

The Bayern Munich ace hasn’t played a single match under Lopetegui since the manager took over as Spain’s head coach position in 2016. Not everyone agrees with that decision—his supporters include Barcelona legend Xavi Hernandez.

Defender: Sergi Roberto (Spain)

Soccer Football - Champions League Round of 16 First Leg - Chelsea vs FC Barcelona - Stamford Bridge, London, Britain - February 20, 2018 Barcelona’s Sergi Roberto in action
Sergi Roberto
Image: Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers

Yet another controversial move by Lopetegui. The 26-year-old full-back proved himself an asset to Barcelona in the past few seasons, and is perhaps best remembered by fans for his last-minute goal that capped off an incredible comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the quarter-final of 2016-17 Champions League.

Midfield: Leroy Sane (Germany)

Soccer Football - Premier League - Manchester City vs Huddersfield Town - Etihad Stadium, Manchester, Britain - May 6, 2018 Manchester City's Leroy Sane in action
Leroy Sane
Image: Reuters/Phil Noble

With 14 goals, 19 assists, two championship titles, and the Premier league’s young player of the year award, Sane, 22, is the most unlikely player to be left out of his national squad for Russia. German boss Joachim Low explained that he opted for Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt over Sane on a “very close decision.” It’s true that the Manchester City winger failed to replicate his tremendous club performance for Germany this past season, but Low’s decision still baffles fans and pro players alike.

Midfield: Adrien Rabiot (France)

Madrid, Spain - February 14, 2018 Paris Saint-Germain’s Adrien Rabiot celebrates scoring their first goal
Adrien Rabiot
Image: Reuters/Paul Hanna

The 23-year-old PSG star didn’t make it in to France boss Didier Deschamps’s final 23-man list due to his lukewarm national-team performance. In response, Rabiot asked to be taken off France’s standby list in case of injury. With some of the world’s best midfielders—such as Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante—in the squad, Deschamp probably won’t miss him very much.

Midfield: Radja Nainggolan (Belgium)

Soccer Football - Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg - AS Roma vs FC Barcelona - Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy - April 10, 2018 Roma's Radja Nainggolan reacts
Radja Nainggolan
Image: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

The box-to-box Belgian hard-man is one of the definitive players for Roma, which stunned the world by knocking Barcelona out of the Champions League last season. But the 30-year-old’s bad habits—including chain smoking—have long annoyed Belgium boss Roberto Martinez, who left him out of the World Cup citing tactical reasons. Nainggolan later announced his retirement from international soccer.

Forward: Anthony Martial (France)

Soccer Football - Premier League - Everton vs Manchester United - Goodison Park, Liverpool, Britain - January 1, 2018 Manchester United's Anthony Martial reacts after missing a chance to score
Anthony Martial
Image: Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith

The 22-year-old striker’s omission is another sign of France’s strength in depth—especially for attacking talents. After all, while Martial struggled to gain more game time at Manchester United, the even younger Kylian Mbappé was sensational with PSG throughout last season.

Forward: Mauro Icardi (Argentina)

Soccer Football - Serie A - Inter Milan vs Juventus - San Siro, Milan, Italy - April 28, 2018 Inter Milan's Mauro Icardi celebrates their second goal
Mauro Icardi
Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

Despite netting 29 goals for Inter Milan this past season, 25-year-old Icardi didn’t impress Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli enough to get in the team. Sampaoli opted for local player Cristian Pavon over the joint-leading scorer in Italy. However, Argentina is never short of attacking talents, and in Sampaoli’s own words, it’ll be Lionel Messi who “can carry the team on his shoulders.”

Forward: Karim Benzema (France)

Soccer Football - Champions League Final - Real Madrid v Liverpool - NSC Olympic Stadium, Kiev, Ukraine - May 26, 2018 Real Madrid's Karim Benzema reacts after scoring a goal which was subsequently disallowed for offside
Karim Benzema
Image: Reuters/Gleb Garanich

Benzema was involved with 24 goals for Real Madrid last season, and scored one of the three goals that helped the Spanish giant win its Champions League title for the third year in a row. But the 30-year-old has not been selected to play for France for about two and a half years, and earlier complained that he would never be picked as long as Deschamps remains French boss.


Goalkeepers: Neto (Brazil), Joe Hart (England)

Defenders: Alex Sandro (Brazil), Hector Bellerin (Spain), Aymeric Laporte (France), Chris Smalling (England)

Midfields: Cesc Fabregas (Spain), Jack Wilshere (England), Juan Mata (Spain), Mario Gotze (Germany)

Forwards: Alexandre Lacazette (France), Alvaro Morata (Spain)

Dan Kopf and Yomi Kazeem contributed to this post.