The UEFA Champions League is Europe’s premier club competition. Contested by the best teams from across the continent in a group and knockout format, Francisco Gento has won the competition more times than any other player if one includes the European Cup, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo has won it more times than anyone else just in the Champions League era. We’re interested in great players who never won it at all here though.
I must admit that this is a video I wasn’t particularly keen on making for a couple of reasons, but the volume of requests - twinned with the number of likes on those requests - has left me with little option. The first reason I’m hesitant to do it is because the sheer number of brilliant players that have never won it make it a nightmare to whittle down to seven, and the second reason is the difficulty in deciding on a criteria to settle on.
So to be absolutely clear, when we say Champions League we’re talking 1992 onwards, since the tournament was renamed and reformatted from the European Cup. To qualify, the player has to have both played in the Champions League and not won it, but any player who played in the Champions League and previously won the European Cup is also ruled out. The primary factor taken into account is ability, but we’re also concerned with how much football they played in the Champions League, so two players of equal ability - one of whom made 100 Champions League appearances and the other of whom made 10 - we’d go for the one who made 100, to put it in more simple terms.
Here are our 7 best players who never won the Champions League:
The second best player in this seven in terms of sheer talent, Romario only comes in at seventh due to the fact that others played a lot more Champions League football than him. One of the most gifted footballers and prolific goal scorers to have ever lived, Romario only spent three seasons in the Champions League, scoring 12 goals in 14 games. Despite not playing a huge amount of Champions League football, Romario did play in the 1994 Champions League final where his Barca ‘Dream Team’ were heavily tipped to beat AC Milan. Fabio Capello masterminded a 4-0 win over the complacent Catalans though, and Romario soon returned to Brazil.
6. Roberto Baggio
Italian former footballer Roberto Baggio reacts during a football all-star friendly match at the Shanxi Sports Centre Stadium on October 6, 2018 in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province of China.
Similar to Romario as one of the great players of the 1990’s who was at the peak of his powers around the time that the European Cup became the Champions League, Roberto Baggio didn’t actually make his Champions League debut until the 1996-97 season, since AC Milan and Juventus had been in the UEFA Cup whilst Baggio played for them for the last few seasons. The finest Italian outfield player of the modern era, Baggio was a magician with the ball at his feet. He only played 11 games in the Champions League, scoring five goals, and he never came closer to winning that tournament than being a losing quarter-finalist as Inter Milan were beaten by eventual winners Manchester United in the 1998-99 season.
5. Patrick Vieira
Around 10 years younger than Romario and Baggio, the European Cup had already become the Champions League when Patrick Vieira began his career, so it should come as little surprise that he played a lot more Champions League football. A force of nature in the middle of the park, Vieira was a dominant box-to-box midfielder and a born leader. He played almost 100 games in the Champions League with the likes of Arsenal and Juventus, but oddly missed out on his best chance to win the competition by leaving Inter Milan half-way through the 2009-10 season. He joined Man City, whilst Inter went on to win a historic treble under Jose Mourinho.
4. Ruud van Nistelrooy
Coach Ruud van Nistelrooy of PSV U17 reacts during 2019 Sinobo Guoan Cup U18 between PSV and Cruzeiro at Beijing Workers Stadium on June 10, 2019 in Beijing, China.
The fifth highest scorer in the history of the UEFA Champions League, no player has scored more goals in that competition without winning it. Ruud van Nistelrooy was the Champions League’s seasonal top scorer on three occasions, bagging a total of 56 goals in 73 Champions League games, an average of 0.77 goals per game. A fantastic striker who was so dependable in front of goal, the closest van Nistelrooy ever came to winning the Champions League was in his first season at Manchester United, in which the Red Devils lost their semi-final tie to Bayer Leverkusen.
3. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
From the fifth highest scorer in Champions League history to the ninth, Zlatan Ibrahimovic bagged 48 goals in 120 Champions League games, scoring the same number of goals in the competition as 2003 winner Andriy Shevchenko. Despite playing for some of the biggest clubs in Italy, England, Spain, France and the Netherlands, becoming the only player to represent seven different clubs in the Champions League, Ibrahimovic never won the tournament. He came closest during his only season at Barcelona, but Barca fell in the semis to Ibrahimovic’s old club and eventual winners Inter Milan.
2. Gianluigi Buffon
Juventus player Gianluigi Buffon looks on during a training session at Jtc on July 10, 2019 in Turin, Italy.
Only nine players have played more UEFA Champions League games than Gianluigi Buffon, and between them, those nine players have won the competition 31 times. Gianluigi Buffon, meanwhile, despite having 122 appearances to his name, hasn’t won a single one. It’s the number of years spent in the competition and appearances made, in addition to being one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, that earns Buffon second place in this seven. The Italian legend has played in three Champions League finals, in 2003, 2015 and 2017, losing each to AC Milan, Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively.
0. Honourable Mentions
There are an enormous number of quite brilliant footballers who have played in the Champions League without winning it, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. Instead, I’m just going to quickly rattle off the names of those who came closest to featuring. In no particular order they include Pavel Nedved, Fabio Cannavaro, Hernan Crespo, Michael Owen, Sol Campbell, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, Eric Cantona, Michael Ballack, George Weah, Alan Shearer, Francesco Totti, Lilian Thuram and Gabriel Batistuta. There are also a few active players like Cesc Fabregas and Robert Lewandowski, who of course could still win it in the future.
Okay, that’s it for our most honourable of the honourable mentions, here is your top spot:
Ronaldo of Real Madrid running with the ball during the Primera Liga match between Real Madrid and Deportivo La Coruna on December 14, 2003 at the Bernabeau Stadium in Madrid, Spain. Real...
Among the easiest decisions I’ve ever had to make with regard to top spot in a video, Ronaldo came seventh in our list of the 100 greatest footballers of all time. Despite being the best player in the world for a number of years, Ronaldo probably didn’t play quite as much Champions League football as you might think, and his total of 16 Champions League goals is fewer than the likes of Edin Dzeko and Claudio Pizarro.
Ronaldo played his first Champions League game in 1998, but he would soon pick up an injury that would see him play little football for the next few years. He did still have some great moments in the Champions League, such as his hat-trick against Manchester United in the 2003 quarter-finals, but a semi-final appearance that season was the closest Il Fenomeno ever came to winning it.
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