This season will see the 25th European Champions crowned since the group stage was added to the competition in 1992. Eight teams remain in the tournament, all of whom dream of following in the footsteps of so many legends who have lifted the giant trophy. Gianluigi Buffon is one such player, as despite having played in two finals to date, he remains one of football’s existing Champions League non-winners. His Juventus side will take on five-times winners Barcelona, and he will hope to add the only missing medal from his collection.
Part one of this article explored the best Champions League non-winners from the 1990’s. There are plenty of others who have been among European football’s greats since the turn of the 21st century. The players below have accumulated many millions of pounds in transfer fees, and multiple trophies during their career. Europe’s top club honour, however, has completely eluded them.
The last defender to win the Ballon d’Or, following Italy’s 2006 World Cup victory, never tasted Champions League success. Despite playing in the competition for Parma, Inter, Juventus and Real Madrid, Cannavaro never even contested the final. He won league titles in Italy and Spain, but the 1999 UEFA Cup win with Parma remains the only European trophy the former Azzurri captain lifted during his stellar career.
The Italian striker was once the world’s most expensive player, following his £32 million transfer from Lazio to Inter in 1999. Previously he had played for Juventus, and started the 1997 final which the Turin side lost to Borussia Dortmund. He also represented AC Milan, Fiorentina, Atlético Madrid and Monaco during a career which saw him score more than 250 goals for club and country. But despite playing many Champions League campaigns, success in the competition eluded him.
In spite of winning the World Cup and the European Championship with France, plus league titles and cups in both England and Italy, Vieira never lifted a European trophy at club level. After nine years at Arsenal, he played a single season at Juventus, whose Champions League campaign was ended by his old club in the quarter-finals. He moved to Inter when Juventus were relegated during the Italian match-fixing scandal, and played there for three and a half years. Ironically, Inter won the 2010 final just months after Vieira departed the San Siro for Manchester City. This meant that Vieira ended his career a Champions League non-winner.
The Dutch striker is quite rightly classed as one of Arsenal’s greatest ever players, but another world class talent never to lift the Champions League. Despite playing in the competition for eight successive seasons between 1998 and 2006, the closest he came was an unused substitute in the final against Barcelona. This turned out to be his last appearance in a first team squad, as he retired shortly after.
It is rumoured that the career of one of Italy’s greatest modern day players will come to an end this summer, with the Roma legend having hinted at retirement. Totti has seemingly paid the price for his loyalty to one club, one that has never really threatened to win the giant trophy. Having made nearly 800 appearances, and scoring over 300 goals, since making his debut in 1992, he is without doubt Roma’s greatest ever player. He counts a World Cup winners’ medal among his trophies, but not the Champions League.
The Brazilian nicknamed “The Phenomenon” was quite simply one of the greatest players of all time. He played for PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona and Inter Milan during the 1990’s. After missing almost two years through injury, he scored twice in the 2002 World Cup Final, which earned him a transfer to European champions Real Madrid. Unfortunately for Ronaldo, they never repeated that success. He joined AC Milan in 2007, and although they won the Champions League during his time there, the cup-tied Ronaldo was unable to play. Some things were just not meant to be.
One of the best foreign players to grace Serie A in recent years, Czech midfielder Nedvěd plied his trade in Italy for 13 years. After five years with Lazio, during which he won the Cup Winner’s Cup, he was signed by Juventus to replace Madrid-bound Zinedine Zidane. Having helped the Turin side to the 2003 Champions League final against Milan, he had to watch from the stands thanks to a booking that ruled him out of the match. He never got another chance.
Ruud van Nistelrooy
One of the most prolific goalscorers of recent years, it seemed it would only be a matter of time before the Dutchman lifted the giant trophy. Despite playing Champions League football with PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United and Real Madrid, it never materialised. With 56 goals from 73 appearances in the competition, he remains the highest scoring player never to have won the trophy. The nearest he got was the 2002 semi-final, which United lost to Bayer Leverkusen.
Thuram was one of the greatest defenders of the modern era. He holds the record number of caps for France (142), with whom he won Euro 2000 and played in two World Cup finals, winning one. During his time in Italy, with Parma and Juventus respectively, he won the UEFA Cup, as well as several Serie A and Coppa Italia titles. The Champions League trophy, however, evaded him as Juventus lost the 2003 final to Milan at Old Trafford. He joined reigning European champions Barcelona in 2006, retiring a year before their 2009 success in the competition.
It is surprising enough that a player of Ibrahimović’s quality has never even played in the Champions League final. This is even more remarkable given that the list of clubs he has played for reads like a who’s who of footballing royalty. Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain all featured on his CV, prior to his move to Old Trafford. The Swedish striker has won the league at all of his previous clubs, barring Malmö where he started his career. Ibrahimović has been rather unlucky in the sense that both Inter and Barcelona won the trophy the year after he departed them.
He may get his hands of the Europa League this season, but Manchester United are by no means certain to be back in the Champions League next season at this point. He has hinted he will stay with the Red Devils, but might be waiting to see which European competition they are playing in next season before making his final decision.
Champions League Non-winners: The Last Word
There is no doubt that the players in this list would have been an asset to any squad that has lifted the giant trophy over the years. All of them were elite players in their positions, and most have played for some of of the biggest clubs in the world. For one reason or another, they are all Champions League non-winners, yet better players than a lot of others who succeeded where they failed.