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Alarm bells sounding for Everton

Everton
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The greatest never?

For those mourning the untimely injury that may have robbed this year's World Cup of one of its potentially brightest stars, Wayne Rooney; and another threatening the participation of Argentina's own wunderkind, Lionel Messi, there is consolation in the knowledge that their precocity means the opportunity for them to light the greatest stage football has to offer still exists.

Even if neither kicks a ball in Germany this summer, all is not lost. They will get another chance. Others were not so lucky. And World Cups past have been all the poorer for it.

As a spectacle, the World Cup is unrivalled. But, if it has one fault, it is that there is no guarantee that all the greatest players on planet football will receive an invite to its most lavish party.

Of the modern players, Andrii Shevchenko and Pavel Nedved should, barring any last minute hiccups, right the wrong of previous exclusion but, for arguably the best African footballer in history, time has long since run out. Or has it?

George Weah - title winner with Paris Saint Germain and AC Milan, twice; the only man to 'unify' the titles of African, European and World Player of the Year when he scoped all three gongs in 1995; humanitarian, politician, UNICEF goodwill ambassador and failed Liberian Presidential candidate - thinks not.

'Everybody hopes one day to play in a World Cup,' says Weah. 'But a soccer life is one we don't control; only God controls that. So maybe I wasn't destined to go to the World Cup.'

Liberia, despite Weah's best efforts, have never qualified for a finals and for a small impoverished nation, still scarred by decades of bloody civil war, the odds remain stacked against them.

'What I and others need to do is focus on helping others to achieve that,' he says. 'So we can still help the Liberian national team fulfil the dream. Then we will have done something special.'

'I may not go to the World Cup as a player, maybe not as a manager, but perhaps as part of the technical team, some sort of support. Then I can still be involved in a Liberian team that of goes to the World Cup.'

Now 39, Weah, still a towering physical presence with an athletic agelessness, devotes his time to promoting awareness of the social issues that still dog his homeland. And a political career that hit a setback when he came second in a Presidential campaign in 2005.

'We shouldn't lose focus; we should remain optimistic,' he says. 'And, hopefully, in this life, one day things will happen. Maybe when I am an old man and Liberia qualify for the World Cup there remains the possibility that they will want me to play two minutes in a game. And then my dream of playing at a finals will have been fulfilled.'

Unless that happens, Weah is destined to be remembered as one of the most gifted player never to compete at a World Cup. But is he the greatest?

Ask the question in Madrid or Latin America and you would get a negative response in the form of a three word answer: Alfredo Di Stefano.

He surely lays claim to being the most decorated. Six league titles with River Plate, plus assorted gongs in the rebel Colombian leagues with Millionairos, were followed by eight with Real Madrid, for whom he finished top scorer in Spain's top division no less than five times. Di Stefano's greatness, though, is brought into sharpest focus when viewed through the prism of the European Cup.

Scoring in five consecutive finals as Madrid ruled Europe from 1956 to 1960, there are those that claim the 'Blond Arrow' was better than Pele.

Born in Buenos Aires to Italian immigrant parents in 1926, his first World Cup chance was lost when Argentina refused to compete in the 1950 edition over the border in Brazil.

After arriving in Spain, via Colombia - for whom he also played international football - the 1954 tournament in Switzerland came round too quickly for his Spanish citizenship to be properly ratified by FIFA, meaning 1958 was the first when he would be able to represent his adopted country. Unfortunately, they failed to qualify.

They did in 1962 but Di Stefano, by now 36, was injured. Or had a bust up with coach Helenio Herrera, if you believe the conspiracy theorists. Either way, the chance to play at a World Cup finals was lost.

Another who deserved more than a footnote in the story of international football was the late, great George Best.

The Belfast boy, for whom an ultimately unsuccessful battle with the bottle cost him the latter years of a career, packed more into the few seasons he spent at the top than ten lesser players possibly could in a lifetime. But a flame that burns so brightly was inevitably going to burn out too soon.

Best made his debut for Northern Ireland in 1964 and despite still turning out for AFC Bournemouth, aged 37, when they finally qualified for Spain 82, his personal troubles meant he was no longer able to contribute.

A tiny nation, Ulster was unable to provide Best with the team-mates he deserved. However mesmerising, his genius alone was not enough. Even Maradona, credited with winning the 86 World Cup single-handedly was able to lean on the more prosaic talents of Jorge Valdano, Jose Luis Brown, and Jorge Burruchaga.

Like Di Stefano, Best owes his legacy to European club football. In the spring of 1966 he scored twice in a 5-1 demolition of Eusebio's Benfica - four times finalists and twice winners in the previous five years - in Lisbon. Later that year the Portuguese striker would star in England whilst Best could only watch.

His inspiration had taken Northern Ireland to the brink of qualification, but with only victory over lowly Albania needed to set up a play-off with Switzerland, a dire 1-1 draw in Tirana ended the dream. The Irish would never come so close whilst Best was at the height of his powers.

Two years later, again against Benfica, Best demonstrated to a Wembley crowd what they had missed out on that summer as Manchester United became the first English side to win the European Cup.

Across the Irish Sea, Scottish fans hold dear another who never had the chance to do it for real, but, they still claim, earned Scotland the unofficial title of world champions.

Rangers' Jim Baxter, a midfield playmaker blessed with the full gamut of trickery, orchestrated a 3-2 Wembley victory over the Auld Enemy a year after Alf Ramsey's side had won the Jules Rimet trophy. The side was largely the same as faced West Germany yet Baxter was undoubtedly the best player on the pitch.

Another United legend, Eric Cantona, whose absence owes much to his self-destructive nature and an endearing contempt for all in authority, deserves a mention.

Ostracised by the French authorities after branding them all 'shits' after a ban for throwing a ball at a referee, the riddle of how best to accommodate his generous skills and ego - one only truly mastered by Sir Alex Ferguson - was never solved in his homeland.

Yet it is Di Stefano, Best and Weah form a truly inspiring triumvirate of bittersweet regret over what might have been, as well as ably demonstrating that life will go on outside and after Germany this summer.


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