The UEFA Champions League – the holy grail of European club football and easily the most prestigious club football tournament in the world. A challenging tournament format with group and knockout stages, it is a trophy that only the best of the best have ever laid their hands on.
But at the same time, there have been some football legends that have never lifted the coveted trophy. No matter how many accolades they have won in club football, their resumes are sadly incomplete without Europe’s top honour. Here is a list of ten of the best who have never won the Champions League.
Only three players have won the FIFA Player of the Year thrice and Ronaldo is the only one who hasn’t won the Champions League (Zidane and Messi being the other two). Between 1993 and 2008, Il Fenomeno played for various European clubs like Cruzeiro, PSV, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and AC Milan. Perhaps the most complete striker in the recent past, Ronaldo has also won the World Cup twice with Brazil. He is also the highest goal scorer in the history of the World Cup with 15 goals.
But in spite of scoring 49 goals in European competitions, Ronaldo never got to win the Champions League. Perhaps his biggest opportunity to win the trophy was with the Galacticos at Real Madrid when he partnered Figo, Zidane, Raul, Roberto Carlos and Beckham. Even though he scored 104 goals for Real Madrid, the club failed in their attempts to win an unprecedented tenth title. His only European triumph was a UEFA Cup with Inter Milan in 1998 and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup with Barcelona in 1997.
Arguably one of the best players of all time and one of the top scoring Italian strikers of all time, it’s almost heartbreaking that Il Divin’ Codino has never won the Champions League. Having spent five seasons at Juventus, where he was at his most prolific in front of goal, Baggio left the Turin club in 1995.
And the very next season, Juventus won the Champions League when they defeated Ajax in the final after a penalty shootout. But Baggio didn’t leave Juventus empty handed as he did lead the club to a UEFA Cup triumph over Borussia Dortmund in 1993, scoring two and setting up a third. But it’s almost tragic that every time Baggio’s name is mentioned, the first memory that comes to mind is that missed penalty in the 1994 World Cup final. A Champions League trophy might have changed that perception.
One of the finest strikers to have come from the goldmine of talent that is the Netherlands, he too has never won the Champions League. Having played for Ajax, Inter Milan and Arsenal, his biggest achievement in European competition was winning the UEFA Cup twice (with Ajax and Inter). In 11 seasons with Arsenal, he has won the Premier League thrice and the FA Cup four times. He was also an integral part of the Invincibles team that went an entire season unbeaten (2003-04) in a run that stretched to 49 games.
But when it came to the Champions League, the Gunners were never a real threat and always fell in the knockout stages of the competition. The closest he came to winning it was in 2006 when they lost in the final to Barcelona. But he was on the bench in what was to be his final game for Arsenal. A Champions League trophy would have been the best way to sign off for the Non-Flying Dutchman.
The driving force of Manchester United in the 1990s, Eric Cantona was the forward you did not mess with and a goal scorer you could not let out of your sight. When the Premier League was born in 1992, he was instrumental in Manchester United winning it in four of the first five seasons. The Frenchman who made the number 7 shirt and the captain’s armband his own was truly a cult figure in England; in spite of bans, suspensions and an arrest.
But when it came to the Champions League, he was never able to establish himself or the club as an elite power. The closest he ever got was when he led Manchester United to the semi-finals in 1997, where they lost to Borussia Dortmund (who would go on to win the trophy) in both legs. He’s received a number of honours since then, the biggest of which was being inducted into the inaugural English Football Hall of Fame (the first player from outside the United Kingdom) in 2002. But a Champions League trophy was one trophy he would have loved to lift.
If there was ever a player who accumulated more runners-up medals than winners’ medals, it was probably Michael Ballack. The Germany international is arguably the most unlucky player in football. A world renowned central midfielder who has won the German Footballer of the Year thrice, he has come second best with both club and country a number of times; be it the Bundesliga, the Premier League, the World Cup or the Euro Championship.
And the list does not stop there. Ballack has reached the Champions League final twice and lost on both occasions. The first time was with Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 when Raul and Zidane ensured Real Madrid would get a ninth Champions League trophy. The second time was with Chelsea in Moscow when Manchester United beat them in a penalty shootout. Ballack took Chelsea’s first penalty and converted it but Terry’s slip and Anelka’s miss meant he would go home empty handed yet again.
The Swedish striker has played for a number of top clubs in his career – Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan and now Paris Saint-Germain. And he has played in the Champions League with each of these clubs. Having scored truck loads of goals for each of these teams in the respective Leagues, his conversion rate was not as good in Europe.
He too has seen something of a curse where the club he left has won the Champions League the very next season. After leaving Inter Milan in 2009, the Italian club won the trophy the very next season. It was the same case when he left Barcelona in 2010. His quality on the pitch is undeniable. But in the eyes of many, he probably may not get that legendary status and recognition deserved for the very best until he wins a Champions League trophy.
Another Italian legend who has never won the Champions League is Juventus’s goalkeeper, who also keeps for the Italian national team, Gianluigi Buffon. His status among the elite has already been set in stone. He is the only goalkeeper to have won the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year award (2003), he has won the Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year award a record nine times and was once voted the best goalkeeper of the 21st century.
But the only honour missing in his cabinet is a Champions League medal. The closest he ever came to lifting the trophy was in 2003 when Juventus faced their arch Italian rivals AC Milan at Old Trafford. The match went into a penalty shootout and Buffon managed to make two saves, denying Seedorf and Kaladze but failed to stop Shevchenko’s penalty that gave Milan the title. He has already won a World Cup with Italy in 2006. Only a Champions League trophy remains to be won to complete his resume.
He is well known for being one of the most loyal one–club men and one of the finest players of this era. The striker, who also plays as a trequartista, has won the Serie A Footballer of the Year twice and Italian Footballer of the Year a record five times. Totti is also the second highest goal scorer in the Serie A (highest among those still active) with 230 League goals. Having debuted with Roma at the young age of 16, Totti is now playing in his 22nd season for the club!
But The King of Rome has never won the Champions League with his beloved AS Roma. In fact, the only major honours he has ever won with the Serie A club are the Serie A title in 2001 and the Coppa Italia twice in 2007 and 2008. He too has won many runners-up medals in Italy. But in Europe, Roma were never a real force, with their best runs coming in 2007 and 2008 where they were eliminated in the quarter-finals by Manchester United on both occasions. It’s very sad that one of Europe’s most popular football players may never win a Champions League trophy.
Nedvěd was one of the greatest players to step on to a football pitch. The Czech Republic midfielder won several titles in the Czech League and the Serie A with Lazio and Juventus. A player known for his energetic and seemingly never ending runs, an accomplished dribbler and a proven goal scorer, he was one of few players who won the Ballon d’Or and played professional football for 19 years.
But he too came only within touching distance of lifting the Champions League trophy when Juventus lost to AC Milan in 2003. In spite of helping Juventus knock out the defending champions Real Madrid in the semi finals, he was suspended for the final game after he got one yellow card too many in the competition. Nedvěd was a delight to watch on the pitch and the only European honours he won was a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup with Lazio, the last time the competition was held before it was absorbed by the UEFA Cup.
Ruud van Nistelrooy
It’s very weird to have Nistelrooy in this list. The Dutch striker has dominated in the Champions League which has seen him become the third highest goal scorer in Champions League history with 56 goals. Even though he started his professional career in 1993, he did not play in the Champions League until he joined Manchester United in 2001. For a striker who has top scored in three different leagues in the continent and was also the top scorer in three different seasons in the Champions League, it is surprising that he never won the Champions League.
He played for the Red Devils for five seasons scoring 38 goals in Europe (also a club record) before he moved to Real Madrid where he continued his scoring form, especially in La Liga. But his was a career that was beset by a injuries which caused him to miss many games at Madrid.
Amongst the top ten scorers in the Champions League, he is the only one who has not won the trophy.