International competition offers a stage for the world’s greatest players, but due to the vagaries of geography, it denies that stage to an unlucky few. Gareth Bale and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are two of the most entertaining and dynamic athletes you can watch in any sport, but because they are Welsh and Swedish, respectively, they will not be at the World Cup.
The strangest losses, however, are the excellent players with no fitness issues, playing for qualified countries, who simply go unselected. American fans have recently seen a selection controversy around Landon Donovan. I will highlight a number of players with notably better recent performance records than Donovan have missed the cut for their national sides.
The young Italian striker missed the first half the 2013-14 Serie A season while recovering from a meniscus injury, but he could hardly have done more in the second half to earn selection. Destro buoyed an AS Roma side that was beginning to stumble and drove them to a second place finish and Champions League qualification. He did this by scoring goals. There are great soccer players who contribute in subtle ways with only the slightest of touches, and there are players whose quality shows up in obvious block letters on the stat sheet. Destro is the latter type.
He scored 13 non-penalty goals this season, one more than Italian national team striker Mario Balotelli managed for AC Milan. Balotelli took 2,387 minutes to accomplish less goal-scoring than Destro managed in 1,236. This is a comparison of Destro, Balotelli and Ciro Immobile, the backup striker chosen ahead of Destro.
While great strikers can outperform their expected goals by ten or up to 25 percent in more extreme cases, in general one expects regression to the mean when goals powerfully outpace xG. Destro probably cannot keep scoring a goal per match, but his established expected goals baseline is elite. His 0.7 xG/90 minutes was, in fact, the best of all players in Serie A with at least 600 minutes played. A young player with Destro’s ability to find space in dangerous areas and get good shots away deserves a place on his national team.
In Vela’s case, there is no dispute that he deserved selection to the Mexican national team. In fact, Mexican manager Miguel Herrera tried to convince the forward to play for El Tri. This is not a case of a player who has been overlooked. But whatever the reason, in Vela we have a situation where probably the best Mexican soccer player in the world will not be at the World Cup.
How much is the Mexican team missing out on? There were four players in La Liga this season with double figures in both goals and assists. One was Gareth Bale, mentioned above. The other two, Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez, will be starring for their respective national teams. And Vela will be otherwise unavailable.
The story behind Vela’s refusal is still fragmentary, and too complex to summarize here. He appears to hold a grudge for his treatment under the two managers previous to Herrera, both of whom sought to make an example of Vela in an attempt to exercise discipline. In any case, the Mexican team that squares off against Cameroon on Friday will be missing a world-class attacker.
I got the idea to write this piece from thinking about Uche. He was not selected by Nigeria manager Stephen Keshi, while Keshi still found room in his squad for Newcastle man Shola Ameobi. Ameobi scored two goals this season for Newcastle with a 0.2 xG/90. Uche by contrast netted 14 with a very strong 0.45 xG/90 for Valencia in La Liga. If you look at the top scorers list from La Liga, it’s a bunch of famous names, plus Uche.
Uche has been out of favor with Keshi despite a strong showing in Nigeria’s qualifying campaign. Given the number of forwards Keshi selected, it seems he could have made room for one who actually scores lots of goals.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.