The Champions League is club football’s biggest prize. It is the competition that all teams strive to win, but only the best of the best get the chance to carry the coveted Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens. Among these greats are Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Ronaldinho and so many more. To be in this group is to be among the football elite.
So, with this season’s Champions League final approaching, I bring to you the Champions League Losers XI. A team of the best players to ever grace the Champions League but never to win the grand trophy. To be in consideration of this side, the player must have reached a Champions League final. This narrows it down to the best of the best of the also-rans. The cut off point of the renaming of the European Cup to the Champions League is also to simply make the task of building this team much easier.
Gianluigi Buffon (Lost in 2003, 2015, 2017)
Buffon is always the bridesmaid never the bride when it comes to the Champions League. With the most final defeats of any player on this team, Buffon has suffered all forms of Champions League heartbreak. A penalty shootout defeat to AC Milan at Old Trafford in 2003 was as close as the Italian would get to the famous trophy.
Relegation from Serie A after Calciopoli cost Buffon several years of Champions League football. If Buffon had not been so loyal to the Old Lady, could he have achieved the pinnacle of club football?
Filipe Luis (Lost 2014, 2016)
Filipe Luis is another player to have suffered multiple heartbreaks, including a defeat on penalties. Both final defeats were at the hands of local rivals Real Madrid, and are two of the most dramatic Champions League finals since Liverpool’s last victory in Istanbul in 2005. A 90th minute Sergio Ramos equaliser in 2014 saw Atletico eventually collapse in injury time and ultimately lost 4-1.
One of the best left backs of the last five years, but could only come agonisingly close to a Champions League victory. But is there to be a third time lucky for Luis and his Atletico teammates?
Fabio Cannavaro (Lost 2003)
Cannavaro is one of the best centre backs of all time and one of the greatest leaders in modern football. He would lead his national team to a World Cup victory in 2006, he is also the last centre back to be awarded a Ballon D’or – and in fact only one of three defenders to receive the honour.
Yet, the Champions League alluded him in his illustrious career. Despite playing for European powerhouses Juventus and Real Madrid, Cannavaro would only reach one final. The defeat to Milan on penalties was also easily one of the least exciting Champions League finals.
Lothar Matthaus (Lost 1999)
Despite 2 UEFA Cups to his name, as well as a long list of other honours, Matthaus was unable to lift the Champions League trophy during his lengthy career. His is perhaps the most painful story of those on this list.
Mathaus was captain of the Bayern Munich side in 1999 that would lose 2-1 to Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble winning Manchester United side. Munich were winning 1-0 when Matthaus was subbed off after 80 minutes. But two stoppage time goals would see United turn the game around in incredibly dramatic fashion. It would also be his final game for Bayern Munich, a team who went on to the lift the Champions League trophy in 2001.
Lilian Thuram (Lost 2003)
Admittedly, there aren’t many great full backs who played in a Champions League final and lost. But of them, Thuram is by far the greatest. While he was part of the incredible France team to win the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championship, the Champions League was just out of grasp.
As well as losing on penalties to Milan in 2003, Thuram joined newly crowned champions of Europe Barcelona and left the summer before Pep Guardiola lead the Catalan club to a historic treble. So close, yet so far.
Cesc Fabregas (Lost 2006)
Yet another player to join Barcelona during the brief period in between Champions League victories. But it was Barcelona who Cesc Fabregas lost to in a final. Arsenal’s only European Cup final in 2006 ended in heartbreak for the then 18-year old.
His career has been filled with many highs, including being a key player in Spain’s era of dominance from 2008-2012, but at 18-years old the Champions League would never be closer. Despite going down to 10 men, Arsenal managed to take the lead in Paris, but were unable to hold on and eventually lost 2-1.
Arturo Vidal (Lost 2015)
The last of four Juventus players to appear in this team, Arturo Vidal is running out of time to win the Champions League. At 31-years old, the Bayern Munich midfielder missed this season’s semi-finals through injury and was harshly sent off in last year’s quarter finals. If not for those unlikely circumstances, perhaps the Chilean would have a title to his name.
Fortunately, there is still time for Vidal – unlike most in this team – and the Bayern squad is certainly capable of conquering Europe. With Niko Kovac coming in as manager, it remains to be seen whether he is good enough to guide this talented side to the Champions League that they so crave.
Michael Ballack (Lost 2002, 2008)
A perennial runner-up in his career, Michael Ballack has lost not only two Champions League finals, but also a World Cup final (2002) and a European Championship final (2008). An incredibly midfielder who, on his day, could not be reckoned with.
Ballack will forever be remembered for the image of him screaming in the face of referee Tom Henning Ovrebo in the 2009 semi final second leg against Barcelona. The Norwegian had just turned down what felt like the millionth penalty shout of the match and Ballack’s frustration got the best of him. Having come so close the year prior – losing on penalties to Manchester United – the German would be right to feel aggrieved on one last chance at European glory.
Hernan Crespo (Lost 2005)
The scorer of one of the best European Cup final goals of all time, the Argentine was part of the AC Milan team that lost in Istanbul to a possessed Liverpool team that came from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 and win on penalties. However, Hernan Crespo was not a part of the team that would avenge Istanbul in 2007, having only been on loan from Chelsea for the 2004/05 season.
He was, for a brief period, the world’s most expensive player, but he would never reach the pinnacle of club football. Despite playing for Milan, Inter Milan and Chelsea – teams who have all won the Champions League in the last 15 years – Crespo could only manage a runners-up medal.
Dennis Bergkamp (Lost 2006)
While Dennis Bergkamp would not actually get to appear in the final, he was crucial in reaching in his team reaching it in 2006. Fabregas may have only been 18 when Arsenal lost 2-1 in Paris, Bergkamp was on the bench for the final game in his amazing career.
The Dutchman was a special player, a genius with a football, but it wasn’t until his stint at Arsenal that he would be truly appreciated. Unfortunately, Arsenal would struggle in Europe up until his final season at the club, and the fact that he never got to grace the final is the greatest consequence of Jens Lehmann’s first half dismissal.
Robert Lewandowski (Lost 2013)
Much like Arturo Vidal, Robert Lewandowski is running out of time to win the Champions League. He will turn 30-years old before next season’s European season begins properly and his Bayern Munich future has been put into question. However, it was Bayern Munich that Lewandowski would lost to in the 2013 final in Wembley Stadium.
That Borussia Dortmund side that Jurgen Klopp built was absolutely incredible. Lewandowski, in particular, was amazing during their dramatic run to the final. He would score 4 goals against Real Madrid in the semi final first leg and his goal against Malaga in the quarter final second leg was a fantastic demonstration of just how good that Dortmund side were.
Manager: Arsene Wenger (Lost 2006)
One of the greatest managers of all time, Arsene Wenger would never win a European trophy. It would take his Arsenal a few years to adjust to competing in European football, but in 2006 Arsenal were simply untouchable on their run to the final. They remain the only side not to concede a goal in the knockout stages that precede the final. Clean sheets against European powerhouses like Real Madrid and Juventus, as well as a very competitive Villareal is incredibly impressive.
However, despite qualifying for the Champions League in each of the next ten seasons, Wenger could only manage one more semi-final appearance. Arsenal would eventually get stuck in a loop of embarrassing second round defeats to Barcelona, Bayern Munich and even his former side Monaco.
On Saturday, Liverpool face holders Real Madrid in Kiev. Jurgen Klopp has already tasted Champions League final defeat (2013), but those players will want to do everything they can to avoid joining the list of also-rans.