21 of the greatest players to have never won the Champions League

  • Kat Lucas

Ask any professional footballer how they judge their career and there’s usually a common theme. 

There’s often no space for grey areas in how we remember players’ achievements. It’s all about what they won. 

Yet there are some exceptions, with a number of legendary players having failed to win the greatest club prize of all: the UEFA Champions League. 

Some stayed loyal to teams like Fiorentina or Roma, others they moved around so much they always missed out on their various clubs’ greatest European nights. 

It remains a great injustice that some of the finest to grace the pitch were denied that elusive winners’ medal. 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic 

The 38-year-old has played for no fewer than six clubs who have won the Champions League – Ajax, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Manchester United, Juventus and Barcelona – but by sheer accident of timing, his time with those sides have never coincided with their European triumphs. 


This is enough to make us spin the round the earth in the hope of turning back time. El Fenomeno deserved so much more in every aspect of his career and his failure to win Europe’s elite competition is no exception. 

Cesc Fabregas

A runner-up in 2006 with Arsenal, the midfielder joined Barcelona AFTER they’d won it in 2011 and they didn’t reach another final before he headed back to England. 

Francesco Totti

Totti deserved far more silverware in his career – the blow softened by winning the 2006 World Cup with Italy – but his sparse mantelpiece is the price he paid for his loyalty to Roma. 

Roberto Baggio

Some sort of perverse karma for that outrageous ponytail perhaps, but the 1993 Ballon d’Or winner undoubtedly deserved to win the Champions League. Sadly, Juventus only won it a year after he’d left for AC Milan. 

Robert Lewandowski 

When Bayern Munich won it in 2013, the Polish striker was still playing for Borussia Dortmund. Ever since, he’s been on a mission to change that but the Bavarians have kept coming up short in the later stages. 

Gabriel Batistuta

Batistuta didn’t leave Fiorentina until he was 31. That meant he’d only played in the Champions League with La Viola once and failed to progress with Roma in his later years. 

Michael Ballack

The midfielder lost out with Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, courtesy of that iconic Zinedine Zidane volley. In 2008, Ballack tasted defeat again with Chelsea against Manchester United. Naturally, the German scored his penalty in the shootout (don’t they always?) but John Terry’s fateful slip and Nicolas Anelka’s miss cost him. 

Dennis Bergkamp

There was an unusual reason for Bergkamp’s lack of European medals. While he was an unused substitute in the 2006 final for Arsenal against Barcelona – his last game for the club – he was so afraid of flying that he barely played continental games at all. 

Gianluigi Buffon 

Now 42, it seems likely that Buffon’s last chance to put this right has passed him by. The goalkeeper has suffered endless heartache in European finals, losing to AC Milan on penalties in 2003, missing out in a 3-1 defeat to Barcelona in 2015, and finally being thrashed 4-1 by Real Madrid in 2017. 

Pavel Nedved

Nedved was also at Juventus when they reached that 2003 final at Old Trafford but not only did the Old Lady lose to Milan, he played no part as he was ruled out through suspension. 

Lothar Matthaus

The German legend does have some fond European nights to look back on having won the UEFA Cup twice. He also won the Bundesliga seven times, Serie A and a World Cup, so let’s hope he’s not losing too much sleep over it. 

Patrick Vieira 

Vieira left Arsenal a year before they reached the 2006 final and cruelly, he’d also left Inter Milan five months before they won it in 2010 under Jose Mourinho. 

Phillip Cocu

Cocu was worthy of being part of Barca’s great sides of the mid-00s but left in 2004 before that period began. 

Laurent Blanc

Blanc’s shortcomings in Europe also haunted him in his managerial career with Paris Saint-Germain. As a player, he won domestic titles with Auxerre and Manchester United and lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup with Barcelona. 

Lilian Thuram

It was through no fault of Thuram’s that he missed out, helping to keep a clean sheet for 120 minutes in the 2003 final before teammates David Trezeguet, Marcelo Zalayeta and Paolo Montero missed in the penalty shootout. The defender later joined Barcelona – but after they’d lifted the trophy in 2006. 

Gianluca Zambrotta

Zambrotta was crucial to Juventus’ imperious side in the 90s and also excelled at Milan but like so many of the great Italians of his era, he failed to translate that into Champions League success. 

Fabio Cannavaro 

Another World Cup winner. Cannavaro had shown his class for years in Serie A but when the match-fixing scandal hit Juventus, he headed for Real Madrid. Even that didn’t see him progress very far in the Champions League and he only ever got to the last-16 with Los Blancos. 

Ruud van Nistelrooy

The furthest the Dutchman got was a run to the semi-finals with Manchester United in 2002. Yet before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo burst onto the scene, he was the competition’s all-time top scorer. 

Hernan Crespo 

Few have scored a brace in a Champions League final and still lost. That was the Argentine’s unlucky feat in 2005 against Liverpool when AC Milan threw away a 3-0 lead in Istanbul. By the time the Rossoneri avenged that defeat in 2007, he was at Inter Milan. Fear not, because Inter would win it in 2010 – a year after Crespo had left. 

Eric Cantona 

Cantona is synonymous with some of United’s greatest successes in the 90s, but he’d retired by the time they won the treble in 1999. 

And yet Anderson, Paul Lambert and Djimi Traore have all climbed to heights these legends could only have dreamed about.

There really is no justice in the world. 

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