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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

2018 World Cup's millionaire outsiders: Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk among expensive defenders to miss tournament

The fact many of European club football's top defenders will not play in Russia proves price does not automatically buy status

AC Milan's Leonardo Bonucci will not play at the 2018 World Cup because Italy did not qualify. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images
AC Milan's Leonardo Bonucci will not play at the 2018 World Cup because Italy did not qualify. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

Price does not automatically buy status. The pitfalls of Paul Pogba are becoming an ongoing parable of that truth.

His is a saga starring the most expensive footballer ever to land in the Premier League and his difficulties in securing a first-team place at Manchester United. And as the World Cup edges nearer, the Pogba Polemic is now one for France manager Didier Deschamps to cast an opinion on.

Deschamps values Pogba but, in general, he cares little for a player’s market price.

The squad he named for this penultimate round of friendlies is without a trio of the most costly defenders in the history of the game. This comes ahead of a time when his country begin what is expected to be a long run deep into the later stages of the Russian summer.

And nowhere, in what has been a hyper-inflationary past 12 months in the price of star footballers, has the retail-index swooped up as aggressively as in the cost of a good defender.

France have three members of the first XI of priciest defenders ever. None of Benjamin Mendy, Eliaquim Mangala and Aymeric Laporte - for whom Manchester City committed fees of £150 million (Dh774m) combined - are required on international duty this week.

Mendy is out injured, and Deschamps holds out hope the super-powered left-back, whose debut season with City was curtailed early by a cruciate ligament problem in September, will return to action next month and be fully match-fit by May.

But Mangala, a back-up option at City, and Laporte, who has yet to play for Les Bleus senior team, are behind the likes of Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny, Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti, and Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane in the France hierarchy.

Meanwhile, the defender with the biggest price tag of all knows for sure he will watch the World Cup from afar.

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk, right, has endured qualification disappointment as a Dutchman. Lee Smith / Reuters
Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk, right, has endured qualification disappointment as a Dutchman. Lee Smith / Reuters

Virgil van Dijk, for whom Liverpool paid over £75m in January, is Dutch, and his national team have developed an alarming habit of missing major tournaments as his career and reputation has flourished. The Netherlands were not at Euro 2016, nor did they hurdle their qualifying group for Russia 2018.

Nor could Italy, the nation perhaps most associated with putting a high value on the quality of defending. That means Leonardo Bonucci, for whom AC Milan paid €40m to Juventus last summer, will not be at the World Cup to draw new admirers to his combination of rugged authority and smooth passing.

And what of the man who has regularly set the gold-standard when it comes to pricing defenders alongside playmakers and goalscorers?

David Luiz was the first defender to command a fee over €60m, when he left Chelsea for Paris Saint-Germain in 2014. He gained a second entry among the most expensive guardians of the back line when he moved back to Stamford Bridge in 2016 for more than €30m.

Yet, having lost his place in Chelsea manager Antonio Conte’s starting line-up, he is distant from Brazil’s plans, his last call-up dating back to June.

“It can happen that a player’s club situation is not a reflection of his importance to the national team,” Brazil manager Tite said last week, which will sound like a very small crumb of comfort for Luiz, who turns 31 next month and would love to add to his 57 caps.

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Paris Saint-Germain's Thiago Silva might just make the Brazil bench in the 2018 tournament. Franck Fife / AFP
Paris Saint-Germain's Thiago Silva might just make the Brazil bench in the 2018 tournament. Franck Fife / AFP

Nor is Thiago Silva, like Luiz a former wearer of the Brazilian captain’s armband, a guarantee for Brazil.

Silva, whom PSG paid €42m to Milan for in 2012 - a benchmark figure for a mere defender at the time - is likely to travel to Russia with his country. But he may have to settle for a deputy’s place, behind the likes of club colleague Marquinhos, and Inter Milan’s Miranda.

As for the player who has leapfrogged Luiz in Chelsea’s hierarchy, Antonio Rudiger – close to €40m from Roma last year – he can anticipate being a substitute for Germany.

Shkodran Mustafi, part of the world champion squad in Brazil 2014, looks further away. Arsenal’s Mustafi, a €40m-plus transfer from Valencia in 2016, and still name that features the top dozen costliest defenders in the game’s history, is not in Germany’s latest squad.

A summer off then, for most of the game’s multi-millionaire stoppers, and a happy Russian playground for the world’s most valued strikers?

Not entirely.

England will include two of the men City have paid extravagantly for, Kyle Walker and John Stones, in their back four. They will hope the weight of their price-tags do not restrict their valued qualities of speed and poise.