The UEFA Champions League’s most exceptional performers do not necessarily get the rewards they deserve, with all-time greats like Ronaldo, Pavel Nedvěd, Patrick Vieira and Michael Ballack all retiring with one glaring omission from their personal medal haul.
It is impossible to calculate exactly who are the best players to have featured in the UEFA Champions League without winning it. However, the numbers suggest that the following stalwarts have made the biggest contributions without receiving the ultimate prize.
Zlatan Ibrahimović, Gianluigi Buffon, Robert Lewandowski and Sergio Agüero are among the players who seem to have done everything but win it.
Most UEFA Champions League appearances without winning the competition
Watch all Zlatan’s Champions League goals for Paris
131 appearances (9th in all-time rankings): Gianluigi Buffon (Parma, Juventus, Paris, Juventus)
124 (=14): Zlatan Ibrahimović (Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris, Man. United)
110 (=32): Cesc Fàbregas (Arsenal, Barcelona, Chelsea)
109 (=34): Olexandr Shovkovskiy (Dynamo Kyiv)
107 (=37): Roar Strand (Rosenborg)
Five players have made over 100 UEFA Champions League outings without actually lifting the trophy. Buffon has been on the losing side in three finals with Juventus; Ibrahimović made the most appearances without reaching the final; while Fàbregas was not only a runner-up with Arsenal in 2006 but Barcelona were crowned European champions the season before he rejoined them (2010/11) and the season after he left (2014/15). John Terry (111 appearances) is spared a place on this list: he was suspended for Chelsea’s 2012 final triumph but still got a winners’ medal.
Most UEFA Champions League goals without winning the competition
64 goals (=4 in all-time rankings): Robert Lewandowski (Dortmund, Bayern)
60 (6): Ruud van Nistelrooy (PSV, Man. United, Real Madrid)
49 (=10): Zlatan Ibrahimović (Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris, Man. United)
45 (13): Sergio Agüero (Atlético Madrid, Man. City)
35 (=18): Edinson Cavani (Napoli, Paris)
Lewandowski, Agüero and Cavani can remove themselves from the list this season if their teams go on to win the competition. The Polish striker was on the losing side with Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 final against Bayern and moved to Munich the following summer. Van Nistelrooy takes a philosophical line on any missing silverware in his cabinet, saying: “I am proud to have won team and individual trophies, but my greatest satisfaction was to be able to work day after day, year after year.”
See most UEFA Champions League/European Cup finals appearances without winning
3: Gianluigi Buffon (2003, 2015, 2017 – all Juventus)
3: Paolo Montero (1997, 1998, 2003 – all Juventus)
3: Alessio Tacchinardi (1997, 1998, 2003 – all Juventus)
Juve’s 1996 final triumph was followed by defeats in successive deciders; Tacchinardi was on the books in 1996 but did not feature in the shoot-out win against Ajax in Rome, while Paolo Montero only joined them after that victory. Both figured in three finals without a win, handing on an unwanted baton to Buffon, who matched their barren run in 2017. He will hope to leave this club by lifting the trophy with the Bianconeri in 2019/20.