Soccer is the ultimate team sport. It is a game that requires the full effort of the eleven players on the pitch to achieve victory. Winning a match when playing a man down or with inexperienced and inept players can be a monumental struggle for managers. Attracting elite players to your club can be a difficult proposition when a club may not meet the financial or prestigious requirements of a player. For these reasons, elite players seem to gather at top clubs where they can receive the best training and wages, while playing in the best facilities the sport can offer. However, this article is about the players that decided to buck that trend in favor of loyalty and the challenge of playing as an underdog.
While playing for a major club certainly has its perks, becoming a legend at a lesser club is arguably just as desirable. Success at the club level, regardless of their relative stature, can lead to national team recognition, which can satisfy the competitive ambitions of some players. Other legends played during eras when international transfers were less common or even outlawed. Still, others soldiered on for their underperforming clubs out of a sense of loyalty and pride, which has made several among the most beloved players in their respective club histories.
The temptation of major football clubs can come with some major trade-offs for players. While the wages may be higher, the competition for places in the starting XI is usually much higher and the expectations of supporters can be enormously burdensome. Still, these players have been able to find success without the assets and luxuries of the big clubs. Their service to their clubs can serve as a valuable example to the next generation of players. Here are the trailblazers that found their path to success followed the road less traveled.
15. Jorge “Magico” Gonzalez
Magico Gonzalez is considered by many to be the best Central American footballer of all-time and speculation continues to this day about whether he would be considered one of the sport’s greatest players if he had been born in Brazil or Argentina. Born in San Salvador, El Salvador, Gonzalez played for ANTEL and Independiente before he began to feature for the Salvadorian National Team. He possessed elite speed and ball control, which he used to score 21 international goals for his country, but his 58 goals over 194 appearances for Spanish club Cadiz made him a legendary player. His partying and sleeping habits drew criticism from pundits, but his quality was undeniable and exemplified by the match where he arrived hungover at halftime to find Cadiz down 3-0 to giants Barcelona. His introduction in the second half helped inspire his team to a 4-3 victory and cemented his status in football lore.
14. Lars Hogh
You’ve probably never heard of Lars Hogh and that isn’t surprising, considering he played his entire career for relatively unknown Odense BK in Denmark. His tenure with Odense began in 1977 and amazingly did not end until 2000, and when he retired he had amassed an outrageous 817 appearances for the club. Hogh helped his team lift the Danish Championship three times in 1977, 1982, and 1989 as well as three Danish Cups. Incredibly, he earned Danish Best Goalkeeper of the Year five times over the course of his career. Despite his considerable skills, he only managed eight total appearances for the Danish National Team, largely because he was playing in Peter Schmeichel’s massive shadow. In spite of this, he did manage to help Denmark win the 1995 King Fahd Cup, now known as the Confederations Cup.
13. Stanley Matthews
Sir Stanley Matthews’ football credentials are virtually unparalleled. Matthews started his career with Stoke City and helped the team earn promotion from the Second Division during his tenure before moving to Blackpool. At Blackpool, he helped the club earn an FA Cup title and led them to the final twice more before falling short. He proudly represented England in two World Cups and helped them win nine British Home Championships. He was the recipient of the first ever European Footballer of the Year Award in 1956. His dribbling, crossing ability and longevity are still regarded as the stuff of legend. In total, the English winger played as a professional for a staggering 30 years, and helped Stoke City again climb into the top flight in the 28th year of his career. He remains the only player to have been knighted while still playing as a professional.
12. Ledley King
Being a one-club man is one of the most difficult and trying endeavors one can undertake in football. It requires a player to be disciplined, steadfast, and dedicated to their club’s cause and Ledley King never fell short in those categories for Tottenham Hotspur. His debut for the club came in May 1999 where he was deployed in central midfield, until he found his true calling as a center back. King was an imposing figure and a resolute defender, and dedicated to Tottenham, turning down several moves to larger clubs in the early 2000s. Injuries plagued King for much of his career and affected his place in the England National Team, but that did not stop him from amassing an incredible 268 appearances for Spurs. In 2008, he captained Spurs as they lifted the League Cup in a 2-1 win over Chelsea in the Final. Following his retirement in 2012, King continues to serve Tottenham as a club ambassador.
11. Sander Boschker
From 1989 to 2014, Sander Boschker was nearly a constant presence as goalkeeper of Dutch club FC Twente. After making his debut with the club, he quickly established himself as the first-choice keeper and endeared himself to the fans with his stunning diving saves. In 2003 at the age of 33, with 356 appearances for Twente, he made the decision to transfer to Dutch giants Ajax, but was never able to unseat Maarten Stekelenburg and returned to Twente after a year on the bench. His return was rewarded in 2009-10 when he helped Twente capture their first Eredivisie title and followed it up with his second KNVB Cup the following season. After featuring in every game of Twente’s season, he was named to the Dutch National Team and when he replaced Michel Vorm in a friendly against Ghana, he became the oldest player to ever debut for the Netherlands.
10. Johnny Haynes
There is no doubt that Johnny Haynes is the greatest player in the history of Fulham Football Club. Haynes is also regarded as one of the great England players and captained them 22 times in 56 appearances, before a car accident in 1962 saw him excluded from the National Team going forward. He was the first English professional player to ever earn £100 per week in wages. Despite being a prolific goal scorer, Haynes’ creative talents were regarded among the best in the world earning a famous compliment from Pele, who described him as the “best passer of the ball I’ve ever seen.” Today at Craven Cottage, fans still flock to the Johnny Haynes Stand and his statue outside the ground to pay tribute to the legend.
9. Roger Milla
Roger Milla’s impact on football has extended far beyond the pitch. He is responsible for one of most iconic and influential moments in the history of the sport. Milla made his way from the Cameroonian professional ranks to France, where he played for clubs like Valenciennes, Monaco, Bastia, and Saint-Etienne. The prolific striker scored an incredible 442 goals for club and country, winning the Coupe de France twice and the Cup of African Nations on two occasions. Milla is perhaps best known for his goal celebration in the 1990 World Cup in Italy, where he ran to the corner flag and began dancing around it. Four years later, he returned to represent Cameroon in the 1994 World Cup in the United States, where he became the oldest player to represent his country, a record that stood until 2014.
8. Giuseppe Signori
Giuseppe Signori is one of the greatest and most consistently overlooked players in Italian soccer history. Signori never received a winner’s medal during his career as a player, but he remains tired for ninth leading scorer in Serie A history with Alessandro Del Piero. Signori possessed incredible speed and a lethal left foot, which he used to fool defenders and goalkeepers alike. His slow ascension through Italian football began with Leffe before eventually making his way to Lazio, where he became one of the most beloved players in club history. His inclusion in the Italian National Team was infrequent due to clashes with manager Arrigo Sacchi, but he did play a significant role in Italy’s runner-up campaign during the 1994 World Cup.
7. Antonio Di Natale
Defying the odds is something that Antonio Di Natale has made common during his tenure in Serie A. Developed through the youth system of Empoli, he was loaned out three times before breaking into the first team and helping Empoli achieve promotion to the top flight. Once Empoli were relegated back to Serie B, Di Natale signed for Udinese in 2004 and quickly ingrained himself in the club’s culture. Since joining the club, he has scored an incredible 190 goals, earned the Serie A Top Scorer award twice, was named to the Team of the Season on three occasions, and was named Serie A Footballer of the Year in 2010. At the age of 38 he continues to pursue Serie A records, turning down a multi-million dollar offer from Major League Soccer to continue to add to his tally.
6. Tom Finney
The name Sir Tom Finney is synonymous with Preston North End. Tom’s father insisted that Tom complete his plumber’s apprenticeship before singing a professional contract, but the connection between Finney and Preston North End began just after World War II in 1946. Finney established himself as a fan favorite by scoring 18 minutes into his debut. Four weeks later, he made his debut for England and would continue representing them for 12 years, eventually becoming their all-time leading scorer for a period before being overtaken by teammate Nat Lofthouse. Finney would later serve as President of Preston North End and had a statue commissioned of his iconic Splash outside of the Old National Football Museum in Preston.
5. Matt Le Tissier
Few players have left a lasting legacy on their clubs the way Matt Le Tissier has for Southampton and he is completely deserving of his Saints nickname “Le God.” Possessing a thunderous right foot and incredible technique, Le Tissier established himself as an elite attacking midfielder, scoring 161 goals for Southampton. His record from the penalty spot may never be broken because Le Tissier missed only a single penalty out of 48 attempts. Despite his undoubted excellence on the pitch for Southampton, he was never able to establish himself in the English National Team, only earning eight senior appearances. However, following his retirement, his contributions to the game were recognized with his induction to the English Football Hall of Fame in 2013. His highlight reel of incredible goals ranks among the most impressive of all-time.
4. Jimmy Armfield
While some football fans may know Jimmy Armfield as a pundit of Five Live, prior to serving in that position, he was Blackpool’s most celebrated player of all-time. Armfield usually served as the club’s right back and he totaled an amazing 569 appearances for the club between 1954 and 1971. He helped the club achieve their highest ever finish with a runner-up First Division campaign in 1956. Armfield was named to the English National team and would serve as their captain for 15 matches, including the 1962 World Cup, where he was declared the best right back in the world. Four years later, he was named to the 1966 World Cup squad, but missed out due to injury. Thankfully he received the Winner’s Medal he was rightfully due in 2009. Today a statue of Armfield stands outside Bloomfield Road, just a stone’s throw from the Jimmy Armfield South Stand.
3. Josef Bican
Many cite Pele as the most prolific goal scorer of all-time, but they do so incorrectly, because that title rightfully belongs of Josef Bican. Bican grew up in poverty following the death of his father due to a football injury and credited his growing up without shoes for his amazing ball control. The Czech-Austrian striker played professionally from 1928 to 1955, and in that time, scored an incredible amount of goals, with estimates ranging from 800 to as many as 1,400. Internationally, he played for three countries, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Bohemia and Moravia and scored a total of 34 goals. Bican refused to cater to the whims of the political regimes in his home countries, refusing to swear allegiance to both the Nazi and Communist parties. While nobody will ever know exactly how many goals Bican scored, his speed and skills were far ahead of his time.
2. Carlos Valderrama
Few players in football history are as iconic and instantly recognizable as Carlos Valderrama. Known for his tightly curled, bleached blonde mass of hair, Valderrama was one of the most exciting and inventive players during an era known for creativity and excitement. Possessing some of the quickest feet that football has ever seen, Valderrama would dazzle his opponents and fans with his dribbling ability and use of shielding. His ball retention skills were truly legendary and it allowed him to make passes that other players would never dream of attempting. Valderrama’s work with the Colombian National Team at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups was remarkable, but his legacy on Major League Soccer is truly enormous as one of the icons of the league’s infant stages. Few players have been as influential on North American soccer as Carlos Valderrama has been.
1. Jose Luis Chilavert
Jose Luis Chilavert was a pioneer in world football and is known as one of the first and only goalkeepers to be his team’s free kick specialist. Chilavert possessed a remarkable ability to hit the dead ball and he used that prolifically throughout his career to score an incredible 66 goals over the course of his professional career. The outspoken keeper was no slouch between the posts either. He was named IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper three times and South American Footballer of the Year in 1996. Regarded as a hero in his home country of Paraguay, many speculated he would go on to serve as President following his retirement from football. He still holds the honor of being the only goalkeeper to have ever scored a hat-trick in a match, a feat which he accomplished with Velez Sarsfield in 1999.
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