It can be very frustrating for supporters when they see a top player failing to perform on a consistent basis at international level. International football is a different breed to the club game, and it is no surprise some players struggle to adapt. While you train six days a week with your club teammates, you may only train a few weeks a year with your national teammates, and even be expected to learn to play in a whole new system or position in that time.
There is also the additional stresses and expectations of playing international football. Having the weight of a team’s supporters resting upon you is one thing, having an entire nation’s hopes, dreams and expectations resting upon you can be a whole different ball game, and simply too much for some players to handle.
All of the players on this list had much hope pinned upon them, and most had excellent club careers, yet for one reason or another, failed to come through for their national teams. The list only includes players who represented at the very least a competitive national team, where there was some chance of shining on the international stage, and most played for established footballing powers. Here are the top 15 soccer players who never came through for their national team.
Given Nani’s undoubted natural ability and potential, it could be argued that he never really ‘came through’ to the extent he should have at club or national level. However, while the enigmatic wide man has shown flashes of what he is capable of with Sporting, Manchester United and Fenerbahce, he has rarely done so in almost a century of caps for the Portuguese national team. The 29-year-old has 92 caps to his name, but has only scored 17 goals, and never turned up for the big occasions. He was ineffective at Euro 2008, injured for the 2010 World Cup and blamed biased referee’s for his and Portugal’s struggles at the 2014 World Cup.
14. Robbie Fowler
The sixth highest scorer in Premier League history, sandwiched between Thierry Henry and Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler scored a career total of 252 goals, the majority of which came in his nine year spell at boyhood club Liverpool. A natural poacher, Fowler was included in England’s squad for three major tournaments, Euro ’96, Euro 2000, and the 2002 World Cup. He failed to score in any of them, and scored a total of only seven goals and played only 26 games for England. The goals he did score all came in friendlies, two against Mexico, two against Cameroon, and one apiece against Albania, Italy and Ukraine.
13. George Best
A little harsh some might suggest given that George Best was not surrounded by quality footballers in a distinctly sub-par Northern Ireland team. Best himself was a keen supporter of a united ROI and Northern Ireland team to increase their chances on the international stage. Despite the national teams lack of quality, a player of Best’s abilities should have managed more than the meagre 37 caps and 9 goals that he managed in his 13 years playing for his country. Of the 9 goals Best did score, 4 came in a single game, a friendly against Cyprus, whilst the others came against Albania, England, Scotland, Switzerland and Turkey.
12. Ian Wright
Somewhat similarly to Robbie Fowler, Ian Wright had a tremendous career in the First Division and Premier League, scoring 305 goals in 596 games over the course of a 15 year career in the professional game. A product of non-league football, Wright made his name with Crystal Palace, before becoming a legend at Arsenal. Whilst success filled Wright’s club career, it was harder to come by at international level. In the eight years he played for England, the country played 87 games, yet Wright started only 17 and came on in a further 16 games, despite being the top scorer in the country throughout much of this era. In total, he managed 9 international goals in 33 games, four of which came in a single game against the minnows of San Marino.
11. Freddy Adu
Freddy Adu did not only fail to come through for the U.S. national team, he failed to come through full stop. However, the hope, promise and expectation that was – perhaps unfairly – pinned upon him by the American people and press, make his inclusion well justified. At the age of 14, Adu became the youngest person to be drafted in major league sport history, the youngest player to play in the MLS and the youngest to score a goal.
He was already being dubbed ‘the next Pele’, and became the youngest player in USMNT history in 2006, aged 16. A decade later and Adu has flopped spectacularly, becoming an unwanted journeyman. His international career ended aged 21, with a record of 2 goals from 17 caps.
10. Michael Laudrup
A controversial inclusion, given that Michael Laudrup is the greatest Danish footballer of all time and played very well for the country’s national team, racking up 104 caps and scoring 37 goals from attacking midfield. Yet Laudrup had virtually no success with the national team and turned his nose up at the team for their only great success. He was part of the Denmark squads which struggled at Euro ’84, 1986 World Cup, Euro ’88 and the 1994 World Cup.
He first retired from international football following Denmark’s failure to qualify for Euro ’92, and when the country was given automatic entry, Laudrup turned the opportunity down. Denmark went on to shock Europe and win the tournament and Laudrup returned for 1994 World Cup qualification failure.
9. Cesar Rodriguez Alvarez
Lionel Messi is the only man to have scored more goals for FC Barcelona than Cesar Rodriguez Alvarez. The diminutive Spanish forward spent 16 years at the club, of a 21 year career, and scored a total of 315 goals in 501 games, winning five La Liga titles. A player of such ability, achievement and longevity would normally rack up somewhere in the region of a century of caps for their country, yet Cesar played only 12 times for the Spanish national team, scoring six goals. All his goals came in friendly games, half coming against Portugal, and although he was named in Spain’s 1950 World Cup squad he was an unused substitute.
8. Nwankwo Kanu
Nwankwo Kanu’s list of achievements is something to behold. The Nigerian striker won 14 trophies over his career, including multiple league titles in Nigeria, Holland and England, as well as winning the Champions League, UEFA Cup, Super Cup, Intercontinental Cup and the FA Cup. Twice named African Footballer of the Year, Kanu should have been the talisman of Nigeria’s Golden Generation, an era of players including the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha and Findi George. Yet Kanu never delivered – scoring a fairly miserable 12 goals in 87 caps for his country, failing to score in either a World Cup or African Cup of Nations. His only success with Nigeria came in the 1996 Olympics.
7. Franck Ribery
When Zinedine Zidane retired from football following the 2006 World Cup, Franck Ribery was France’s new outstanding talent. Having had a fine tournament in 2006, aged 23, Ribery was expected to inherit the captaincy and inspire France to a new age of success as Zidane had a decade earlier. In this sense at least, Ribery has never come through for France.
He failed to score for 18 months after Zidane’s retirement, did nothing as France failed at Euro 2008, had an absolute disaster at the 2010 World Cup as France were humiliated and he was ineffective once more at Euro 2012. Ribery was ruled out of the 2014 World Cup through injury and chose to retire from international football, with a record of 16 goals from 81 caps and having failed in every tournament since 2006.
6. England’s Golden Generation
There are too many players from England’s failed ‘Golden Generation’ to name them all on a list of 15, although one player still makes this list with a separate listing. There were some exceptions to this rule. Ashley Cole in particular always maintained his club form at international level, but few others did likewise. Wayne Rooney, despite being England’s all-time top scorer, has routinely failed at every single major tournament since 2004. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, both excellent players, failed to gel and find any kind of form on the major stage alongside one and another.
5. Paul Scholes
The one player of England’s Golden Generation who merits a separate listing all of his own, Paul Scholes was England’s most talented player since at least Paul Gascoigne, and probably beyond. A midfield maestro capable of controlling and bossing any game, had Scholes been Spanish, Italian or German, many believe he would have racked up 100-plus caps and had a marvellous international career.
As it happened, England mostly pushed Scholes out to the left wing to accommodate Gerrard and Lampard, where the Manchester United man was largely ineffective. He retired with 14 goals from 66 caps, and a depressing impact on international football for one of England’s all-time greats.
4. Mark Viduka
Another player born into a Golden Generation, and in Mark Viduka’s case it was the Australian national team of the 2000s. One of the oldest players of this so-called Golden Generation, alongside the likes of Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer, Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton, despite being arguably the most talented of the lot, Viduka never really turned it on for the Socceroos. A prolific scorer at club level in Australia, Croatia, Scotland and England, perhaps most notably with Leeds in the Premier League.
Despite his excellent club form, Viduka was poor for Australia, managing only 11 goals in 43 caps, none in major competitions, with 9 of his 11 goals coming against hardly footballing powerhouses in the form of Tunisia, Soloman Islands (x2), Jamaica, Singapore (x2), Iraq and Thailand (x2).
3. John Barnes
The fifth and final entry from England, John Barnes was actually born in Kingston, Jamaica. Primarily a left winger, Barnes made a name for himself at Watford, where he spent 6 years, before joining Liverpool in 1987, going on to spend a decade at Anfield. Barnes was superb on Merseyside, and was even named by FourFourTwo as Liverpool’s greatest ever player. His international form never mirrored his club success though. Despite winning 79 caps for England, Barnes was agonisingly inconsistent. He scored one of England’s greatest ever goals against Brazil in a friendly, but England never quite got the best out of him, with Bobby Robson describing him as the greatest enigma of his career.
2. Alan Hansen
Another former Liverpool legend, Alan Hansen was a genuinely world class defender who had a superb 18 year career, 14 of which were spent at Liverpool. He is among Liverpool’s top 10 appearances holders of all-time, and won an incredible 23 trophies at the club, most notably eight league titles and three European Cups. One of the finest defenders of his generation, one would expect Hansen to have been a nailed on starter in the Scottish national team for more than a decade, but that wasn’t the case.
Hansen won only 26 caps for his country, largely down to the preferred defensive pairing of Willie Nelson and Alex McLeish, who played alongside one and another at club level for Aberdeen. Given just how good Hansen was for Liverpool it is incredible that he couldn’t get more game time in a decent but far from spectacular Scotland team. His international career effectively ended in 1986 when Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t even include the defender in his 23-man World Cup squad.
1. Nicolas Anelka
Currently player-manager at Mumbai City, Nicolas Anelka has been something of an enigma throughout his career. Undoubtedly skilful and gifted, Anelka has been labelled a mercenary and a journeyman by many. With a list of former clubs which includes the likes of PSG, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea and Juventus, it is clear some of the worlds best managers identified Anelka as a top class player. He has won league titles in England, Turkey and Italy, as well as having won the Champions League. He has scored more than 200 goals in his career, and more than 100 in the Premier League.
69 caps for the French national team shows that Anelka got more than a fair crack of the whip at international level, yet he did very little. He scored 14 goals in those 69 games, a goal scoring rate far below his record at club level. Anelka didn’t manage a single goal in a World Cup or European Championships, and what’s worse, unlike most on this list who simply failed, Anelka was also highly disruptive at times. Having failed at every major tournament he ever played in, Anelka was a big part of France’s collapse and humiliation at the 2010 World Cup.
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