It is a common complaint among international soccer supporters that their players perform better for their club sides than they do for their countries. The complaint has recently become particularly prevalent among English and French soccer fans, among others, but here is a list to level the playing field and show that in some cases it can actually be the other way round.
Some of these players have had very respectable or even very good club careers, but all have been or still are far better for their national teams. Whether it is a great sense of national pride which inspires players to perform above their average levels of performance or whether they simply flourish in the style of play and teammates they have at international level, every player on this list is a national hero, regardless of their club form.
The list includes three World Cup winners and five players with more than 100 caps for their country. Six of the players play for countries which one might describe as lesser national teams, but there is no real trend to the list, with no emphasis on players of any particular region. Notable exceptions include Tim Cahill, Ali Daei and Geoff Hurst. Here are the top 20 soccer players who play better for their national team than for their club:
Neymar is down in 20th in this list because he is a very good player at club level. He was the star player in the Brazilian Serie A with Santos and has been one of the best players in a star-studded Barcelona side since joining the Catalan club. That being said, Neymar does still turn it up an extra notch when he pulls on the yellow of Brazil.
At the age of 23 he already has 65 caps, a stat which is quite incredible for a country with the strength of Brazil. In those 65 games he has scored 44 goals, again a telling statistic considering Neymar is normally deployed in a wide area, his influence upon the Brazil team was obvious as they crashed out of the 2014 World Cup losing 7-1 without him.
19. Miroslav Klose
Another player who is very good at club level but absolutely world class on the international stage is 2014 World Cup winner Miroslav Klose. The German striker is one of the few great poachers left in the modern game and he has been absolutely lethal for his country. At club level, Klose has had mixed fortunes, doing well for Kaiserslautern, Werder Bremen and Lazio, but coming up short when he got his big move to Bayern Munich. At international level, he has been magnificent, and is the all-time World Cup top scorer with 16 tournament goals.
18. Hugo Almeida
It has been joked that Hugo Almeida is cryogenically frozen and only brought out for the World Cup and European Championships, as the striker seems to go very much under the radar other than at major international tournaments. Almeida has scored 142 goals in 412 games, an okay but not particularly noteworthy record, and has only scored three goals in the last year, which was reflected in his summer move to Anzhi. With Portugal he has been fairly regular, playing 57 times and scoring 19 goals.
17. Robbie Keane
Robbie Keane has done very well at club level, but there can be no doubting that for Ireland, he has been consistently superb. Keane scored 194 goals in 523 games in the Premier League and has been even more prolific in the, albeit weaker, MLS, with 78 goals in 128 games for the L.A. Galaxy. With Ireland, Keane has a staggering 140 caps and is still going strong at 35, and has scored 65 goals for the R.O.I., making him the top scoring active international player in the world.
16. Johnny Heitinga
Johnny Heitinga has been a virtual ever-present for the Netherlands national team for the last decade, having made his debut in 2004. At the age of 31, Heitinga currently has 87 caps and has played for his country at two World Cups and three European Championships. The central defender was solid under David Moyes at Everton but never outstanding and was eventually deemed surplus to requirements. He joined Fulham in 2014, and was relegated with the club, before joining Hertha. He moved to Ajax this summer, where he will look to replicate his national form at club level.
15. Salvatore Schillaci
Italian striker Salvator Schillaci is a tricky player to asses. He was supposed to be something of a pacey poacher, but his goalscoring record was not that impressive. He was average at Juventus and flopped at Inter Milan, before becoming a prolific goal scorer in the lesser J-League in Japan. At Italia ’90 though, the World Cup which took place in his home country, Schillaci was exceptional. He scored six goals at the tournament, making him the top scorer, and was also named the tournament’s best player, with Diego Maradona and Lothar Matthaus in second and third respectively.
14. Diego Forlan
Diego Forlan may have flopped at Manchester United, but he has proven at every other club he has played for what a talent he is. Forlan is technically very good, and when twinned with a high work rate, determination and intelligence, he became one of Europe’s most feared forwards throughout the 2000s. He has played 112 times for Uruguay, and although often being deployed in a support role, he has still managed 36 goals for his country. He was named the best player at the 2010 World Cup at the age of 31.
13. Jozy Altidore
There was some controversy as Jurgen Klinsmann decided to drop Jozy Altidore from the USMNT ahead of the Gold Cup in his most recent squad. Having made his debut at 18, Altidore has 83 caps already and is only 25 years old, making it unsurprising that many were shocked at his omission from the squad. Altidore has been prolific in the U.S. and Holland, but in the stronger La Liga and Premier League his record is appalling; yet the big man often turns it on for the U.S. when it matters, and has 27 international goals already.
12. Egidio Arevalo
The second Uruguayan to make this list, Egidio Arevalo is a hard-working defensive midfielder who never gives his opponents a minutes rest and prides himself on his terrier-like work rate. His playing style and ability to the dirty work has been richly rewarded by his country, with whom he has 63 caps, but less so at club level. He has been something of a journeyman, being transferred 12 times, and has never nailed down a place in a top team. With Uruguay, he is a regular starter and is even the countries captain.
11. Nicklas Bendtner
Nicklas Bendtner spent nine years at Arsenal, averaging just over 10 games a year before heading to the Bundesliga in 2014. His goalscoring record for a striker is pretty poor, averaging around a goal every four games in the Premier League and Bundesliga. Yet for Denmark, time and time again, Bendtner has proved a crucial player. He has scored 29 goals in 68 caps, with some of his goals coming against the likes of Portugal (x4), Germany, Brazil and Italy.
Another poor Fergie signing and another player who plays out of his skin for his country, Kleberson never amounted to much at club level, flopping at both Manchester United and Besiktas. Outside of Europe, Kleberson carved out a respectable career in his native Brazil, but rarely stood out, and currently plays in the U.S. for the Indy Eleven in the NASL. Despite a fairly average club career, Kleberson has 32 caps for Brazil and was an integral part of their 2002 World Cup winning team.
9. Peter Crouch
Peter Crouch’s goalscoring record at club level is only slightly better than one in four, yet for England he has averaged better than a goal a game. In many respects, Crouch is unlucky not to have amassed more caps for his country given his form whenever he has been given the opportunity to play for the Three Lions. The six-foot-seven striker is the Premier League’s all-time record scorer of headed goals, but despite spells with Liverpool and Tottenham, few would describe him as one of the league’s top performers at any stage of his career.
8. Helder Postiga
The second Portuguese striker and the second man who we suspect may be cryogenically frozen between major tournaments. Even more so than Almeida, Postiga only performs on the international stage. He has never scored over 15 league goals in a single season, and only twice managed more than 10. He has flopped with Porto, Tottenham and Sporting and is often cited as one of the worst ever Premier League strikers. Yet for Portugal, Postiga has 71 caps and 27 goals, including crucial goals against England and Germany at the European Championships and World Cup.
7. Stern John
Stern John is probably one of the ‘lesser’ players on this list, that is to say, he spent much of his career in the second tier of English soccer. John averaged a goal every three games in the Premier League and Championship, now aged 38, he currently plays for WASA FC in Trinidad and Tobago. He is a legend in the country, having played 115 times for his country and scoring 70 goals, the ninth most in the history of international soccer, before retiring in 2012.
6. Jan Koller
Jan Koller is one of the tallest players in the history of international soccer, and he is also the Czech Republic’s top scorer of all-time, with 55 goals in 91 caps. As a European nation, the Czech Republic tend to face tough opposition, making that a very impressive record. He scored regularly at club level, but never that regularly, with a Bundesliga title in 2002 his only outstanding achievement. Koller retired in 2011 after two seasons with Cannes in the French third division.
5. The Entire Greek National Team
A bit of an odd one, but let me explain. When one looks at the Greek national team on paper, it is rarely awe-inspiring. If you were asked to name the Greece squad of the 2004 European Championships you may struggle, but you’d have little trouble reciting the names of that year’s France, Italy or England squad, yet Greece won the tournament. Their squad is fairly poor and at best mediocre, yet they often prove tricky opponents for more reputable national teams and often overcome the odds.
4. Junichi Inamoto
Junichi Inamoto has never made a real impression upon one of Europe’s top leagues. His four years in the Premier League were uninspiring, with him rarely making a first team appearance. He played more often in France and Germany, but still failed to show himself as a top class player and returned to Japan in 2010. Yet for the relatively strong Japanese national team he has been a regular fixture, winning 83 caps and often finding himself at the heart of his countries midfield in what has been a very impressive international career.
3. Henri Camara
It doesn’t matter how hard you look, you still won’t find a great achievement made by Henri Camara at club level over the course of his career. He has moved about non-stop, and even when he did settle down for four years with Wigan in his most impressive spell, he still only managed 20 goals in 69 games. He currently plays for Lamia in Greece, who play in Greece’s second tier. Despite this, his record for Senegal has been much more notable. 29 goals in 99 caps shows his level of importance and he played a key role in Senegal’s famous path to the 2002 World Cup Quarter-Finals.
2. David Healy
David Healy spent the majority of his career in the English second tier, now known as the Championship, with three seasons in the Premier League. In those three seasons, Healy scored just 5 goals. Even over his entire career, involving spells in the third tier, Healy average a worse than one in four goalscoring record, yet for Northern Ireland he was prolific. He won 95 caps for his country, in which time he scored 36 goals, including a historic hat-trick against Spain and an equally famous winner against England, both coming in competitive fixtures.
1. Lukas Podolski
Lukas Podolski is quite simply explosive when he pulls on the white of Germany. Having only recently turned 30, Podolski already has 125 caps and 48 goals to his name, not bad for a player he usually plays on the left side of attack for his country. Podolski has never found that level of brilliance of consistency at club level. He was excellent for Koln but has flopped with Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Inter Milan. He joined Galatasaray this summer, evidence that Europe’s top clubs weren’t interested despite Podolski’s incredible international pedigree.
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