The Greatest Players Never to Play for their Country

best players never to make an international football appearance

For many, international football is considered to be the pinnacle of the sport. It’s where national heroes are born. Where the best players in the world get the chance to make a name for themselves on the biggest stage. It’s where domestic rivalries are put aside and an entire nation is united. It’s every footballers’ dream to don the colours of their country, but for some, the call-up never comes. Like the ten lads below. Call the police, I’d like to report a crime or two.

Steed Malbranque

A graduate of the Lyon academy Steed Malbranque made his way to England in 2001 and, over the course of the next ten years, became a household name following stints at Fulham, Tottenham and Sunderland. Blessed with excellent technique, skill and vision, Malbranque was nimble, light on his feet and had a low centre of gravity making it difficult for defenders to get anywhere near him.

Malbranque represented France at all youth levels from the age of 14-21, and although he received numerous call ups to the senior side, he failed to win a single cap for Les Bleus. As a result, the attacking midfielder, who could operate out wide or centrally, attempted to switch his allegiance. Born in Belgium, Malbranque offered his services to the Red Devil’s, but he was immediately shot down. God loves a trier.

Paolo Cannavaro

The younger brother of World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro, Paolo, can count himself incredibly unlucky never to feature for the Azzurri. Despite living in his brother’s shadow for the majority of his career, Paolo was a solid centre half himself and a Coppa Italia winner with Napoli – where he spent seven years as club captain.

Despite making 30 appearances for his country at youth level, Cannavaro was unable to break into the senior side. Italy’s ability to churn out world class centre backs time and time again would prove to be his downfall. Brother Fabio, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, to name but a few were all ahead of him in the pecking order. Even when the senior call up eventually materialised, Paolo was forced to watch Italy’s friendly with South Africa from the bench. Wounded.

Thorsten Fink

4 Bundesliga titles, 3 German Cups, 1 Intercontinental Cup and 1 Champions League title. Thorsten Fink won it all as a player, apart from an international cap. He couldn’t get his hands on one of those, nein.

Part of the successful Bayern Munich squad of the ‘90s, albeit a lesser known member, Fink played a pivotal role in the club’s success, but for one reason or another his face didn’t fit on the international stage. Despite playing his best football between 1998-2000, when the German team was, by their standards, struggling for form, Fink continued to be overlooked, which was baffling. In the end, It just wasn’t meant to be.

Mikel Arteta

A two time FA Cup winner with Arsenal and Scottish Premier League winner with Rangers, Spanish midfielder Mikel Arteta was one hell of a player. He was silky. Could pick a pass. Had excellent vision and an exquisite first touch. But it wasn’t enough to earn a Spanish cap.

Unfortunately, the Barcelona academy graduate’s peak years occurred when a certain Xavi and Iniesta were dominating world football. Nobody could touch them. Two of the greatest midfielders the game has ever seen who just happened to play for Spain. Unlucky, Mikel.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Behind them, Xabi Alonso or Sergio Busquets sat deeper. Whilst Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla and David Silva provided world class replacements. Fair to say, then, that Spain were well stocked in the midfielder area, meaning Arteta was well down the pecking order. So much so that an elusive first cap never materialised, despite 42 appearances at youth level. Still, not a bad career.

Steve Bruce

Steve Bruce made over 300 appearances for Manchester United and lifted three Premier League titles, but it wasn’t enough to secure a cap for England. A rock at the heart of United’s defence for nine years Bruce was, controversially, finally offered the chance to represent the Three Lions at the end of his career, aged 34. The centre back, though, rejected the offer feeling the call up was not merrier and instead offered out of sympathy. You can see where he’s coming from, to be fair.

Paolo di Canio

Let’s forget all of the controversy and scandal surrounding Paolo di Canio, I know it’s hard, and focus on his footballing ability. The guy was different gravy. A magician with the ball at his feet. Remember that bicycle kick against Manchester United? Outstanding. But, believe it or not, he was never capped by Italy at senior level. Why? Who knows. Perhaps it was down to his controversial political views. Erratic behaviour. Or because he failed to reach the same heights he hit in England back in Italy. Whatever the reasoning behind Di Canio being snubbed by Italy, it’s criminal we never got to see him play on the biggest stage of all.

Mauro Zárate

Journeyman Mauro Zárate has made over 400 career appearances for 14 clubs averaging a goal every three games. Not bad. Primarily a striker but also capable of playing as an attacking midfielder, Zárate can count himself unlucky to never receive a cap for Argentina.

Like most players on this list, he was born in an era when players in his position were in abundance. Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain to name but a few were all ahead of him in the pecking order. And, to be fair, there’s absolutely no shame in that, three world class players.

Zárate is also eligible to play for Chile due to his father, and in 2014 rumours circulated suggesting the striker had opted to represent his father’s homeland. A year later, though, those rumours were put to bed by Zárate, who insisted he only wanted to play for Argentina.

Gabi

Over 400 appearances, two stints, one La Liga title, one Copa del Rey and two Europa League crowns Gabriel Fernández Arenas, or Gabi to you and I, was an Atletico Madrid legend, and a serious baller. But despite his heroics for the club, he was never rewarded at international level.

Like Mikel Arteta, Gabi suffered the same fate. Hitting his peak when Spain dominated world football. As a defensive midfielder, Gabi found himself down the pecking order with Sergio Busquets and Javi Martinez, both ahead of him between 2010-2012. Two years later, after a stellar season that saw him captain Atletico to the league title, Gabi was controversially overlooked for the 2014 World Cup. Spain would go on to crash out in the group stages with what many said was a stagnated squad.

Howard Kendall

Everton’s famous ‘Holy Trinity’ consisted of World Cup winner Alan Ball, Colin Harvey and the great Howard Kendall. The latter was a talented midfielder strangely overlooked by the Three Lions in the 1970s. Before reaching two FA Cup finals and winning the league with the Toffees, Kendall captained England’s youth team to glory at the 1964 Little World Cup. Following the young Lion’s success, many tipped Kendal to become a regular for the senior side but for whatever reason, it didn’t happen. Criminal.

Dario Hubner

Look up the definition of ‘fox in the box’ and Dario Hubner’s name will come up, or it should. Left foot. Right foot. Head. The guy scored all types of goals. He was a predator in and around the box. In 2002 Hubner bagged 24 league goals seeing him finish the season as Serie A’s top goal scorer. Not bad for a 35-year-old. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to secure himself a maiden Italy cap, with the Azzurri having depth in numbers in attacking positions.