5 most successful footballers with obscure nationalities
Many of the world’s greatest footballers will gather at World Cup 2018 later this summer, but spare a thought for those who have not qualified.
Opportunities on such a stage may be taken for granted by the game’s greats from countries such as Germany, Brazil and France, but for many, even playing in a major tournament is an opportunity that can easily bypass them.
The nature of international football means that it is not every great player who gets the opportunity to show off on the biggest stage. Wales and Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, Gabon’s Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang and Bosnia’s Miralem Pjanic are just a few of the superstars from smaller countries who have impressed in recent seasons.
Here are five players from small countries not necessarily considered a hotbed of footballing talent who have found a way to make a lasting impression on the game with their brilliant form at club level, and sometimes by leading their countries to unexpected success on an international stage.
5. Davor Suker (Croatia)
With a population of under 7 million people, Croatia is a nation that has punched above its weight since it became independent in 1991. For such a relatively small country, it has produced an excessive number of top-class players throughout its existence, with Real Madrid’s Luka Modric perhaps the best contemporary example.
Before the midfield maestro, however, came the class of 1998, the leading light of which was Davor Suker, who was also a Real Madrid player.
Croatia caused a stir at the World Cup that year, nearly reaching the final at the expense of eventual winners France. Suker, a striker, was a key contributor to their efforts, scoring six times during the finals to win the Golden Boot. At the same time, he also claimed the Silver Ball as the tournament’s outstanding player, finishing ahead of Zinedine Zidane but behind Ronaldo.
Such was his impact overall that year, in which he also helped Real Madrid win the Champions League, he finished second in the Ballon d’Or voting, with only Zidane outstripping him.
He later turned out for Arsenal and was a UEFA Cup runner-up in 2000. He was Croatia’s first world-class player, although since delving into football politics when he retired, he has become a divisive figure and has been involved in numerous controversies.
4. George Weah (Liberia)
While there is a case for Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba or perhaps even Mohamed Salah to be named the greatest African footballer of all time, the honour of being the only person from the continent to win the Ballon d’Or rests with George Weah of Liberia.
He had been playing in Cameroon when he was signed by Arsene Wenger’s Monaco in 1988 when he was 21. It did not take him long to adapt to a new lifestyle, though as he thrived in France, leading Wenger to comment: “Weah was a real surprise. I have never seen any player explode on to the scene like he did.”
After four seasons in the principality, he moved to Paris Saint-Germain, where he helped the club into the semi-finals of the Champions League, finishing the 1994-95 edition as the leading scorer.
He would go on to win the 1995 Ballon d’Or thanks in part to those efforts, but also those he made with AC Milan, where he moved in the summer. His pace and power are remembered fondly at San Siro, including a trademark goal against Hellas Verona, which saw him gather possession outside his box and run the full length of the park to score.
By the time he moved to Chelsea on loan, then Manchester City, Marseille and finally Al Jazira, he was past his peak but is still remembered as a remarkable talent.
Such is his popularity in his homeland, which has been ravaged by civil war, he has turned to politics and is now a unifying power as president of his nation.
3. Jari Litmanen (Finland)
Finland has little top-level footballing tradition. Players who have reached the summit of the game have been few and far between, with ex-Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia perhaps the greatest player that they have produced in recent times.
In a slightly earlier generation, though, was Jari Litmanen, who rose to become one of the foremost attackers in the world game during a devastating spell with Ajax in the 1990s. Indeed, the Finn was one of their star players as the Amsterdam club famously won the Champions League in season 1994-95 with a collection of youngsters who have come through their academy system.
He would twice finish in the top 10 of the Ballon d’Or voting, notably finishing third in the 1995 edition.
It would be unfair to judge him on disappointing spells at Barcelona and Liverpool later in his career, by which time injuries had started to take their toll.
Rather, his form in the Eredivisie – a league held in far higher regard in the 90s than it is today – speaks for itself as he averaged a goal every other game for six seasons, despite being primarily a playmaker.
Indeed, former team-mate Frank Rijkaard said of him: “Dennis Bergkamp was brilliant for Ajax, but the best No.10 we ever had was Jari.”
Unsurprisingly, he is considered his country’s finest ever player, and while he was past his peak by the time he turned 30, he would continue playing for the national team until he was 39.
2. Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria)
Hristo Stoichkov was one of the greatest players of the 1990s and also one of the most colourful.
He initially made his name playing for CSKA Sofia, but it was at Barcelona that the Bulgarian ace rose to world prominence. During an initial five-year spell at Camp Nou, he scored 77 goals in La Liga in just 149 appearances, constantly pushing towards the top scoring chart, even if team-mate Romario eclipsed him in this regard.
A string of titles were earned in Spain as part of Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’, helping them to four Spanish crowns but also the European Cup of 1992.
His zenith, however, was reached in 1994, when he claimed the Ballon d’Or. It was his exploits at the World Cup of that year that caught the eye. Bulgaria travelled to the USA as a side expected to make up the numbers, but instead, they finished fourth, having knocked out defending champions Germany along the way.
Barrel-chested, he was a bull of a striker, but he certainly did not simply rely on his impressive physique to give defenders nightmares. He had a subtlety in his touch and an intelligence in his play that made him for than just a raw goal-getter, although he also had a mercurial side to his character that saw him regularly earn red cards.
1. George Best (Northern Ireland)
Regarded in some quarters as the greatest European player of all time, George Best was – and remains – an icon at Manchester United. On the field, his talents were undoubted, but off it, he was a playboy whose lifestyle prevented him from enjoying the longevity that he might have and ultimately caused his untimely death aged 59 in 2005.
He began his career at Man United in 1963 when he was 18 and would stay at Old Trafford for 11 years. During his time with the Red Devils, he was noted for his stunning dribbling ability, apparently untouchable when he had the ball at his feet.
The high point of his career was the 1968 European Cup final, in which Benfica were defeated 4-1 at Wembley. He scored the decisive goal in extra-time during that encounter, going on a trademark mazy run before scoring. It said much that he stood out in a side that also contained Bobby Charlton and Denis Law – two of the club’s greatest legends.
“George Best was one of the most talented players of all time and probably the best footballer who never made it to a major world final,” the great Franz Beckenbauer said of the player.
Once Best departed United, he would become rather nomadic, turning out for the likes of Stockport, Cork City, Los Angeles Aztecs, Hibernian and Brisbane Lions as he attempted to battle his alcohol addiction – one battle he would never win.