In an era when international football is increasingly viewed as more of a chore than an honor, representing one’s nation may have lost some of the shine it once boasted.
Yet, in its purest form, being selected for the national team is recognition of a player’s status among the best dozen or so footballers in the country, a lofty standing considering the crushing popularity of the world’s favourite sport. If one call-up marks you out as the elite at present, being selected for more than a century of matches all but ensures you are woven into the fabric of the nation’s footballing history.
As a player known to reference ancient Greek historians, William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, Anatoliy Tymoschchuk stands out among the footballing crowd for more than just his sheer longevity.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Wayne Rooney. All goalscoring icons for their nation but this trio, and many other greats of the game, cannot match Robbie Keane’s tally of 68 international goals.
The spearhead of 11 different club sides ranks fifth among European goalscorers for their nation, boasting the same tally as the legendary Gerd Muller (admittedly, in 84 more games).
Playing in a generation when few on the continent, let alone those just in Sweden, have been able to step out of Ibrahimovic’s shadow, Anders Svensson was an ever-dependable, if rarely spotlight-stealing, figure of the national team in the 20th Century.
Topping the appearance list of a nation as rich in international success as Germany, is evidence enough of Lothar Matthaus’ status among the game’s greats.
Yet, the respect the former Ballon d’Or winner’s career warranted was shown when he earned his 144th cap in 2000 against the Netherlands, as Simon Kuper highlighted in FourFourTwo.
Matthaus was presented with a bouquet of flowers by Edgar Davids, the opposition’s captain, and greeted by more applause than abuse by the Amsterdam crowd, showing his talent transcended even a rivalry as fierce as the one which divides those two nations.
Martin Reim’s international debut in 1992 was also Estonia’s maiden bow on the global stage after gaining independence from the Soviet Union. The unwavering midfielder spent more than a decade and a half wearing the colours of his national team, but lasted less than three years as the country’s manager.
As captain and one of the key forces for harmony between the increasingly embittered Barcelona and Real Madrid factions in the Spanish national team, Casillas’ influence on the nation’s golden period extended beyond his superb goalkeeping.
Vitalijs Astafjevs wasn’t overselling Latvia’s performances at the 2004 European Championships when he told The Set Pieces: “We definitely surprised a few people.”
In Latvia’s only ever appearance at a major international tournament Astafjevs captained his nation to a continent-rocking 0-0 draw with Germany – the World Cup finalists two years prior – in the group stages.
Latvia ultimately bowed out in the first round but Astafjevs’ legacy with the national team was cemented by his ludicrous longevity, captaining his country from midfield across three different decades.
By the time Cristiano Ronaldo celebrated his 30th birthday, he had scored a respectable 52 goals in 118 caps. Yet, to add another layer to his supernatural reputation, Portugal’s talisman only needed 50 subsequent caps to rack up 50 more goals for his nation.
Gianluigi Buffon’s international career has been littered with highlights, and none greater than claiming football’s biggest prize in 2006. However, the end of his 20-year dynasty with the Azzurri was the setting for one of the nation’s most dire nights, when a draw at home to Sweden ensured Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Yet, if anything, that this dark night barely registers as anything more than a minor blot on his legendary copybook, is a testament to the unerring consistency of his greatness.
After breaking into the team as a right-back, Sergio Ramos has spent the past decade regally marshalling Spain’s backline from the centre of defence. At 34 years of age, and with the Olympics in his sights, how long it takes Ramos to Ahmed Hassan’s worldwide record of 184 international appearances is surely only a matter of time.