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While all the glitz, glamour and megabucks might be in club football, the international scene is actually considered by many to be the highest level, with many players rating the privilege of putting on their national jersey to represent millions of their compatriots on the field to be their highest honor.
You cannot genuinely claim to have achieved it all as a player upon retirement if you did not etch your name in gold in the annals of your country’s footballing history, with the chance to play at a World Cup being the childhood dream of many footballers.
However, unless a player is from a relatively modest footballing nation, chances of him getting to represent his country are rather slim, as the pool of players to choose from in certain countries with illustrious histories is rather wide, and it therefore is survival of the fittest to get picked from this pool.
A lot of factors such as excess competition for spots, fallouts with national football administrators or bad luck with injuries conspire to rob some of the most talented footballers throughout history of the chance to earn an international cap. In this piece, we take a look at the six greatest players who never earned an international cap
Honorable mentions - Stefan Klos (Germany), Kevin Nolan (England), Mario De Castro (Brazil), Mark Noble (England), Jack Grealish (Scotland), Agostino Di Bartolomei (Italy), Bert Trautmann (Germany)
#6 Carlo Cudicini (Italy)
We begin the list with a man who established himself as one of the best shotstoppers in the league during his heyday. Carlo Cudicini broke into the Chelsea first team at the turn of the millennium, spending the next nine years at the club, and holding down the spot as first choice at Stamford Bridge until the arrival of a certain Petr Cech in 2004, and acting as his able deputy until he departed for Tottenham in 2009.
Carlo was voted Chelsea Player of the Season at the end of the 2001/2002 season, which is testament to his immense contributions to the club pre-Abramovic money, and he ended his spell in London having made over 141 Premier League appearances for the club, winning two league titles.
The son of legendary goalkeeper Fabio Cudicini (who also did not represent Italy despite starring with AC Milan), Cuducini represented Italy at youth levels, but never got an international cap, despite being called up for a friendly against Turkey in 2002 by Giovanni Trapatonni.
Cudicini was a victim of circumstance, coming into his prime at a time when Italy had an abundance of world class talents in the goalkeeping department including Gianluigi Buffon (who is considered by many to be the greatest goalkeeper of all time), as well as Francisco Toldo and Angelo Peruzzi, hence breaking in was always going to be a herculean task.
There were plans by the English FA to make him eligible for the England National team, but he did not pass some of the requirements by FIFA which included possession of an English passport by age 16 or having schooled in the country for at least five years, meaning he retired from his illustrious career without a single international cap to his name.
#5 Steve Bruce (England)
The next on the list is a Manchester United legend, who represented the Red Devils for nine successful seasons, and captained the club for two years until his departure in 1996. An absolute rock in the center of defense, Bruce won plenty admirers for his no-holds-barred style of defending, and formed a notable partnership with Gary Pallister at the heart of United’s backline in the early years of the club’s dominance of English football. However, while his defensive partner would go on to represent England on 22 occasions, Bruce was shockingly never called up to the national team.
He ended his spell at United with 12 trophies, including three Premier League titles, one League Cup and one Cup Winners Cup, and became the first Englishman of the 20th century to captain a side to the domestic double.
How a man who achieved so much at the biggest club in England was not called up to represent his country at full international level (although he turned out once for the now defunct England B) remains a mystery.
He was offered the chance to represent Ireland (through his mother’s place of birth), but a UEFA youth tournament he participated in for England rendered him ineligible, although he also stated in his autobiography that he did not pursue it in order not to cause United problems in exceeding the max number of foreign players allowed at a club. Bruce has since gone into coaching upon retirement to mixed results.
#4 Dario Hubner (Italy)
Dario Hubner was one of the most consistent performers in the Italian League during the middle of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s.
Bisonte as he was fondly called (in reference to his playing pattern like a bull) scored over 300 goals in a career spanning almost two decades, and made history as the oldest man to win the Serie A capoconeire (Golden Boot) in 2002 aged 35 (a record which was broken 13 years later by Luca Toni who did so aged 38 in 2015).
Making a name as an opportunistic goalscorer, Hubner started grabbing attention in the lower leagues with his goalscoring exploits, and continued with his impressive strike rate upon joining Serie A in 1997. However, for all of his goals, he never received an international call-up to the Italian national team.
A couple of reasons were responsible for this, including the fact that he competed for spots with legendary forwards such as Roberto Baggio and Christian Vieri, but moreso because of his poor disciplinary record and questionable work rate.
Hubner received a total of 10 red cards as well as 36 yellow cards during his playing career, and was a heavy drinker and regularly smoked on the bench, which did nothing to help his cause for all of his talents as a striker.
#3 Paolo Di Canio (Italy)
One of the most controversial yet talented players in the history of the Premier League, Di Canio was as capable of delivering a flash of brilliance in one minute, and a moment of madness in the very next.
He provided a highlight reel of eccentric performances throughout his seven year stay in England, garnering headlines for peculiar acts including when he received an eleven match ban for pushing a referee down in 1998, as well as picking up the ball and stopping play while his team was in an extremely good goalscoring position because an opponent was on the ground. He was also ill perceived due to his professed allegiance to Fascism.
Di Canio played as a forward (either deep-lying or on the wings), and began the early part of his career journeying around Italy without much success, but became a household name when he arrived the Premier League first with Sheffield Wednesday and then with West Ham, winning the prestigious Hammer of the Year in 2000.
However, despite his notable performances in England, Di Canio never received a call up to the Azurri of Italy for a number of reasons, chief of which was his eccentric behavior, as well as the fact that he was unfortunate to be competiting against players like Francesco Totti, Christian Vieri, Fillippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero among others who are considered to be among the greatest strikers in history.
Coupled with the fact that he did not perform too well in Serie A at a time when most of the national team players were selected from the league (a practice that still holds till this day).
Di Canio retired from football in 2008, and tried his hands at management, achieving success at his first job where he guided Swindon Town to League One, but went downhill since then, as his career in the dugout has been plagued with the same issues that characterized his playing career from clashing with star players to altercations with fans.
#2 Mikel Arteta (Spain)
A victim of circumstance, Mikel Arteta never represented his country of birth through no fault of his, but for the fact that he was unfortunate to be in the same era as some of the finest midfilders in history.
Arteta was a product of the famed La Masia academy, but having failed to make the cut at Nou Camp, he turned out for different clubs including Rangers and PSG before settling down at Everton.
He initially arrived at Goodison Park on loan from Real Sociedad in 2005, but impressed significantly enough for David Moyes to make the deal permanent, and he would go on to spend the next six seasons with Everton, captaining the side for the last three years of his stay there.
He was transferred to Arsenal in 2011, and went on to achieve success in the FA Cup on two occasions, before announcing his retirement in 2016.
Blessed with creativity and vision, Arteta possessed the technique and passing ability associated with all players who pass through La Masia, and is regularly considered among the greatest players not to have played for their country, and it speaks highly of his technical abilities that upon his retirement, the revered Pep Guardiola snapped him up instantly to be his assistant coach.
He represented Spain at all levels through the youth sides and captained them the U21 team in 2004, but an intense competition for places in midfield meant that he never received an international cap, although he was called up to the squad in February 2009, but pulled out of It just days later with a knee ligament injury which ruled him out for about nine months.
The FA explored possibilities of getting him to switch allegiance, and there were widespread newspaper publications in 2011 to this effect, but as with Carlo Cudicini, Arteta failed to pass two FIFA criteria having to do with schooling for a minimum of five years, and possessing an English passport at age 16.
#1 Gabi (Spain)
Arguably the greatest player of all time not to receive an international call up, Gabi earned widespread acclaim as one of the best central midfielders in Europe with his displays from the middle of the park during the spectacular rise of Atletico Madrid over the last seven years under Diego Simeone.
Gabi Hernandez progressed through the ranks in the Atletico youth setup, but departed for Real Zaragoza in 2007 where he performed creditably well to earn a return to Atletico Madrid in 2011 (Diego Simeone’s first full season in charge).
He was appointed as the team captain in 2012, and in many ways was a reflection of Diego Simeone on the field, albeit in a calmer way, as Gabi was the personification of the tireless and hardworking ethic instilled in the rojiblancos since Cholo took over, effective in possession and proficient in breaking up opposition attack.
He captained the side all through its most successful period in recent times, including to the shock La Liga triumph in 2014, as well as the Champions League final on two occasions as well as a Copa Del Rey and Europa League victory.
However for all of his impressive performances, Gabi never received a call up to the national side, a victim of the same circumstances as Arteta in that he competed against players like Xavi, Iniesta, David Silva and Fabregas but to name a few, and famously quipped in 2014, " I’d like to know what has to be done to earn a national call-up."
He ended his spell in Atletico by fittingly lifting the Europa League trophy in his last match with the club (where he scored a goal in the final), and has since gone on to Qatar to join one of the men who hindered him – Xavi at Al Saad.
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