International caps. The hallmark of a professional footballer. Being selected to represent your country – I mean, what could be better? Well, being selected to do so many many times, of course!
When I was younger (like 10 years or two weeks ago) I liked to daydream about being a good footballer – I pretty much sucked in real life. Titles at the club level were always featured in those dreams, but even more important for me were the international caps – being selected to the national team… I always thought that if I were a footballer, I would make myself available for the national team for as long as I could walk. Just like Kobi Kuhn said about the great Stephane Chapuisat – As long as I could kick a football, I will be available for international selection. I mean, there is no higher honor than that. This is why I always admired players like David Beckham (do I sense a Hall of Fame induction? Well, yes I am! But not now, though), who always behaved like I imagined I would in his place – Beckham ALWAYS made himself available for England, and never suppressed his desire to play for the three lions, even when he was nearing the end of his career (The fact that he wasn’t selected to be a part of GB’s 2012 Olympic team is an outrage). This is so much different from so many players, some of them from the top of the top, who retire from international play for a variety of reasons. Although I can understand their logic, this is something I really can’t relate to.
Anyway, as a numbers freak, I always liked to pay attention to international caps records. There used to be this prestigious “Century Club”, for players who accumulated 100+ international caps. This used to be a real thing back in the day, even in the late 90’s, but nowadays we have A LOT of players who reached that total, and so, while it is still a major achievement (Israel, for example, didn’t produce a single player with 100+ caps, despite some good opportunities. It seems that when a player turns 34, he automatically becomes unavailable for international selection. Fuck you, Israel), it got diluted a bit.
The first member of the “Century Club” was Billy Wright, the legendary England captain. He was the first player to reach 100 caps, and mind you, he did it in the fucking fifties! Wright ended his international career in 1959, with 105 caps, which as of 2014 is still good for 8th place all-time in England’s national team’s history.
It took another 11 years for someone to break Wright’s record, and it was his fellow countryman Bobby Charlton who did it. But from then on the record didn’t stay untouched for more than a few years.
fuck the old times, what happened in recent years? The first recordsman I remember from the time when I first started to be interested in football was the Swede goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli, who accumulated 143 caps when he retired. I first heard of him when Sweden played Israel back in March 1997, and Ravelli earned his 136th cap. However, little did I know that I’ve been lied to! As it turns out,
Ravelli wasn’t the caps record holder at that time. The true all-time caps leader in 1996 and 1997 was Adnan Al Talyani, who played for the United Arab Emirates. Perhaps the fact that he didn’t play for a high-profile football country like Sweden is what caused people to ignore him, but hey – a record is a record. You can’t just ignore numbers just because of politics. The same thing happened with Lothar Matthaus. I still remember that when this legendary player reached the amazing number of 150 caps back in 2000, and did it at such a high-profile venue as the European Championships, people wrote that this is the all-time record. Bollocks, I tell you! Matthaus was, and is, a much more historically significant player than Adnan Al Talyani, but he was never at any point the recordsman in the international appearances department.
Anyway, Adnan accumulated 161 caps before he retired from international football in 1997. It took 4 years before someone broke his record, and it was a really high-profile player to do it – Claudio Suarez, El Emperador. This legendary defender and captain of the Mexican national team has accumulated 177 official appearances (178 according to the Mexican count, but we’ll stick to FIFA here and everywhere else in this post). However, as his appearances dwindled in the second half of the 00’s (noughties?! How the fuck do you call that decade?!), a new fierce competitor appeared – Mohammed El Deayea, the famous goalkeeper from Saudi Arabia. He managed to earn one cap more than Suarez, although I remember that in the special edition for the 2006 World Cup of my favorite newspaper they were both credited as joint-record holders. Well, the Israeli press was never famous for strict adherence to solid facts.
El-Deayea didn’t play a single minute in the 2006 World Cup (neither did Suarez, BTW), but his record stood for another 5 years, until Ahmed Hassan from Egypt appeared for his country for the 179th time in 2012. Hassan, who as far as I know is not related to the great duo of fellow countrymen twin brothers Hossam and Ibrahim Hassan, managed to extend his record to 184 games, before playing his last international match on the 22nd of May, 2012.
And two and a half years since then, that is still the record. 184 international caps.
Ahmed still owns it, and it’s not in danger of being broken in the next two years or so. But who has the potential to break it? In fact, this was the original aim of this post, before I decided to write a bit about the history of the all-time appearances record. Let’s see…
Many years ago – I think that it was something like 10 but I’m not sure, I marked down two players who I thought have a chance to break the all-time record, which then still belonged to Suarez. Those two players started playing for their national teams at a very young age, and had such a tight grip on their corresponding spots in their national team’s line-up, that I was sure they are destined for greatness in the appearances domain. They were still young but already have accumulated a very high number of appearances for their countries that it was almost certain that they will reach 140 appearances or so, although only a handful of players had managed to reach that total back then. Those players were Iker Casillas and Landon Donovan.
Let’s start with Landon first. Donovan made his debut for the US national team at only 18 years of age, and he was recognized as the best young player at the 2002 World Cup. I’ve seen him at that tournament, and he was really good. But even better was his rate of accumulating international appearances. The USA national team was always famous for playing many matches, more than their European counterparts. And because Landon was THE man on that team, he was a lock in their starting line-up. The years went by, and Donovan reached the 100 caps mark at only 26 years of age (2008)! At that point I was certain that if nothing serious happens, he will become the all-time record holder. However, it was not meant to be. Donovan, still only 32 years old, was left off the USA squad for the 2014 World Cup, and not long after that he announced his retirement. WHAT?! Dude, you’re fucking 32! There’s still time for him to make a comeback – he’s still pretty young, but if it doesn’t happen, we’ll be left with his 155 appearances total (according to FIFA). A mind-fucking number, especially for someone as young as Landon, but no record will be broken here… His total is good for 13th on the all-time list. Great, but not historically great…
Now let’s move to Iker. It’s funny, I still remember reading in a newspaper about him being called up from school to a Champions League match back in 1997. He didn’t play then, but it was amazing to read about it. And since then this kid evolved to be one of the greatest goalkeepers of all-time, a lock for the top 5 in my opinion. Anyway, Iker gained his first cap for Spain in June of 2000, when he was 19. In the same year he was the youngest squad member of all the players in all the national squads in Euro 2000, although he didn’t get to play a single minute in the tournament itself. His big chance came at the 2002 World Cup, when a freak accident with a broken aftershave bottle ruled Santiago Canizares out of the World Cup, and 21 year old Iker took hold of the #1 jersey. He didn’t relinquish that position ever since. And being relatively injuries-free, he managed to play a huge amount of matches ever since. When Iker was 28, he already reached the 100 caps mark. However, I singled him out for caps glory long before that. Goalkeepers tend to have exceptionally long careers, and it is not unusual to see goalies play at a high level at the age of 40 or close to that. And Iker, being such a superb goalkeeper, I was sure he will have a lengthy career ahead of him. He started to play internationally at such a young age, and had such a firm grip on the #1 jersey, that it seemed impossible for anyone to push him aside. And I was right (10 points for Gryffindor!).
Iker accumulated international appearances at a very fast pace, and currently he has 160. True, there were these last couple of seasons, which were rough – when Mourinho relegated Iker to the bench and then Ancelotti continued this trend last year. I was really anxious then that Iker might lose his place as Spain’s #1 goalkeeper, especially with the emergence of the awesome David De Gea. But then this season came, and Iker is back to his old saint self. Hurray! So far it seems that he is still Spain’s first choice goalkeeper. But who knows how long that’ll last… Now, I really like De Gea. Not in a gay way (well, maybe a bit. :-|), but he is FUCKING AWESOME. But I say – David, please wait for your turn! Your time will come. Let Iker finish his job! Iker is still only 33. My guess is that he still has 5 years at the top ahead of him, and maybe like 3 as Spain’s goalkeeper. Hopefully, those 3 will all be as a first-choice GK. If everything goes according to this plan, he has a very good chance of living up to my prophecy of so long ago and breaking Ahmed Hassan’s record. It’s not unreasonable.
I mean, Look at Gianluigi Buffon, another GK I can’t simply not drool over – he’s Italy’s #1 choice even at 36 years old, and he’s not showing signs of giving that post up. BTW, Buffon already has 146 caps of his own! If he was a couple of years younger, I’d give him a chance of storming Hassan’s record. But now I think 160-165 caps will be his limit, and a very respectable one it will be, for another one of the top 5 all-time great goalies.
So… Landon couldn’t live up to the hype. Iker just might. But in the last few years we had another influx of famous young talents who accumulated a staggering amount of international appearances at a very young age. I was originally intending to write about them here, but it will turn this alreadt not-so-short post into a mammoth one. So… just like David Yates did with the Harry Potter Deathly Hallows book – I will split this post into two parts in order to maximize my already tremendous revenues from it.
So see ya’ll in Part II!
It’s here! Part II