A selection of eight players who had lengthy breaks from the international game
Eduard Streltsov – “last cap” in 1958, recalled in 1966
“Keep it. This might be your last chance to get one, but I have an entire career in front of me,” Eduard Streltsov told Nikita Simonyan in Melbourne in 1956. The Soviet Union had just won the Olympic tournament, but only those who took part in the final received gold medals. The 19-year-old Streltsov had played a very important part in their previous games at the tournament, but was replaced in the final by the 30-year-old Simonyan. The veteran felt that the youngster deserved the credit but his offer was generously rejected. Who could have believed that the rising talent would actually never have another opportunity?
In 1958, Streltsov was supposed to be the biggest star of the World Cup – at least that’s what those who were lucky to see him in action for Torpedo Moscow claim. Some believe that he could have shone more brightly than Pelé, possibly leading the Soviets to the title. It was Streltsov who helped the team to qualify for the tournament, destroying Poland in the play-off despite playing with significant injury. The Torpedo idol was a complete striker – technically astute, quick and unselfish. He knew how to position himself in the area and possessed a thunderous shot, but was most famous for his backheel assists.
The World Cup was scheduled to start on June 8. On May 26, Streltsov was arrested for alleged rape. Was he really guilty? Nobody would ever know for sure. It is a fact that he attended a party at a dacha and slept with a woman who flirted with him. It is a fact that Streltsov claimed, long after his release, that he had no idea why he was jailed. Other than that, the details remain hazy.
It is impossible to claim with certainty that the striker was innocent, but there are plenty of conspiracy theories. Some say that Streltsov paid the price for refusing to marry the daughter of a Communist party leaders. Some say he was punished for staying at Torpedo instead of moving to establishment clubs like CSKA or Dinamo. Some say the government were afraid he was planning to defect and stay in Sweden after the World Cup. Some say he was just too popular for Nikita Khrushchev’s liking. Whatever the truth, the country lost a very remarkable footballer.
Originally sentenced to 12 years in labour camps, Streltsov was released in 1963, but was still forbidden from playing football until Leonid Brezhnev, the Communist Party chief who replaced Khrushchev, repealed the ban in 1965. Despite being weakened by his time in the gulag, Streltsov became a crowd favourite again. He led Torpedo to the championship in his first season back and fans dearly wanted to see him at the 1966 World Cup.
Sadly, that dream remained unfulfilled, but Streltsov was eventually reinstalled in the national team after the tournament, more than eight years after his previous cap. His exquisite backheel passes were still legendary and the superstar would have been a welcome addition to the Euro 68 squad. However, he was left out again for political reasons, never to return.
Overall, Streltsov scored 25 goals in 38 matches for the Soviet Union, but his contribution could have been infinitely more significant. He was forced to retire because of injury in 1970 and died of lung cancer aged 53. Simonyan, meanwhile, is still working as vice president at Russian Football Union at the age of 92. Life can be very unpredictable.
Ian Callaghan – “last cap” in 1966, recalled in 1977
Callaghan started out as a speedy winger and ended it as a level-headed midfielder. His England career might have been entirely different if the transformation had been made in the opposite direction. As it is, the numbers sound bizarre. The man who holds the record of 857 matches for Liverpool, beginning his 18-year spell at Anfield during Bill Shankly’s first season and leaving deep into Bob Paisley’s tenure, only represented his nation four times. It seems incredible for a player of his calibre, but he found favour under neither Alf Ramsey nor Don Revie.
Callaghan’s steady rise at the club level forced Ramsey to include him in the 1966 World Cup squad, but his position was not needed. The famous “wingless wonders” approach meant there was little need for wide players, although Callaghan made his debut in a friendly against Finland just ahead of the tournament and played in the final group-stage fixture against France. Thereafter, Ramsey never seriously considered picking the Liverpool man before his dismissal in May 1974.
By that time, Callaghan was 32 and his chances of an international comeback were minimal. Revie, who took over from the interim manager Ron Mercer, wasn’t fond of Liverpool stars anyway. He aspired to bring in his own Leeds values and players like Callaghan didn’t necessarily fit.
It was only when Ron Greenwood was appointed in 1977 that Callaghan was suddenly back at the age of 35. Liverpool won the league and the European Cup that year, and the new man in charge wanted to build the national team around them. Their veteran midfielder was stunned by the decision. “It was a big surprise to be included,” Callaghan told the Liverpool Echo. “I remember coach Ronnie Moran saying that Greenwood wanted to speak to England lads in our team. I said that’s fine, but that it wouldn’t include me. However, Ronnie explained that Ron expected to see me as well. A long time had passed since the 1966 World Cup, but it was tremendous to be back.”
More than 11 years after his previous cap, Callaghan played against Switzerland at Wembley, but the disappointing fixture ended goalless. A month later, he took part in the 2-0 win over Luxembourg, but England failed to qualify for the World Cup, finishing behind Italy on goal difference. Hopes of going to a big tournament again were left unfulfilled and Callaghan’s international career was over – this time for good. It would have been strange to rebuild the team around a player of his age, especially with Steve Coppell beginning to star for Manchester United.
The final chapter was eventually written in 2009, when Callaghan belatedly received a gold medal for the 1966 achievement. Fifa originally only awarded medals only to those who played in the final, but eventually extended it to the whole squad.
Wilfried van Moer – “last cap” in 1974, recalled in 1979
When Wilfried van Moer exploded into Belgian football in mid-60s, playing for Royal Antwerp, his outrageous potential was obvious. Slim and diminutive, standing at just 5’6” tall, Van Moer was the ultimate box-to-box midfielder – strong and fearless in the tackle and imperious driving his team forward with precise passing and vision. Such was his progress that he was voted Belgian Player of the Year in his debut season in the top flight at the age of 21. He was nicknamed the Little General, partly because he resembled Napoleon Bonaparte, but also because of his leadership qualities.
The national team badly needed stars like him. Raymond Goethals built the team that reached the 1970 World Cup around Van Moer and Paul Van Himst. The schemer, who won another two Player of the Year awards in 1969 and 1970 while playing for Standard Liège, netted twice in the 3-0 win over El Salvador and made a very positive impression even though Belgium were eliminated at the group stage. A talented generation had high hopes ahead of the European Championship as well.
Belgium drew 0-0 away against Italy in the quarter-final and Van Moer then put them ahead in Brussels. Belgium won 2-1, but by the final whistle Van Moer was in hospital, having suffered multiple fractures to the leg after a dreadful challenge by Mario Bertini.
It seemed the injury had finished Van Moer. He left Standard in 1976 as his position as a regular starter slipped into doubt and moved to Beringen, a small club from Limburg that spent most of its time battling relegation. At the age of 31, his days as a top player seemed to be over and he opened a successful coffee shop.
But more than three years on, with Belgium in trouble in the Euro 80 qualifiers, Guy Thys was persuaded by his friend, the TV commentator Rik De Saedeleer, to give van Moer a call. “Your team doesn’t have a leader. You need a guy like Wilfried,”, De Saedeleer told the national coach.
The Little General was astonished to receive such an offer aged 34 and it wasn’t easy to convince him to make a comeback. “I wasn’t sure that my return would work out,” he said. “People might have said that I was old if we didn’t win. But I was surrounded by good young players and we started positively.” He scored in his first game, leading Belgium to a 2-0 win over Portugal and never looked back. Two triumphs over Scotland followed and Thys’s team finished top of the group to qualify.
René Vandereycken and Jan Ceulemans might have been more famous internationally before the tournament, but Van Moer became the most important player in midfield and led by example, his passing as sublime as ever. After earning a surprising 1-1 draw against England and beating Spain 2-1, Belgium needed a point against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico to finish ahead of the hosts on goal difference and qualify for the final at their expense – and got it. Van Moer might have only played 48 minutes before being withdrawn but he achieved some measure of revenge in a goalless draw.
So Belgium went on to play in their only final in history. West Germany won a dramatic match when Horst Hrubesch completed a brace with two minutes to go, but Van Moer stood out too. The voting for the 1980 Ballon d’Or says it all – the Little General finished fourth, just behind Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bernd Schuster and Michel Platini. He continued playing for the national team for two more years and retired after the 1982 World Cup.
Dieter Hoeneß – “last cap” in 1979, recalled in 1986
Uli Hoeneß won the World Cup in 1974. His younger brother Dieter, born 367 days after him and much less famous, was close to following in his footsteps 12 years later in remarkable circumstances.
Their careers could hardly have been more different. Uli was a versatile and technically gifted player, able to perform anywhere across the midfield or attack, who rose to prominence at Bayern Munich very early, but was forced to retire early with a serious knee injury. He was one of the brightest stars of the national team’s golden generation, although for a brief period. Dieter, by contrast, was a burly and limited centre-forward, who only made his Bundesliga debut at the age of 24. He spent a decade there, though, scoring 127 goals in the process. For all that prowess, his spells with West Germany national team were very short – and very far between.
He was given his first two caps by Jupp Derwall in May 1979, when Hoeneß was still at VfB Stuttgart. He was tried out in friendlies against Ireland and Iceland and scored three times, yet failed to convince. Germany apparently had better options for the role of the tall imposing central striker – especially Hamburg’s Horst Hrubesch. Hoeneß, who moved to Bayern that year after Uli became the general manager at the club, didn’t have the same aura.
Dieter was frequently criticised even in Munich. Granted, he achieved cult status after playing a crucial part in the Cup final against Nürnberg in 1982. Hoeneß sustained a head wound early in the game and blood constantly seeped through the bandage but he refused to be substituted, set up a goal, was involved in winning a penalty and scored himself as Bayern came from 2-0 down to win 4-2. Granted, he scored five goals in just 21 minutes in the 6-0 win over Eintracht Braunschweig – that was the Bundesliga record until Robert Lewandowski famously broke it in nine amazing minutes versus Wolfsburg in 2015. And yet, he still wasn’t appreciated enough.
“Fans are spoiled by the aesthetically beautiful football of the Franz Beckenbauer era, and only liked Dieter’s unorthodox style when he scored goals,” Uli said in 1984. “It has been a burden for me, because many believe that he is in our team only because his brother is the manager.” That was somewhat ironic in retrospect, because it was Beckenbauer who unexpectedly recalled Hoeneß into the national team ahead of the World Cup in Mexico.
Seven years after his previous matches for Germany, Dieter was abruptly given the chance of his life at the age of 33 and took it. He scored on his return in a 1-0 win away to Switzerland and by so doing booked his place on the plane. Beckenbauer wanted a Plan B with a big target man and Hoeneß was the only option at that specific moment. Delighted, the striker announced that he would retire if West Germany won the tournament.
As it turned out, the coach used him twice. Hoeneß replaced Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in the quarter-final fixture against the hosts that went into extra-time and finished goalless before Germany prevailed on penalties. He was much more effective in the final. Entering the field at Estadio Azteca with Argentina leading 2-0, Dieter helped to wreak havoc in the box, especially at set pieces. Two Andreas Brehme corners led to goals scored by Rummenigge and Rudi Völler, and suddenly the Germans were level. Then came the famous Diego Maradona assist to Jorge Burruchaga, and Hoeneß didn’t have to hang up his boots after all. He did so after playing one more season at Bayern.
As the team eventually lost in Mexico, few remember that contribution these days, but Hoeneß’s goal ratio for the national team is superb nevertheless – four goals in six matches.
Georges Bregy – “last cap” in 1987, recalled in 1992
Bregy became a legend in Switzerland just as he had given up on his dreams of returning to the national team. The story of his reemergence is remarkable, but even his emergence was a long time coming. Bregy made his debut for Switzerland in 1982, at the age of 24, but it was a couple of years before he established himself. A cultured midfielder who was frequently used as a forward and was known as a dead-ball specialist, he rose to prominence in 1984 as top scorer in the Swiss league with 21 goals for Sion. That was when the national coach Paul Wolfisberg began to trust him and Bregy scored his first international goal with a majestic free-kick against Italy.
A few months later, the playmaker was on target again in a 2-2 against the USSR in a qualifier for the 1986 World Cup. Switzerland failed to qualify for the tournament, though, and Wolfisberg left. Without him, Bregy was used less frequently and was eventually discarded in the middle of 1987. “Daniel Jeandupeux simply didn’t call me up and Uli Stielike didn’t think I was strong enough to play more than 45 minutes,” Bregy said.
By the time Roy Hodgson took over in 1992, the midfielder was already 34. Even though he was in good form for Young Boys, his sensational recall was met with bewilderment by some pundits. Bregy himself was taken by surprise. “I never expected that to happen,” he said. “I had given up any hope a long time ago. However, I was extremely proud to be called up by Hodgson, and the coach gave me confidence that I could be part of the national team again.”
The sceptics were silenced when the World Cup qualifying campaign began with a 6-0 win in Estonia. Bregy scored on his return and never looked back. He was slower now and played much deeper, but his experience proved very important for rising young stars like Ciriaco Sforza and Stéphane Chapuisat. His astonishing free kick in the 3-1 win over Scotland cemented his place in the side and at the same time made fans and players believe that qualification for a first international tournament since 1966 was possible.
Switzerland finished second in a very tough and tight group – just behind Arrigo Sacchi’s Italy, but ahead of Portugal and Scotland. At the age of 36, Bregy went to the World Cup. He looked even older than his years because of his moustache, but played with an excitement of a youngster.
Switzerland’s first game at the finals, against the hosts the USA, was watched by a huge proportion of the Swiss population. Bregy was a key figure, his influence most strongly felt, inevitably, from a free-kick. The US goalkeeper, Tony Meola, expected Bregy to shoot over the wall, but the veteran outfoxed him, putting the ball into the other corner. “There is nobody like Bregy,” the commentator Beni Thurnheer famously shouted.
“It was a very special experience for me, and the highlight of my professional career. I tried to give the young players a good example. We showed motivation to win every game and fought until the end.” Bregy said. The game against the United States ended in a 1-1 draw, while Bregy, Sforza and Sutter were magnificent in the second fixture as the Swiss thrashed Romania 4-1 to make sure of going to the last 16. Two defeats followed and they were eliminated, but Bregy went home a very proud man.
He retired after the World Cup but remains the oldest outfield player to represent Switzerland since the Second World War.
Daniele Massaro – “last cap” in 1986, recalled in 1994
Younger Italian fans are usually surprised when they find out that Daniele Massaro was part of the 1982 World Cup winning squad. After all, he is much better remembered for his heroics in the early 90s, and seemingly belongs to a different era. Those who become acquainted with this curious fact are bound to check out the statistics and then they are really stunned: Massaro went to the big tournament after scoring just one goal in his debut Serie A season. Why on earth would Enzo Bearzot pick such a striker ahead of more experienced goal scorers, such as the Roma legend Roberto Pruzzo?
The explanation, however, is that Massaro didn’t go to his first World Cup as a forward, but rather as a defensive midfielder. That is the story of his life – he had a remarkable capacity to adjust to different situations, doing his utmost in any circumstance and thriving when it mattered most.
He made the most of his opportunity when Fiorentina signed him from Monza in the summer of 1981 alongside his close friend, the striker Paolo Monelli. In fact, Monelli was the player the Viola really wanted and Massaro came as sort of a supplement, but he established himself in the top flight much sooner.
Since chances up front were limited, Massaro became a midfield warrior who provided passes for the genius of Giancarlo Antognoni and made such an impression that Bearzot gave him his international debut at the age of 20. The youngster made no appearances in Spain, but returned home as a world champion. He was used infrequently thereafter, didn’t go to the 1986 World Cup and then was discarded by Bearzot’s replacement, Azeglio Vicini.
After moving to his beloved AC Milan in 1986, Massaro was considered a utility man by the coach Arrigo Sacchi. He was respected, but never really made any position his own, spent years in the shadow of more famous teammates and it was widely assumed that he lacked true international class. Only after Fabio Capello took over from Sacchi in 1991 did Massaro return to his natural position of striker and gradually grew into a real star.
He was, therefore, both a young sensation and a late bloomer, saving his very best form for 1993-94. Milan won the title that season despite scoring just 36 goals in 34 matches. No team in history implemented an offside trap better than Franco Baresi, Billy Costacurta and Paolo Maldini, and scoring once was usually enough to win the game. Massaro was responsible for scoring those goals – no fewer than 11 of them, despite starting only 17 matches. Sacchi, who had become Italy coach and knew all about the striker’s personal qualities and fighting spirit, couldn’t ignore him.
Thus, more than eight years after his previous cap, Massaro triumphantly wore the blue shirt again in March 1994. And when he scored a majestic brace in the astonishing 4-0 win over Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in the Champions League final, it was obvious that the in-form man had to go to the World Cup. During the group stage matches, he was a substitute, but scoring his only goal for Italy in the crucial game against Mexico changed that too. Suddenly, he was a starter – not just in the last 16 fixture versus Nigeria and the quarter-final against Spain, but in the final as well. Aged 33, Massaro had reached the pinnacle of his career.
It is somewhat unfortunate that his last ever kick for his country was to miss a penalty in the shoot-out following 120 goalless minutes against Brazil in Pasadena – but few remember that. Fans know everything about the misfortunes of Baresi and Roberto Baggio from the spot that day, but Massaro’s failure didn’t get the same attention. For once, he was lucky not to be a big name.
Giuseppe Bergomi – “last cap” in 1991, recalled in 1998
It could have been a farcical end to an outstanding international career. In June 1991, Riccardo Ferri was hurt in injury time with Italy trailing 2-1 to Norway in Oslo, desperately trying to salvage a point. Giuseppe Bergomi came on to replace him. Just 20 seconds later, he made an outrageously reckless foul on Erik Pedersen, stepped on him, remonstrated with another opponent and was rightfully sent off.
Uefa suspended Bergomi for six matches, and that was that. By the time the punishment ended, the coach Azeglio Vicini had been sacked, Italy had failed to qualify for Euro 92 and Arrigo Sacchi didn’t even want to hear Bergomi’s name. “If he had known me better, he would have changed his mind,” the legendary defender said in retrospect – but Sacchi didn’t. He built the rearguard around AC Milan stalwarts and Inter stars were unwelcome. The unfortunate incident at Ullevaal Stadion, which was absolutely out of character, looked likely to be the last act for Bergomi in the blue shirt.
That was unfair and harsh on the disciplined and dedicated defender who had become a symbol of industriousness, seriousness and stability. He didn’t deserve it. After all, he had been a hero for a long time.
In 1982, sensationally called into the squad by Enzo Bearzot, Bergomi became the youngest World Cup winner after Pelé. Aged just 18, he replaced the injured Fulvio Collovati in the famous 3-2 win over Brazil and proceeded to play superbly in the semi-final against Poland and in the final triumph over West Germany, even taking part in the build-up to the iconic Marco Tardelli goal. Nicknamed Lo Zio (The Uncle), because his moustache made him look much older, he behaved like a level-headed veteran as well. It was difficult to imagine Italy without him in the 80s.
Versatile and reliable, able to play as libero, stopper, right-back and left-back, he was trusted by most Italy and Inter coaches. Bergomi was the keystone when Italy lost to France in the last 16 round in Mexico 86. Vicini, who replaced Bearzot after the tournament, made Bergomi his captain, and the leader was ever present as the Azzurri reached the semi-finals at Euro 88. He then was the favourite to lift the World Cup on home soil in 1990 and Italy didn’t concede a goal for 518 minutes before Claudio Caniggia fatefully managed to spoil that record in the 1-1 draw in the semi in Napoli. Argentina won on penalties – Bergomi always said that was the biggest disappointment of his professional life.
In Oslo, he played his 77th game for Italy and such an ending was cruel in the extreme. The wound seemed to affect him throughout 1992 and 1993, when Inter experienced a significant crisis, and pundits blamed the top players – mostly Bergomi, Riccardo Ferri and Walter Zenga – for their misfortunes. That made Sacchi’s decision to discard them much easier, and with Italy reaching the World Cup final in 1994 without him, Bergomi’s hopes of returning were no longer relevant.
And yet, there was a very emotional twist in the tale. Italy failed to survive the group stage at Euro 96, and Cesare Maldini replaced Sacchi. Maldini, Paolo’s father had worked as Bearzot’s assistant in 1982, knew Bergomi very well and held him in high regard. As the defender had a magnificent season in 1997-98, the coach decided to take him to the World Cup in France. He made the phone call just before the Uefa Cup final between Inter and Lazio in the beginning of May.
Bergomi was injured at the time and only travelled to Paris as a spectator. “If you recover in time, I am going to put your name on the list,” Maldini told him. The star could hardly believe his ears but was excited and close to tears. “I will forever be grateful to Cesare for that,” he recalled.
At the age of 34, he was back after seven years away. When Alessandro Nesta was injured early into the game against Austria in the group stage, Bergomi entered the field to replace him and played superbly. Thus his place was assured in the last-16 match – against Norway. Memories of the 1991 disaster were finally put to rest as the Uncle helped Italy to keep another clean sheet in the 1-0 win.
Maldini’s men didn’t concede in the quarter-finals either, but lost to France on penalties after 120 goalless minutes. That was a bitter but more fitting end to Bergomi’s international career.
Martín Palermo – “last cap” in 1999, recalled in 2009
Palermo’s career is an astonishing one and he is responsible for a number of records, even though he only represented the national team 15 times.
The adventure began in 1999, when Palermo – a relatively late bloomer at the age of 26 – was finally called up to the Argentina squad ahead of the Copa América. The Boca Juniors striker then became the only player in the history of major tournaments to miss three penalties in a single match, as Argentina succumbed 3-0 to Colombia – his first shot hit the crossbar, the second went wide and Palermo was stubborn enough to take the third which was saved by the goalkeeper Miguel Calero.
He scored three goals in the tournament as well, but such an astonishing fiasco was impossible to forget. When Argentina were knocked out by Brazil in the quarter-finals, Palermo was inevitably made a scapegoat, and his international career was over before it really began. A series of injuries didn’t help either, the most bizarre of them coming when a wall collapsed under his weight while he celebrated a goal during his unlucky spell at Villarreal and he broke his leg.
For many, he had become a joke. Boca fans continued to idolise him, but the rest of the country was opposed to a return to the national team. His stocky build and somewhat awkward style made people believe that Palermo was not a great talent. His career in Spain was a huge disappointment, with short adventures at Betis and Alavés going even worse than that at Villarreal and his chances of an international recall gradually became minimal. Even when Alfio Basile considered calling him up, Palermo was injured.
The unlikely turnaround came when Diego Maradona, a personal friend of Palermo, was named as Argentina coach in 2008. The pair had played together for Boca and Maradona was probably the only man who thought enough of Palermo to revive his international career at the age of 35. His recall came with the Albiceleste in serious danger of missing out on the 2010 World Cup. A decade after his previous cap, Palermo made a triumphant return. Following a brace in a friendly against Ghana, he came on as a substitute in a crucial qualifying fixture versus Peru and scored a dramatic winner deep in injury time.
The goal was typically clumsy, but Palermo was in the right place at the right time to put the ball into an empty net. The scenes of celebration scenes were incredible. Maradona’s gamble, which had been criticised by numerous pundits, paid off handsomely and the coach dubbed it “the miracle of San Palermo”. He then promised to take the striker to the World Cup.
And so the 36 year old was included in the squad and flew to South Africa, even though it was obvious that he wouldn’t get a lot of playing time. Many saw it as a personal favour to a friend who had saved him and wondered if Palermo were really necessary in a squad that already included Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, Carlos Tévez, Diego Milito and Sergio Agüero.
The finale was magnificent as far as Palermo was concerned, though. With Argentina through to the last 16 after winning their first two matches, Maradona could afford to field a weakened team against Greece and even introduced Palermo as a late substitute. Boca Juniors’ all-time leading scorer came on after 80 minutes and netted after the goalkeeper Alexandros Tzorvas had parried a Messi shot towards him.
By doing so, he became the oldest player to score for Argentina and also put his name into record books with the best goals-per-minutes ratio at the World Cup. Not a bad way to finish an international career that started with three penalty misses.