A selection of players called up to their national teams from outside the top flight
Tom LundNorway & Lillestrøm
In 1973, Ajax desperately needed to replace Johan Cruyff after his move to Barcelona, but the search wasn't easy – and then the Netherlands played in Norway in the September. That is when they witnessed a performance of the forward who seemed as similar to the maestro as it was possible to be. Tom Lund was his name – and he played for Lillestrøm in the third division, yet everyone felt that he was the man to bring to Amsterdam. "As soon as I saw him, I knew that we had to sign him," the Ajax coach George Knobel recalled. "Don't be afraid to bet on him. He is good enough," the defender Barry Hulshoff said. That was the moment when Lund seemed destined to become a superstar.
The incredible story had an even more incredible twist, however, because Lund refused the offer. He travelled to the Netherlands, held lengthy negotiations with the Ajax president Jaap van Praag and was very close to signing the contract, but returned home and had second thoughts. He was happy at home in Lillestrøm with his young family and simply didn't feel like moving abroad. In fact, he never wanted to move anywhere.
Few players get called into the national team while playing in the third division, but Lund did so with ease. He made his debut in May 1971 at the age of 20 – and immediately became the darling of fans around Norway. Graceful, quicksilver, two-footed, a superb dribbler and a magnificent passer of the ball, Lund was imperious. Lillestrøm were a tiny club from a little town not far from Oslo, but they rose to prominence thanks to their local hero, who is still considered one of the best players Norway has ever produced.
It took time, but Lund was eventually rewarded for remaining faithful. Lillestrøm were finally promoted to the second division in 1973, won another promotion a year later, were crowned champions in 1976 and defended their title the following year. Their European Cup debut came – of course – against Ajax, and Lund duly made fun of Ruud Krol and Wim Suurbier in the 2-0 win, even though the Amsterdamers won the return leg 4-0. During those years, the striker received offers from Leeds United, Bayern Munich, Feyenoord and Real Madrid but chose to remain at home.
"I am certain that I could have played at the highest level,", Lund later said. Joe Hooley, the Englishman who coached him at Lillestrøm, was sure too. "Tommy could have reached the class of Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer," he said. Those who faced Lund on the pitch were highly impressed. Ron Greenwood, the England manager who was defeated by Lund's Norway in 1981, remarked: "He is the Messiah of Norwegian football." The Wales manager Mike England once approached the Norway coach Tor Røste Fossen long after the final whistle of the match between them and told him, "My players still haven't showered. They are just sitting there and talking about that Tom Lund."
Lund is little known outside of Norway but he never regretted his choices. He had to retire in 1982 in order to start a new career and take care of his family financially but was glad to continue living in Lillestrøm. He still lives there.
Poland & Gwardia Warszawa
The flamboyant goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski will forever be remembered as the hero of the World Cup qualifier at Wembley in October 1973, when Poland somehow salvaged a 1-1 draw and went through at England's expense. Antoni Szymanowski's contribution, however, was at least as important. The right-back was tireless, running up and down his flank as usual – and he also made a crucial goal-line clearance with time running out. But for his efforts, the golden generation of Polish football wouldn't have travelled to West Germany. Not for nothing did Alf Ramsey, a former right-back himself, describe him as the best defender in the world at the time.
Full-backs rarely get the media attention they deserve and that was true of Szymanowski. And yet he was invaluable for the coach Kazimierz Górski. Tenacious in defence, imaginative when going forward, versatile and two-footed, Szymanowski was hugely gifted.
Wisła Kraków fans adored him and the right-back shone for his beloved team, eventually celebrating the historic championship title in 1978 that ended a 27-year-long drought. Ironically, though, that was exactly the time when Szymanowski fell out with Wisła’s young coach Orest Lenczyk. The struggle culminated that summer, when – unfairly accused of feigning an injury – the defender decided to leave. Initially, a move to Wisła’s great rivals Legia was mooted, but politicians intervened to block the negotiations, and Szymanowski found himself in trouble. He couldn't possibly return to Wisła so eventually chose another team from the capital, Gwardia Warszawa.
The relatively modest Gwardia also attempted to lure another rising Wisła star in the striker Andrzej Iwan. The forward was persuaded to stay, however, and Szymanowski soon found that his new club was not exactly up to the standard he was used to. Despite his own best efforts, Gwardia finished rock bottom in 1978-79 and were relegated with just 19 points from 30 matches. Only Wisła themselves had a worse defensive record, having collapsed without Szymanowski.
The full-back then faced another serious problem. Moving to his former club was out of question, he didn't want to play for any other top team in Poland, and a transfer abroad was, by law, only possible from the age of 30; Szymanowski was 28. With Gwardia promising to organise a move abroad as part of the agreement when he joined them, it made sense to remain in the second division for a while.
At the same time, the new national coach Ryszard Kulesza couldn't imagine his squad without the veteran right-back. In fact, following Deyna's international retirement after the 1978 World Cup, Szymanowski inherited the captain's armband and proudly wore it while playing in the second division. Alongside Lato and Władysław Żmuda, he was the leader of the new generation, and performed superbly as Poland only conceded four goals in eight matches in the qualifiers for Euro 80. Unfortunately for Poland, that wasn't enough in a tough group and they finished a point behind the Netherlands.
That was the end of Szymanowski's international career. In 1981, he fulfilled his aspirations and moved abroad to Club Brugge, and the national coach Antoni Piechniczek controversially omitted him from the 1982 World Cup squad. The defender made 81 international appearances, leaving him ninth in Poland’s all-time list of most capped players.
England & Wolves
"LET THE BULL LOOSE," Jimmy Greaves wrote on his shirt in a simple message to Bobby Robson ahead of the 1990 World Cup. The legendary former striker didn’t speak just for himself – a poll showed that two-thirds of supporters wanted to see Steve Bull paired with Gary Lineker. Which is staggering when you take into account that Bull played for a mid-table team in the second division, and few people were watching his performances on a weekly basis.
Yet Bull was a very unusual case and the England manager didn’t really need Greaves's hints – he rated the Wolves striker highly enough regardless. After all, Robson had called up the forward for the first time in May 1989, when he was still technically a third-division player having just helped Wolves to a second promotion in a row. Bull scored 52 goals in all competitions in 1987-88 and added another 50 in 1988-89; for Robson to scout him was only logical. He found an unsophisticated penalty area predator. The "Bull in Wolves’ clothing" wasn't especially gifted technically, but his positioning, tenacity and power were supreme. He was clinical in front of goal and he could shoot from long range as well. He was just very good at putting the ball in the net.
Eyebrows were raised when the little known 24-year-old made his debut, replacing the injured John Fashanu against Scotland at Hampden Park, but he scored a trademark goal. "The ball hit me on the shoulder, and I just hit it first time," the forward recalled. That was his style in a nutshell and Wolves fans loved it. Thousands of them had travelled to Glasgow to see their idol in action – and were rewarded. Now the whole of England knew who Bull was.
The fairy tale continued as Bull scored a couple of truly top-class goals against Czechoslovakia in April 1990 and found the net against Tunisia before the World Cup squad was announced. It was clear that he had to be on the plane to Italy and numerous pundits demanded to see him in the starting line-up. "He is the most refreshing player to hit the scene," Robson said.
The manager was slightly cautious, however. He was reluctant to play with two pure strikers, pairing the versatile Peter Beardsley with Lineker in the opener against Ireland and opting for a single forward in the following game, against the Netherlands. Bull was a late substitute in the first fixture, but was given more than half an hour in the latter. That is when his big chance came. Paul Gascoigne provided a brilliant cross and the big striker should have put the ball past Hans van Breukelen. But the ball went wide – and there was no glory.
Bull's self-confidence – such a crucial ingredient to his success – was perhaps affected by the miss. He played rather poorly when finally given a chance in the starting line-up against Egypt and didn't influence the proceedings when brought into the last-16 fixture against Belgium from the bench. It was his last appearance at the World Cup, even though Robson considered gambling on Bull in the semi-final. With West Germany 1-0 up at the Stadio delle Alpi and time running out, the Wolves striker was told to get ready. Then Lineker hit the equaliser and Robson told him to put his top back on.
Naturally, Bull received numerous offers to join first-division teams at that time, but he felt at home at Wolves and chose to try to fulfil the dream of his adoring fans by getting the team promoted. He failed to do so, and his England career was finished. Graham Taylor, who replaced Robson after the World Cup, only used him twice in late 1990 – and that was that. The bottom line is quite respectable – four goals in 13 international matches, but a sense lingers that there could have been many more.
Germany & 1. FC Köln
When 1. FC Köln were relegated in 2004, it was widely expected that their local starlet would have to leave the club. The 18-year-old's name was on everyone's lips after he netted 10 goals in just 19 appearances, made his debut for the national team and was included in the Germany squad for Euro 2004 by Rudi Völler. Köln, on the other hand, were hopeless. They finished rock-bottom with 23 points from 34 matches and needed a revolution to start the project from scratch in the 2. Bundesliga. Why would Lukas Podolski be part of it when Manchester United were apparently interested in signing him?
The answer is simple – because he dearly loved the club. For Prince Poldi, a die-hard Köln fan, there was no other option. He joined the academy at the age of 10 and his only dream was to represent Effzeh. "Just a few months ago, I wouldn't have believed that I could even play in the second division,” he said. “Why should my objectives change now? I need to help the club.”
And so 2004-05 was a very special season in the 2. Bundesliga, as one of the country's brightest stars played there. Huub Stevens, the coach who led Köln back to the top flight, compared Podolski to the young Johan Cruyff, which felt like some kind of blasphemy, especially because those were words of a Dutchman. However, Poldi netted 24 times and was unplayable in numerous matches, as countless scouts visited modest stadiums across Germany to witness his magic.
Defenders did their utmost to stop the striker, whose dribbling skills and powerful left foot threatened to dismantle them. Podolski suffered foul after foul and the national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann even asked the referees to protect the prodigy. Klinsi and his assistant Joachim Löw – the tactical brain behind the preparations ahead of the 2006 World Cup on home soil – were certain that Podolski would be ready to be one of the national team’s leaders.
He played in all the friendlies and scored his first international goals in the 5-1 win over Thailand in December 2004. Three months later, his solitary strike enabled the Germans to win 1-0 in Slovenia. Fans had no doubt whatsoever about the youngster and Poland were left to regret missing out on him. Just a year previously, some journalists suggested that the Gliwice-born Podolski should be given a chance by the national team, only to be silenced by the coach Paweł Janas. That might have been the biggest mistake of his career.
Podolski never felt that playing in the second division slowed his professional development. "At the age of 19, you have to go step by step,” he said. “Staying with my family in my city helps me mentally. I only think about football. The effort is the same in the 2. Bundesliga and in the national team. Games are very tough and I have to deal with two or three defenders at the same time. They are trying to provoke me, but that only makes me stronger.”
The decision paid off handsomely. Podolski scored 24 goals in leading Köln to promotion and cemented his place in the national team at the same time, netting against Australia, Brazil and Mexico at the 2005 Confederations Cup. But when the club were relegated again in 2006, Poldi chose to move on after starring at the World Cup. Bayern Munich signed him for €10 million.
As it was, the move didn't really work out and three years later Podolski rejoined the club of his youth. He left again, this time for Arsenal, after suffering his third relegation with Köln. The striker is still adored there nevertheless and – looking at his career in retrospect – it is reasonable to say that he had never been happier and more prolific than when wearing the white shirt of Effzeh. The 2004-05 season in the 2. Bundesliga might be his best ever.
Italy & Juventus
It is deeply ironic that Gianluigi Buffon initially considered leaving Juventus in the summer of 2006. After five years in Turin, the goalkeeper was thinking of a new adventure, with AC Milan and Arsenal keen to sign him. "I wanted to try something different," he said in retrospect. That was the plan, but then Juventus were forcibly relegated in the wake of the Calciopoli investigation, and everything changed. Bizarrely – almost incredibly – the punishment enabled La Vecchia Signora to keep their brightest star. Was it a blessing in disguise?
Buffon was imperious at the 2006 World Cup. Arguably, that was the best goalkeeping performance at any tournament in history. He conceded just twice in seven matches on the way to lifting the trophy – and those were a hugely unfortunate own goal and a penalty. His saves in the semi-final clash against Germany, notably the one from Lukas Podolski, saved Italy from elimination. The world was at his feet but at the very same time his world fell apart. Reports of a possible relegation appeared constantly, the club was in disarray and the newly appointed director – Buffon's friend and former teammate Gianluca Pessotto – attempted to kill himself on the eve of corruption hearings.
That is when Gigi made a decision to stay at Juve. "I will be there even in Serie C," he said during the World Cup. When the club was demoted to Serie B, the squad was divided. Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Lilian Thuram, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Patrick Vieira chose to leave. Buffon led those who remained, alongside Alessandro Del Piero, Pavel Nedvěd, Mauro Camoranesi and David Trezeguet.
"This club made a winner out of me,” he explained. “It is thanks to Juventus that I am a world champion now.” The best goalkeeper in the world played in Serie B during the 2006-07 season – which began with a surprising 1-1 draw at tiny Rimini. The result was actually positive – it showed that there would be no easy games for the demoted champions. Buffon was kept busy on a weekly basis, which was good news for the national team. The new coach Roberto Donadoni needed the keeper in top shape.
Buffon was the only Juventus player who regularly played for Italy that season. Del Piero and Camoranesi, in the twilight of their careers, were used sparingly. Giorgio Chiellini and Claudio Marchisio were still too young. The keeper, though, was ever-present during the Euro 2008 qualification campaign. His greatness was never in doubt after the World Cup heroics and even a 1-1 draw against Lithuania and a 3-1 defeat at Stade de France in September couldn't change that. Gigi was untouchable – and remained untouchable for more than a decade until he decided to retire from the national team himself.
There is no other way to look at it – 2006 was the year that made Buffon saint for club and country, for very different reasons.
Mexico & Veracruz
In a land of countless colourful and flamboyant footballers, Cuauhtémoc Blanco was one of the greatest of them all. His European adventure at Real Valladolid might have been short because of injuries and homesickness, but in Mexico he was the man to watch – and that was especially true when he wore the national shirt. Some saw him as an egotist and a constant moaner but his technical skills were sensational and his ability to entertain stunning. Blanco was often a one-man show.
Fans around the globe came to know him during the 1998 World Cup in France, when he stood out in an outrageously talented squad by performing the unorthodox ‘kangaroo hops’ with the ball between his feet, known as cuauhtemiña in his homeland. El Tri were the comeback specialists of the tournament, trailing at half-time in each of the Group E fixtures, but avoiding defeat in all of them – and Blanco was the man responsible for one of the most spectacular goals of the tournament when hitting the equaliser against Belgium.
Everyone was excited to see him again in 2002, and Blanco shone as Mexico finished top of Group G ahead of Italy, Croatia and Ecuador. However, he was controversially omitted from the 2006 squad by the coach Ricardo La Volpe and had to wait impatiently for his last chance to shine on the big stage. Blanco was 37 by the time the 2010 World Cup came by, though, and needed to find the right team to keep himself in good shape ahead of the tournament.
With his contract at Chicago Fire running out by the end of 2009, Blanco decided it was the right time to return to Mexico, but his choice was rather unconventional. The Club América legend joined Veracruz, with whom he’d had a short and successful experience in 2004. The major difference was that the Red Sharks had been a top club five years previously, but at that point were languishing in the second division, the Liga de Ascenso.
"Today is a day of glory for all of us, as we are celebrating the return of Cuauhtémoc Blanco," the Veracruz president Raúl Quintana announced in October 2009. "I promised to come back,” the striker said, “and I am true to my word. I won't let you down. With this great team and a good manager, we will make an effort to return to the top division, where we belong.” The hype was enormous. Suddenly, the Liga de Ascenso featured a real superstar.
His debut at home against Necaxa in January 2010 turned into a media bonanza, but the result was disappointing. Blanco found the net towards the end of the game, but it was a consolation goal in a 2-1 defeat and Veracruz played poorly. The striker complained about his teammates and refereeing decisions, looked uncomfortable in his new surroundings and the level of play clearly wasn't suitable preparation for the World Cup.
Blanco suffered throughout his spell with the Red Sharks. He scored five goals in 14 matches, but also received five yellow cards and looked frustrated as the team sank instead of fighting for promotion. Veracruz eventually finished in 15th place in the 2010 Clausura, and the striker – who originally signed for two years – played his last game for the club in April before joining the national team camp. His form was clearly not perfect, but Aguirre trusted him completely. The coach never questioned Blanco's chances of making the squad and he became the first footballer in Mexican history to go to the World Cup as a second division player.
A bit overweight, the ageing star was still charismatic and influential. He came on in the opening fixture against South Africa as a substitute when Mexico fell behind, helping El Tri come back to earn a 1-1 draw. Blanco then proceeded to score a penalty in the 2-0 win over France and was in the starting lineup in the last group fixture versus Uruguay. Sadly, that was his last meaningful game for Mexico, as he didn't take part in the last-16 defeat at the hands of Argentina.
Blanco later had successful spells at three more Liga de Ascenso clubs – Irapuato, Dorados and Lobos BUAP – but was not recalled by the national team. He only came back at the age of 41 for a farewell performance in May 2014 – his 120th game for Mexico.
Brazil & Botafogo
2014 was a strange year for Jefferson. From a personal point of view, it was magnificent. The Botafogo captain and fan idol was in supreme form between the posts, eventually named in the Brasileiro Série A Team of the Year. He was included in the World Cup squad on home soil as a back-up for Julio Cesar. When the veteran goalkeeper retired after the tournament, Jefferson duly took over as the undisputed starter, trusted by the new national team coach Dunga, and proved himself by keeping four clean sheets in friendly fixtures. He was in the form of his life.
And yet, at the very same time, Botafogo were relegated. Mauricio Assumpção, considered the worst president in club history by the supporters, sold most of their stars that season, leaving the team hopeless. Jefferson did his best, but he was unable to prevent the Lone Star from finishing in 19th place. With the 2015 Copa América looming, the keeper had to make a decision whether to stay at his beloved club or move elsewhere.
Santos made him a handsome offer, but many were surprised to learn that the choice was a simple one for Jefferson. The captain extended his contract at Botafogo until 2017 and said: "I am very happy. I have always said that my wish would be to remain and eventually end my career at Botafogo." When asked about potential complications regarding his place in the national team, the keeper replied: "Dunga made it clear that it didn't matter whether I play in Série A or B. I just need to perform at my highest level. Second-division players have been called up before. Anyway, my club career comes first. I earned my place in the national team thanks to Botafogo, and that is what matters. Botafogo need me now, and I need Botafogo. There is even more responsibility in Série B."
Those words proved accurate. Jefferson only had to play well in order to keep his place in Dunga's plans – and he did. 2015 was yet another sensational season for him, as the keeper conceded just 17 goals in 26 league matches. The country trusted him at the Copa América in Chile, and it was not his fault that Brazil were sensationally eliminated by Paraguay in the quarter-finals, even though – as a penalty specialist – he was expected to make at least one save in the shoot-out, but failed to do so. Thiago Silva was the scapegoat, while Brazil supporters stood behind Jefferson.
It came as a shock, therefore, that the keeper was demoted after just one game in the World Cup qualifiers for the Internacional youngster Alisson.
Botafogo were vibrant, easily promoted as the second-division champions, and Dunga's decision to drop Jefferson was not popular to say the least. An online poll by O Globo saw him finishing as a runaway winner to remain in the starting line-up, while Alisson was only backed by 11% of fans. Romario and Ronaldo came to Jefferson's defence, the latter simply claiming that Dunga's explanation made no sense whatsoever. And yet, that counted for nothing as far as the national team coach was concerned, and the keeper was never called up again.
That makes his case unique – Jefferson was only first choice for his country while playing in the second division. Upon returning to the top flight, he was discarded.
Sweden & Helsingborg
This is the story of a man who gave his word and was unwilling to break it even after becoming a national hero. Andreas Granqvist, arguably the most inspirational captain Sweden has known, willingly joined a second division team in his homeland just after he was celebrated as one of the best centre-backs at the 2018 World Cup.
His initial decision had been taken months before the tournament in Russia. Granqvist was voted the Swedish Player of the Year in 2017 after leading the national team by example and helping to keep a clean sheet in the famous qualifying play-off fixtures against Italy. The feat was especially notable because it was achieved after the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimović, but that is exactly why the new skipper stood out.
For all his obvious talent, Zlatan was a divisive figure, and there were suggestions that his ego had a negative impact on other players. Granqvist, on the other hand, did his utmost to restore team spirit. With him, Sweden’s youngsters believed in themselves and became a remarkable unit. Fans loved the new national team identity, and Granqvist's qualities were finally recognised and rewarded at the age of 33.
For many years, he had been an underrated performer who rarely made any kind of headlines, except for getting poked in the eye by Johan Elmander during goal celebrations in the game against England at Euro 2012. His club career at Groningen, Genoa and Krasnodar was steady, but far from in the spotlight. Granqvist must have been delighted to get the belated plaudits, but that is exactly the point at which the stopper decided to rejoin the club of his youth, Helsingborg.
Henrik Larsson, another Helsingborg legend, had always been Granqvist's inspiration and role model, having returned to the club in the summer of 2006 after providing two assists for Barcelona in the Champions League final against Arsenal. The big difference, though, was that the southerners were a major force in Allsvenskan in those days. When Granqvist promised in January 2018 to make his comeback in the summer, they were recovering from a disastrous season that had ended with them in 7th place in Superettan, the second division.
Krasnodar dearly wanted to keep their leader and made him a handsome offer to extend the contract, but Granqvist refused and explained: "I want to play for Helsingborg while I still have a lot to give to the club." That was scheduled to happen after the World Cup, but little did the central defender know that he would reach an entirely new level of popularity during the tournament.
Granqvist was adored before the trip to Russia, but became a true cult figure as Sweden reached the quarter-finals. They kept clean sheets against South Korea, Mexico and Switzerland, and played superbly in the unlucky injury-time defeat at the hands of Germany. The captain was imperious. No player blocked more shots than him at the World Cup, his organisational skills stood out and he even converted two penalties. Fans fell in love and the whole country celebrated when Granqvist's daughter was born on the eve of the quarter-final clash with England.
It is easy to understand why top clubs tried to sign Granqvist that summer, but he didn't want to hear anything about it. Less than a month after the World Cup adventure had ended, he made his debut for Helsingborg at tiny Jönköpings Södra. His first game at home, against Norrby in early August, was a sell-out.
Granqvist's timing for the homecoming was immaculate. Helsingborg led the table when he returned in midseason, and with the legend on board, the club easily secured promotion to Allsvenskan. During the autumn, though, the captain made history by representing Sweden in the Nations League fixtures while playing in the second division. Naturally, with him on the pitch, the team kept three clean sheets.