With careers in football being so short, with only the lucky few seeing even two decades in their chosen lines of work, longevity and consistency are two of the things that everyone strives for in the game. As a result, being able to rely on form and fitness are gifts which are often over-looked when tallying up the greats of the game.
While this can manifest itself in allowing some players to continue into their 40's, for others it can see them given the opportunity to spend every possible minute available to them on the field. FIFA.com takes a look at the latter, the ever-present kings and queens of the game who you could always guarantee setting foot on the field of play.
In this regard, it is impossible to start anywhere else but goalkeeping goliath Sepp Maier, who could not be shifted from between the posts at Bayern Munich for more than a decade. Die Katze von Anzing (The Cat from Anzing) appeared 442 successive times in the German Bundesliga for the perennial German champions between 1966 and 1979. He hoovered up four titles, four DFB-Pokals and three successive European Cups in that time and was twice named German footballer of the year.
The man himself, renowned for his sense of humour, has an interesting view on how he managed such a feat. “The night before a game we used to eat roast pork washed down with a wheat beer,” remembers Maier, “that gorilla [Bulle] Roth always used to eat three pieces of cake before a game - and it did him no harm.”
Hundreds and hundreds
For Phil Neal, Liverpool's most decorated player, determination was a major factor that saw him produce a stunning run of 417 consecutive games for the Reds between October 1976 and September 1983. He lifted no less than 15 trophies in this time, including three European Cups, but came close to breaking that run on a couple of occasions.
“One was when I got a fractured cheekbone. I chose to play against the specialist's wishes who said that I shouldn't play for a month. I got away with it,” he recalled. “I [also] got over a broken toe, but I had to play for six weeks with size eight and a half on one foot and size seven on the other.” The only reason his streak ended was due to an injury suffered against Manchester United, but after three games out he returned to string together another 127 matches in the side, which saw him feature in every game over nine seasons.
While Neal's 365 league games is an English top flight record, Harold Bell holds the nation's all-time record, with his 401 in the league and 465 overall beating even Maier. The Tranmere Rovers man made his debut in the first game after the Second World War and did not miss a game until 1955.
These records are not a thing of the past though, as Brad Friedel set an English Premier League record of 310 successive games in 2012, in a game that saw the 41-year-old American goalkeeper help Tottenham Hotspur to a first win at Manchester United in 34 years. His record spanned three teams and eight seasons, starting at Blackburn Rovers and passing through Aston Villa before finishing in London.
Friedel told FIFA.com he puts his powers of durability down to ensuring he is active every day and being “a fitness fanatic”. But, like Neal, two incidents stick out when the streak was almost broken, the first where a stroke of luck may have saved it. A frozen pitch at Rovers saw him swerve a late fitness test, while an ankle strain almost saw him miss a match at Villa. “In the whole run over eight years, those are the only two near misses,” he reflected.
Across in France, another shot-stopper – this time in the shape of Auxerre stalwart Fabien Cool – falls just four short of Friedel's mark with 306 games. It took six of the 15 years he spent at the club to become first choice, but from May 1998 until December 2006 he was totally immovable and ensured legendary status by also claiming the most appearances for the club.
I chose to play against the specialist's wishes who said that I shouldn't play for a month. I got away with it.
This is much like Pedro Catalano, who from July 1986 until November 1994 was Deportivo Espanol's ever-present man in goal during one of the club's most successful periods, racking up 333 back-to-back games. It so easily could have been even more though.
Having been key to the club clinching historic promotions from the third and second divisions, he received his one and only red card two minutes from full time against Talleres. After two games out his run began and the only minutes he missed of almost 30,000 were against Velez Sarsfield (through injury), where fellow 'keeper Jose Luis Chilavert would score his first free-kick.
While these injury-free runs are astounding, there is also something to be said for being seen as one of your nation's best and reliably representing them at the highest level year after year after year. One who encompasses this almost better than any other is Paolo Maldini.
Il Capitano is rightly regarded as one of the greatest defenders of all time, but he was also able to stand up and be counted across 14 years of international tournaments. He strung together 35 matches at every major competition Italy entered from UEFA EURO 1988 – his fourth cap – to the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ round of 16 – his last game in blue. While his 23 successive World Cup games is a record, unfortunately for him, he only managed runners-up medals at USA 1994 and EURO 2000.
We say Maldini is 'almost better than any other', as a number of figures from the women's game well outshine him. Kristine Lilly carved out 46 consecutive games at the FIFA Women's World Cup™ and the Olympics from 1991 until 2007, securing two titles at the former, plus two golds and a silver at the latter. Fellow graduates from the Class of '91, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett come in not far behind on 39.
Just behind Lilly, though, on 43 games is German goal-scoring legend Birgit Prinz. A Women's World Cup winner in 2003 and 2007, she follows in a long line of ever-present players to represent Die Mannschaft. In fact, from 1962 to 1994 the men's side always had at least one player on the pitch fitting that description. From '62 to '70 Uwe Seeler chalked up 16 successive appearances, then Wolfgang Overath ('66-74), Bert Vogts ('70-'78), Karl-Heinz Rummenigge ('78-'86) and Lothar Matthaus ('86-'94) all strung together 19 World Cup matches on the trot.
Had Seeler not missed the 1958 third-place match he would match Diego Maradona's tally of 21 matches in a row, which is second only to Maldini, but in joint third is maybe a somewhat surprising pair.
During the golden age of Polish football, featuring third-place finishes in 1974 and 1982, two players played every minute of all three World Cups in that period. Wladsyslaw Zmuda and Grzegorz Lato clocked up 1800 minutes in 20 games, with the only time they were not side by side on a World Cup pitch was for Zmuda's international swansong – a seven-minute cameo against Brazil in 1986.
German legend Paul Breitner remembers their side fondly, telling FIFA.com: “I've always maintained we beat a team which was fundamentally better than us. In fact, it was definitely the best team in the competition and still didn't win the World Cup. I mean Poland in 1974.”