There is a quote from former Cameroon star Roger Milla which says a lot about football’s ability to unite a nation: "Football is what makes small countries big." It is through the magic of the beautiful game that a single player can catapult his homeland into the global arena.
Because they were born in ‘small countries,’ some great players never had the opportunity to play international football on the world's greatest stages. Others made light of their country's minnow status to help carry their national side into major tournaments. From George Best to George Weah, FIFA.com sets off on a world tour of small countries with big names.
The Best in Northern Ireland, and Europe
Northern Irishman George Best more than lived up to his name, becoming one of the game’s true legends, although this was more down to his performances in the red of Manchester United than the green of Northern Ireland. Nicknamed the fifth Beatle, Best was named European Footballer of the Year in 1968 and scored 115 goals in 290 games for the Red Devils, as well as displaying dozens of flashes of pure genius throughout his career. With Northern Ireland, he managed just 37 caps and nine goals.
Still considered the best player to ever emerge from the British Isles, Best will forever be remembered in his native Belfast, where his funeral drew over 300,000 mourners. Belfast City Airport was renamed in his honour, a series of bank notes was issued bearing his image and a local saying was coined: "Maradona good; Pele better; George Best."
Another Northern Irishman, Danny Blanchflower, had more success with Tottenham Hotspur than his national side but at least had the distinction of playing in the 1958 FIFA World Cup. Yet it was with Spurs that he made his name, his greatest achievement no doubt being the 1961 league and cup double, a feat that had not been realised in England since 1897.
A tale of three Reds
Although Wales is a nation much more famous for its achievements in rugby than football, it has nonetheless produced some fantastic footballing talent. Ian Rush is a legend among Liverpool fans, while Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs are equally revered among Manchester United supporters. None were able to guide Wales to a major tournament, though.
Rush's 28 strikes for Wales and 346 for Liverpool are goalscoring records which still stand today. The lethal striker owed some of his stats at club level to the fact that he played alongside Scot Kenny Dalglish, another extremely gifted player who did not have the international success his talent deserved. "For me, Kenny was a fantastic player. I loved the way he played. We complimented each other; me with my finishing and Kenny with his ability to play me in," Rush recalled after his retirement.
Giggs, in an interview with FIFA.com, explained how he felt about his lack of honours at international level: "The World Cup is special. Your first memory of football as a boy is the World Cup, but I can't complain at all. I've had a good career - and I wouldn't swap it for anyone else's."
Evergreen Litti, philosophical Eidur
Finn Jari Litmanen is another star player who was unable to inspire his country to international success. With a record number 30 goals in a record number 124 appearances, the 38-year-old Litti is still a mainstay of the Finland national team and remains a firm fans’ favourite, far ahead of Teemu Tainio and Sami Hyypia. Asked about him last year, Fulham coach Roy Hodgson said, "He’s a world-class player who still has a lot to offer at a very high level."
Icelander Eidur Gudjohnsen has been faced with the same dilemma of playing in a struggling international team while producing stellar performances for club sides like Chelsea and Barcelona. His country’s record goalscorer with 23 goals in 58 games up to now, the Barça man is realistic about his international prospects: "I will probably never get to play in a World Cup or European Championship, which will always mean that other players will seem more attractive as they’ve been in the spotlight at those huge tournaments."
Conejo, Erico, El Magico...
Across the Atlantic, the dominance of Brazil and Argentina means it can be difficult for players from other countries to make an impact, but some have nonethless broken the mould. From Costa Rica to El Salvador to Paraguay, unheralded names have left an indelible mark both on the history of football and that of their respective countries.
Gabelo Conejo was one of the main architects of Costa Rica’s surprise success at the 1990 FIFA World Cup. "Nobody expected anything of us and we had no experience at that level. We had to face Brazil, Scotland and Sweden, who were all much more highly regarded than ourselves," he recently told FIFA.com. Similarly, Dwight Yorke led his Trinidad and Tobago side to the group stages of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. In recognition for his services to football in his country, the Dwight Yorke Stadium was erected in Bacolet for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Trinidad and Tobago 2001.
In Ecuador, Alberto Spencer is considered the country’s best-ever player. At club level, he won numerous honours with Penarol of Uruguay, including three Copa Libertadores (1960, 1961, 1966) and two Intercontinental Cups (1961, 1966) but internationally, despite having played for both Ecuador and Uruguay, he was unable to match these heights.
Paraguay’s Arsenio Erico and El Salvador’s Jorge El Mágico Gonzalez were other players who had to go abroad to make the most of their talent. Revered in Argentina and Spain respectively, they could have been global stars had their national teams been able to make a bigger impression on the world stage.
No regrets for Weah
Moving on to Africa, former AC Milan star George Weah is without doubt the best African example of a big name from a small country. Spotted by AS Monaco at the age of 22, Mister George left his native Liberia to light up every European league in which he was to play. Arsene Wenger, then coach of Monaco, later said of him: "Weah was a revelation. He was like the chocolate egg that a kid finds in his garden on Easter Sunday. I have never seen another player explode onto the world stage like he did."
Winner of the African Footballer of the Year in 1989, 1994 and 1995, Weah made his mark all over Europe. On the international scene, the 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d'Or was Liberia’s one and only star. Despite his 22 goals in 60 games for the Lone Stars, FIFA World Cup qualification eluded Weah – a regret, but one he takes philosophically as he told FIFA.com: "That's just the way it is. There is no point in having regrets or feeling sad about it. I have a great respect for the competition and even more for all those players who have played in it. It is no easy thing to qualify for the World Cup."
Zambian Kalusha Bwalya, Sierra Leonean Mohamed Kallon and Zimbabwean Bruce Grobbelaar are other big names for whom FIFA World Cup qualification was one step too far. Grobbelaar, however, can at least draw some consolation from his record of being the first African player to lift the European Cup, after his triumph with Liverpool in 1984.
Last but by no means least in a long list are Liechtenstein’s Mario Frick, Saudi Arabia’s Sami Al Jaber, Korea’s Cha Bum-Kun and New Zealand’s Steve Sumner, all footballing legends in their home countries.
Have your say
But perhaps we’ve forgotten some big names? Do you know of other top players who missed out on a great international career? Leave us your thoughts by clicking on 'add a comment..