'Quality, not quantity's a ubiquitous phrase, generally with the sub-text that if you can have something in large amounts, it cannot be especially desirable. However, this particular piece of wisdom does not always hold true, as proved by the record-breaking players we salute in this article.
Let us start with Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, poised to go top of the English top-flight appearances chart at some point in the next few weeks. At the time of writing, the Welshman has featured in 606 league games, with every single one of them for Red Devils. Giggs first donned their famous shirt in 1991, and has racked up the medals with United ever since. Eleven Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two UEFA Champions Leagues, and the FIFA Club World Cup all feature on the player’s personal roll of honour, and he seems likely to set a record which will stand for a long time to come.
In terms of Premier League appearances, Giggs requires just eight more games to displace keeper David James (573 appearances) from top spot. As it happens, the former England goalkeeper still playing, but he and current club Bristol City are stuck in the second tier, so it seems likely the 40-year-old will have to surrender the record he first claimed just a year ago.
In Germany, Karl-Heinz 'Charly' Korbel has been a record-holder for a lot longer, but unlike James he's not in any danger of giving it up any time soon. The player made a remarkable 602 Bundesliga appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt from 1972 to 1991, and his autobiography sports an appropriate title: '602 - A record for all eternity'.
"I doubt whether anyone will play that many games again," Korbel himself has commented, although in his position as head of a football academy, he would have no issue with any player good enough to do so: "I always tell the kids that one of the reasons I work in youth development is because I’d like to be around when my successor runs out in an Eintracht shirt, after passing through our academy or one of our training camps."
There is a strong connection between Korbel and a certain Jean-Luc Ettori, whether or not the two former players know it. Each tops the all-time appearance chart in his nation's top tier, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 respectively, and in a remarkable and surely unique coincidence, both played exactly the same number of games - 602 to be precise. Ettori spent 1977 to 1994 between the Monaco sticks.
The next man on our list is Andoni Zubizarreta, although in contrast to Giggs, Ettori and Korbel, the durable Spaniard was by no means a one-club man. Zubizarreta made a combined 622 appearances for Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona and Valencia between 1980 and 1998, a figure which also looks likely to stand for a long time in Spain. One reason for that confident prediction is that Raul, the man in second on 550 games, switched to Germany at the start of the 2010/11 season.
"In the first place, I’d be delighted if anyone remembers me at all,” Zubizarreta once replied when asked by FIFA.com what he would most like to be remembered for. "I do find it a surprise that people haven’t forgotten after such a long time. It would be nice if what I’ve left behind is the impression of a good goalkeeper who gave his team confidence." Appointed director of sport at Barça some six months ago, he is now working on giving the fans another compelling reason not to forget him.
In the course of his extraordinary career, Paolo Maldini also rose to the status of living legend. The Italian completed 25 seasons at AC Milan from 1984 to 2009, clocking up a total of 647 top-flight appearances - another record which is surely destined to stand for all time. Maldini’s glittering honours list features seven Serie A titles, five UEFA Champions League triumphs, and a FIFA Club World Cup trophy. The defender was also briefly his country’s most-capped player with 126 international outings, before being overtaken by Fabio Cannavaro in 2009.
In honour of his long and loyal service, I Rossoneri resolved to retire Maldini’s No3 shirt. In a quaint and novel twist, it will only be reactivated if one of the former superstar’s three sons ever proves good enough to follow in dad’s footsteps and play for the first team.
Naturally, every league with a reasonably long history boasts a few players with an unusually large number of games under their belts. Two further examples are Bulent Korkmaz and his 630 league appearances in Turkey, and Jan Jongbloed, a top-notch goalkeeper who contested fully 707 Eredivisie matches and represented his country in the 1978 FIFA World Cup Argentina™ Final.
Intriguingly, loyalty often seems a prerequisite for chalking up a huge number of top-flight games. A very high proportion of our record-holders were or are one-club men, including the aforementioned Giggs, Korbel and Maldini. "I’d have been lost if I’d moved,” the elegant Italian once said.
These players are worth their place in the history books, not merely by virtue of their longevity, but also due to their professional approach and unswerving loyalty, increasingly rare commodities in these days of transfer merry-go-rounds and enticing offers from clubs both at home and abroad.
Have Your Say
We’ve confined ourselves to Europe’s leading leagues in our survey of long-serving players with record numbers of appearances. However, there are a host of other players worth a mention as all-time record-holders in other championships. Who do you think really deserves to be included here? Simply click ‘Add your comment’ to join the discussion, remembering to keep your comments clean, respectful, on-topic and in English.