While international football boasts many elite players representing powerhouse teams such as Brazil, Germany, or Spain, there are many of the best football players of all time who had to carry their poor national teams.
In this article, we will explore the top 10 outstanding soccer players who played for underperforming national teams, including Finland, Liberia, Gabon, and Wales.
10. Goran Pandev – The North Macedonian Treble Winner
Goran Pandev is a retired Macedonian professional footballer who played as a forward. He began his career at Lazio and later moved to Inter Milan in 2010, where he won several honours including Serie A, Coppa Italia and the UEFA Champions League in 2010 in a treble winning season.
In April 2021, he became the first Macedonian to score 100 goals in one of the top five European football leagues. Pandev was also the captain of the North Macedonia national team and is the country’s all-time top scorer with 38 goals. He retired from international football after UEFA Euro 2020.
9. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: Gabon’s Greatest Footballing Family
Aubameyang is Gabon’s greatest footballer of all time, with his father Pierre Aubameyang regarded as the second best. He made his debut for Gabon at senior level at just 19 years old in 2009 and since played in four Africa Cup of Nations tournaments and the 2012 Olympics. His tally currently stands at a national record 30 goals and more to come,
Aubameyang was named African Footballer of the Year back in 2016, and was the first Gabonese and just the second European-born player to receive the award.
The achievement is ever-more impressive as Gabon is not a strong footballing nation, and has a population of just 1.6 million. They have never qualified for a World Cup and only made it to the knockout stages of the Africa Cup of Nations once without Aubameyang in the team in 1996. Since his rise, they have made it to the knockout stages twice more, in 2012 and 2021.
8. Jari Litmanen: Finland’s best Football Player
Finland is not known for producing a long list of top-level football players, with only Sami Hyypia and Jussi Jaaskelainen coming close to Jari Litmanen’s calibre.
Litmanen’s career included stints with the best clubs in Europe including Ajax, Barcelona, and Liverpool. He was nominated for the Ballon d’Or on two occasions, and was named Finnish footballer of the year a massive nine times, and subsequently as Finland’s greatest player of all time in 2003. Despite this, Litmanen was still seen as never fully realising his potential.
Finland has never qualified for a World Cup or European Championships, emphasising the country’s struggles on the international stage. Nevertheless, Jari Litmanen’s legacy as the greatest football player to come from Finland is all but secured.
7. Dwight Yorke: The Greatest Tobagonian Footballer in History
Dwight Yorke, the former Aston Villa and Manchester United player, is widely regarded as the greatest Tobagonian footballer of all time. Tobago are almost insignificant in international football, ranking 106th in the FIFA World Rankings at the time of Yorke’s retirement in 2010.
However, at club level Yorke won three Premier League titles, two League Cups, one FA Cup, one Champions League, and one Intercontinental Cup. His contribution to Manchester United’s success in the 1990s is immeasurable, with his partnership up top with Andy Cole earning the nickname “The Deadly Duo.”
At the international level, Yorke led Tobago to qualify for their first-ever World Cup in 2006. Yorke’s as captain was instrumental to Tobago’s relative success.
6. Hristo Stoichkov: The Bulgarian Hero
Hristo Stoichkov is a legendary Bulgarian footballer who played a pivotal role in his country’s success in the 1994 World Cup, where they reached the semi-finals. Without Stoichkov’s exceptional skills, it is unlikely that Bulgaria would have progressed past the group stages, let alone make it as far as they did.
After a prolific stint with CSKA Sofia, Stoichkov joined Barcelona, where he formed an unstoppable strike partnership with Romario. In his seven years at the club, he won an impressive five league titles, the European Cup, and the Ballon d’Or in 1994.
Stoichkov was the top scorer at the 1994 World Cup, scoring crucial goals in wins over Argentina, Mexico, and Germany. Since his retirement, Bulgaria has struggled to qualify for the World Cup, failing to do so in recent years.
Hristo Stoichkov remains a beloved figure in Bulgarian football, celebrated for his skill and contributions to the game both at the domestic and international levels.
5. Abedi Pele: The Pioneer of African Football
Abedi Pele is a Ghanaian footballer considered one of the first African football stars. During his time, Ghana was still a developing nation in terms of football, and Abedi Pele was the standout player in the national team.
Although Ghana has produced some excellent players in recent years and put in a strong performance at the 2022 World Cup, they had never qualified for a World Cup before 2006. Abedi Pele was crucial in putting Ghana on the footballing world map.
Even today, Abedi Pele is remembered as a pioneer to African football, and his contributions to the sport remain appreciated. His legacy inspires the next generation of young footballers in not just Ghana, but the whole of Africa.
4. Gareth Bale: Wales’ Euros and World Cup Star
Gareth Bale, one of the world’s best football players, is a hero in Wales not only for his exceptional talent but also for his vital role in the national team. Despite the presence of other notable players like Ashley Williams and Aaron Ramsey, the Welsh national team still heavily relies on Bale to deliver wins.
Wales has a history of underperformance in international football, having failed to qualify for a World Cup since 1958 prior to last year. However, Bale’s remarkable performances carried Wales to European Championships qualification for the first time ever in 2016, astonishingly making it to the semi-finals, and then qualifying again in 2020 and making it to the round of 16. They then went one better and qualified for the World Cup in 2022, although didn’t qualify for the knockouts.
Bale’s retires having taken his country to the biggest tournaments in the World, and his success has made him an icon in Wales, fuelling the country’s passion for football.
3. Gheorge Hagi: Romania’s National Treasure
Gheorghe Hagi is considered a national treasure in Romania as the greatest national football player of all time. Romania experienced their greatest performances on the world stage with Hagi leading them. He guided them through the group stages in all three of the World Cup tournaments he participated in.
Since his retirement, Romania hasn’t to qualified for another World Cup. Hagi also played a pivotal role in Romania’s best showing at the Euro’s.
Hagi was a playmaker known for occasionally losing his cool on the field, playing for both Real Madrid and Barcelona. He was Romanian Footballer of the Year seven times, having earned 124 appearances and scoring 35 goals for his country.
2. George Best: Northern Ireland’s What Could Have Been
George Best is still seen as one of the best (pardon the pun) footballers of all time. He won several trophies at club level with Manchester United, including the European Cup and on a personal level the Ballon d’Or in 1968, but was unable to even qualify for a single major international tournament, and his international career was largely disappointing.
He earned himself just 37 caps for Northern Ireland, and even they were largely shadowed by off-field problems. Best was known for campaigning for a united team with the Republic of Ireland to give the two sides a better chance of success, but this never happened.
1. George Weah: Liberia and Africa’s Greatest Footballer
Yes, another George. But the biggest difference between a player and their national team is George Weah for Liberia. A Ballon d’Or winner, three-time African Footballer of the Year, and A.C. Milan Hall of Famer. George Weah is regarded to be the best African footballer of all time, and is the only African to ever win the Ballon d’Or.
He played for several big clubs in Monaco, PSG, AC Milan, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Marseille, blessing all of them with directness, pace, and power, which saw him eventually take the place of Marco Van Basten at Milan.
At international level, never has a country relied on a single player as much as Liberia did with George Weah. Their team is formed of mostly players who play domestically in Liberia.
He played, managed, and sponsored the national team, who required his support both on and off the field. He is not only the country’s greatest ever footballer; George Weah is currently president of Liberia, serving in office since 2018.