5 Most Successful Footballers with Unknown Nationalities. The World Cup 2018 will bring together many of the best footballers in the world later this summer, but keep those who didn’t make the cut in your thoughts.
The game’s legends from nations like Germany, Brazil, and France may take opportunities on such a stage for granted, but for many, participating in a major tournament is a chance that they can easily pass up.
Because of the nature of international football, not every great player has the chance to shine on the biggest platform. Gareth Bale of Wales and Real Madrid, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang of Gabon, and Miralem Pjanic of Bosnia are just a few of the big-name athletes from less-developed nations who have excelled in recent years.
Here are five footballers from underdeveloped nations who have managed to leave a lasting mark on the game by their outstanding play at the club level and occasionally by inspiring their nations to surprising success in the international arena.
#5 Davor Suker (Croatia):
Croatia, a country with a population of under 7 million, has performed admirably since it gained independence in 1991. It has consistently produced an inordinate amount of elite athletes for such a small nation, with Luka Modric of Real Madrid serving as possibly the best recent example.
But the class of 1998, whose shining star was Davor Suker, a Real Madrid player, came before the midfield master. That year’s World Cup was notable for Croatia’s close call with the final against eventual champions France. Suker, a striker who won the Golden Boot for scoring six goals in the finals, made a significant contribution to their success. He finished behind Ronaldo but ahead of Zinedine Zidane to win the Silver Ball as the tournament’s best player at the same time.
Only Zidane beat him in the Ballon d’Or voting that year because of his total effect, which included helping Real Madrid win the Champions League.
Later playing for Arsenal, he finished second in the 2000 UEFA Cup. He was Croatia’s first player of international stature, but since getting involved in football politics after retiring, he has gained a reputation for being a contentious character.
#4 George Weah (Liberia):
There is a case to be made for Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, or even Mohamed Salah to be declared the greatest African footballer of all time, but George Weah of Liberia holds the distinction of being the only player from the continent to win the Ballon d’Or.
When he was 21 and signed by Arsene Wenger’s Monaco in 1988, he was already playing in Cameroon. He quickly adjusted to a new way of life, though, as evidenced by his success in France, which prompted Wenger to remark that Weah “Weah was as a big surprise. He entered the scene with an explosiveness that I have never seen from a player.”
After spending four seasons at the principality, he transferred to Paris Saint-Germain, where he helped the team reach the Champions League semifinals and finished the 1994–1995 season as the season’s top scorer.
These accomplishments, together with those he earned with AC Milan, where he transferred in the summer, helped him win the 1995 Ballon d’Or. At San Siro, his speed and strength are cherished memories, as is a signature goal he scored against Hellas Verona in which he collected the ball outside of his area and ran the entire length of the pitch to score.
Although he was past his prime by the time he moved on loan to Chelsea, Manchester City, Marseille, and eventually Al Jazira, he is still regarded as a fantastic talent. Due to his widespread popularity in his country, which has been devastated by civil war, he decided to enter politics and is now the president of his country, where he serves as a unifying force.
#3 Jari Litmanen (Finland):
Finland doesn’t have a long history of professional football. There haven’t been many players who have attained the pinnacle of the game, with former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia maybe being the best in recent memory.
Jari Litmanen, who advanced to become one of the top attackers in the world game during a devastating period with Ajax in the 1990s, belonged to a little earlier generation. The Finn was in fact one of their outstanding players when the Amsterdam team, using a group of young people who had graduated from their academy system, memorably won the Champions League in season 1994–1955.
He would twice place in the top 10 of the Ballon d’Or voting, most notably in 1995 when he took third place. It would be unjust to assess him based on his unsuccessful later-in-his-career stints at Barcelona and Liverpool, as by that point injuries had already begun to take their toll.
Instead, his performance in the Eredivisie, a league that was more highly regarded in the 1990s than it is now, speaks for itself. Despite being predominantly a playmaker, he averaged a goal every other game for six seasons.
Indeed, Frank Rijkaard, a former teammate, remarked of him: “Jari was the best No. 10 we ever had. Dennis Bergkamp was brilliant for Ajax.”
He is widely regarded as the best player to ever represent his nation, and despite having reached the top of his abilities by the time he turned 30 but still played for the national team until he was 39.
#2 Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria):
One of the most talented and colorful athletes of the 1990s was Hristo Stoichkov. The Bulgarian ace first gained notoriety while representing CSKA Sofia, but it was in Barcelona that he truly came into his own. He spent his first five years at Camp Nou scoring 77 La Liga goals in just 149 games, consistently pushing himself toward the top of the scoring list even if teammate Romario outperformed him.
As a member of Johan Cruyff’s “Dream Team,” which helped Spain win four Spanish championships and the 1992 European Cup, a number of titles were won there. However, he reached his pinnacle in 1994 when he won the Ballon d’Or. His performances at the World Cup in that particular year drew people’s attention. Bulgaria went to the USA with the intention of filling in the gaps, but they ended up finishing fourth after defeating the defending winners Germany.
He was a beast of a striker, barrel-chested, but he didn’t just use his tremendous physicality to terrorize defenders. Although he also had a volcanic side to his personality that frequently resulted in red cards, he had a finesse to his touch and an intellect to his play that made him more than just a raw goal scorer.
#1 George Best (Northern Ireland):
After his team’s second goal gave them the lead in overtime, George Best celebrated.
George Best, who is regarded by some as the best European player of all time, was and is a Manchester United legend. His abilities on the pitch were undeniable, but off the pitch, he was a playboy whose lifestyle prevented him from living as long as he may have and ultimately led to his premature death at the age of 59 in 2005.
When he was 18 years old, he started his career at Manchester United and spent 11 years at Old Trafford. He gained notoriety while playing with the Red Devils for his incredible dribbling skills. When he had the ball in his hands, he appeared to be untouchable.
The 1968 European Cup final, which Benfica lost 4-1 at Wembley, was the apex of his career. In that match, he scored the game-winning goal in overtime by going on a customary frantic dash. That he stood out on a team that also included Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, two of the greatest legends of the team, says a lot.
The legendary Franz Beckenbauer praised George Best as “one of the most talented players of all time” and “probably the best footballer who never made it to a major world final.”
After leaving United, Best had a very nomadic lifestyle, playing for teams like Stockport, Cork City, Los Angeles Aztecs, Hibernian, and Brisbane Lions while battling an alcohol addiction that he would ultimately lose.
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