Football Features

Hit, miss or meh? Players who came out of international retirement

By Ben Green

Hit, miss or meh? Players who came out of international retirement

Published: 16:25, 18 March 2023

Lionel Messi has had a complicated relationship with international football to say the least.

The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has been involved in six finals at major tournaments with Argentina, being on the winning side twice. But for some time it appeared as though he would leave football without international glory, which some held against him in his quest to become the best footballer of all time.

Between 2007 and 2016, Messi came up short in four finals, losing thrice in Copa America showpieces, and experiencing late agony in the 2014 World Cup.

Argentina’s 2016 defeat to Chile proved too much for Messi to handle, and he announced his retirement from international football shortly after. Of course, the clamour and public yearning for a nation’s symbolic superstar inspired the now PSG forward to reverse his decision — and he has since put paid to past agonies.

But, he is not the first to return to a former love…

1. Zinedine Zidane

Were it not for a “mysterious voice” in Zizou’s head, we would have been starved of his God-given talents at the 2006 World Cup (though Marco Materazzi probably wouldn’t have minded). Zidane, at 32, decided to call it a day for France in 2004, packing it in after careful deliberation and announcing, quite curtly on his website that: “I was thinking about it before Euro 2004 and, whatever the result, I had planned to stop playing for France afterwards anyway.”

However, after a year-long sabbatical Zidane made an astonishing one-eighty when the aforementioned “mysterious voice” coaxed him out of retirement, and he ultimately went on to guide Raymond Domenech’s Les Bleus to the 2006 World Cup final. The ‘Roulette’ merchant netted a Panenka in the Berlin showpiece against Italy, but his international swansong was more infamous than illustrious, as he was sent off for head-butting Materazzi before Marcello Lippi’s side won on penalties.

Verdict: Hit (head-butt aside, and definitely no pun intended)

2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Few people in this world can pull off a man bun. Ibrahimovic is arguably the only one, and not just because you’d be petrified to say otherwise. The Malmo immortal, after returning from football’s unfairly-perceived ‘retirement home’ across the Atlantic, realised he’s still one of the best strikers in Europe (even into his 40s) while tearing it up in Serie A with Milan — and so, he decided to test his luck back on the international scene in 2021.

Ibra, who retired six years ago after Euro 2016, tried to make a return just before the 2018 World Cup but was unable to secure a seat on Janne Andersson’s plane, and so, England made it through to the quarter-finals without having to worry about Puskas-winning bicycle kicks. More recently, the Milan marksman returned to the Blagult fold, becoming the oldest player in history to turn out for Sweden, but injuries scuppered his hopes of playing at Euro 2020 and his side failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

He’s back in the Sweden squad for their upcoming Euro 2024 qualifiers, though Andersson doesn’t see Ibrahimovic as a starter, rather an option from the bench.

Verdict: Miss

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3. Wayne Rooney

After calling it a day in 2016, Rooney would not make a remarkable comeback like Zidane and guide the nation to World Cup final heights (sadly). He did, however, return for what was essentially an exhibition match against the United States to bring up cap No. 120 in 2018. The international friendly was known as the “Wayne Rooney Foundation International”, and promoted his newly-formed charity.

The nation’s record goalscorer, then plying his trade with D.C. United in MLS, came on in the 58th minute to a standing ovation and a raucous Wembley reception, as England ran amok in a 3-0 win over the Stars and Stripes, bowing out of Three Lion duty only five caps shy of Peter Shilton’s record.

Verdict: Hit (both sentimental and charitable. Always a winner)

4. Fabio Quagliarella

Still going strong in Serie A at 40 (injuries aside), Quagliarella is part of a clutch of ageing stars continuing to prove their worth in the Italian top flight, which is now starting to take on a ‘Masters Football’ guise (whatever happened to that?).

It was Quagliarella’s Capocannoniere-winning form in 2018/19 (finishing as Serie A’s top scorer that season with 26 goals) that alerted Roberto Mancini and earned him his first Italy cap in nine years. Between 2010 and 2018, Quagliarella was forever on the periphery, but his form in 2019 was simply too good to be ignored, and at the age of 36 years and 54 days, he became the nation’s all-time oldest goalscorer after netting a penalty-brace against Liechtenstein.

Verdict: Hit

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5. Santi Cazorla

After an injury-plagued two-and-a-half years at Arsenal, Cazorla returned to more familiar pastures with Villarreal in 2018, hoping to recapture his halcyon days for the Yellow Submarine. Unfortunately, those hopes were initially dashed by a career-threatening ankle injury that not only derailed his trajectory completely but, at one point got so serious, that Cazorla feared he would not be able to walk again.

Thankfully for football fans worldwide, the Spaniard made an exceptional recovery and rediscovered his creative genius at the Estadio de la Ceramica, quickly becoming Villarreal’s attacking fulcrum and playmaker grandmaster, which earned him four caps for Spain in 2019, four years after his last appearance in red and yellow. It is a testament to Cazorla’s never-say-die mentality and preternatural talents that he not only made a full recovery, but actually returned to the top of his country’s talent pool.

Verdict: Hit (if for nothing else other than his miraculous recovery and ensuing form)

6. Lionel Messi

As mentioned in the introduction, the Barcelona legend shocked the football landscape after announcing his international retirement in 2016 following Argentina’s defeat in the Copa America final. For the neutral, it was devastating news. For Argentina fans, it was the emotional equivalent of going 12 rounds with prime Mike Tyson.

But what a return its been. Messi was the top scorer as Argentina lifted the coveted South American gong in 2021, and it finally exorcised the demons of past failures. And then, in what was perhaps his final chance of winning the big one, Messi inspired Argentina to their third World Cup.

Messi scored seven goals in seven games at the World Cup, only failing to find the net against Poland, and bagged a brace in the final as Argentina beat France on penalties. A fantastic final filled with drama, it was the best way for Messi to complete football and the best U-turn in history.

Verdict: Hit

7. Gianluigi Buffon

“This beautiful and very long experience with Juve will come to a definitive end this year.” Buffon already left Juventus once, testing his luck with PSG before getting cold feet and returning to Turin. But in 2021 he said goodbye (playing career-wise) to the Old Lady, forever.

Buffon has done this before, though. After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Italy’s first absence at the quadrennial showpiece in 60 years, he announced his retirement with a passionate lamentation on social media: “I’m not sorry for myself but all of Italian football. We failed at something which also means something on a social level. There’s regret at finishing like that, not because time passes. There is certainly a future for Italian football, as we have pride, ability, determination and after bad tumbles, we always find a way to get back on our feet.”

He returned a couple of months later.

Verdict: Meh

8. Roy Keane

Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy publicly fell out during the Republic of Ireland’s preparations for the 2002 World Cup, which Keane publicly criticised in an interview with the Irish Times.

McCarthy took exception to this and confronted Keane during a player meeting, resulting in a row where the midfielder told his coach: “I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager, and I don’t rate you as a person.” He was subsequently sent home.

Keane would return two years later after McCarthy had already left his position as head coach for the Boys in Green. He would go on to collect nine more caps for the nation before hanging up his international boots in 2006 to focus on his career with Man Utd.

Verdict: Meh

9. Hakim Ziyech

In a similar way to Keane’s international saga revolving around the presence of the man in the dugout, Ziyech’s tale with Morocco follows a similar pattern. In September 2021, the Chelsea winger was left out of the nation’s squad for that month’s international break, with then manager Vahid Halilhodzic publicly criticising the player’s “poor attitude” and suggesting he had previously feigned injury to avoid call-ups.

That resulted in Ziyech also missing the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, and he ultimately retired from international football in February of this year. In March, Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui refused an invitation from Halilhodzic to return to play for Morocco, with both reiterating their retirement stance. However, following the Bosnian’s sacking and Walid Regragui’s subsequent appointment in August, Ziyech decided to return to the international circuit.

What a decision it has so far proven. Morocco recently became the first African nation to reach a World Cup semi-final, sealing fourth place in Qatar.

Verdict: Hit