Football Features

This century’s most influential 100-cap wonders in international football, from Ronaldo to Xavi

By Muhammad Butt

Best 100-cap 'centurions' of international football this century: Xavi, Ronaldo & more

Published: 19:04, 25 March 2020 | Updated: 13:55, 27 March 2020

Making 100 caps (or more) for your country is still one of the biggest achievements in the game.

Even though it isn’t quite the pinnacle of the sport like it used to be, international football presents challenges and rewards unlike many other things in the modern game and players clearly value it very highly. Those who become centurions are held in special esteem.

We thought it would be interesting to look back over this century’s international centurions and see how they compared to each other. This ranking would be based on their impact and dominance on the international stage, moreso than their individual quality (though that will still be considered). We’ve come up with a top 10 and then devised a match between two combined XIs.

Who is in our list? Read on and find out. Disagree with any of our picks? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!

Rankings:

10. Diego Forlan

Uruguay
112 caps
36 goals
2011 Copa América

The fabulous Diego Forlan, the master of the Jabulani ball that so vexed the world’s top strikers in the 2010 World Cup. Forlan led Uruguay to an impressive fourth-placed finish and then did even better the next year; when he was the star of the show as La Celeste crushed everyone before them to win the 2011 Copa América. Forlan’s set-pieces and shooting were crucial to Uruguay’s triumph.

9. Cristiano Ronaldo

Portugal
164 caps
99 goals

Euro 2016, Nations League 2019

Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more international goals than any other European ever has and he’s closing in on the world record too. He was a huge figure for Portugal (as much off the field as on it) as they won Euro 2016 and has matured into a great leader. The only reason he’s at the bottom of the list rather than near the top is because, bar one game against Spain, he’s been bland and forgettable at four World Cups.

8. Gianluigi Buffon

Italy
176 caps
0 goals
2006 World Cup

The anthem singing machine, Gigi Buffon has been an absolute legend and is the only currently active player on this list who was also playing as the century began. Buffon’s peak came in 2006 as he shut out five of seven opponents (conceding just twice; a own goal and a penalty) en route to winning the World Cup. Has played more games than any European ever has.

7. Bastian Schweinsteiger

Germany
121 caps
24 goals
2014 World Cup

Bastian Schweinsteiger began the century as a flying attacking midfielder or a winger. As time wore on, he matured and turned into a central midfield general, commanding the tempo of games with a serene assurance. Never was this more apparent than in 2014 when he orchestrated Germany’s World Cup win, including a 7-1 demolition against hosts Brazil.

6. Fabio Cannavaro

Italy
136 caps
2 goals
2006 World Cup

The iconic defender of this century, at least at international level. Cannavaro was somehow simultaneously the serene sweeper and the swashbuckling smasher at the back, carrying Marco Materazzi all the way to World Cup glory in 2006. The size of Cannavaro’s feat cannot be understated: the panic that set in when Alessandro Nesta got injured was palpable, but Italy never missed him and that was thanks to the tiny Italian. He was rewarded with the World Cup and a Ballon d’Or. Not bad.

5. Philipp Lahm

Germany
113 caps
5 goals
2014 World Cup

In terms of orthodox full-backs you couldn’t ask for a better example than Philipp Lahm. The German began life as a raiding left-back cutting in on his right-foot and causing havoc. He kicked off Germany’s great period with a storming goal to start the 2006 World Cup and then turned into a more comprehensively excellent right-back that ended that period by hoisting the 2014 World Cup aloft as captain.

4. Sergio Ramos

Spain
170 caps
21 goals
Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012

Sergio Ramos was Spain’s young buccaneer of a right-back as they romped to consecutive trophy wins in 2008 and 2010. He provided energy in attack, energy in defence, and a ferocious winning mentality. Then he morphed into a dynamic centre-back to help Spain to a hat-trick in 2012. Since then Ramos has been a boss at the back and is the only Euro 2008 veteran still active and has an eye-watering 170 caps. Closing in on Buffon’s record and don’t rule out him chasing Ahmed Hassan’s 184.

3. Andrés Iniesta

Spain
131 caps
13 goals
Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012

One of the most gifted midfielders to have ever played the game. Took the achievements of Zinedine Zidane in the previous decade and overshadowed them in almost every way. Effortlessly elegant at Euro 2008 and 2012, but it was at the 2010 World Cup where he shone brightest, dominating the final against the brutal Dutch side before scoring the tournament winning goal with a stunning strike.

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2. Iker Casillas

Spain
167 caps
0 goals
Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012

Iker Casillas last conceded a goal in the knockout rounds of a major international tournament in 2006. He captained Spain all the way to the final of three consecutive tournaments and conceded just six goals along the way (and none in the crucial latter stages). A one-man brick wall and a man whose calm demeanour helped forge the greatest international side ever out of perhaps the most heated club rivalry of the century.

1. Xavi

Spain
133 caps
2 goals
Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012

No international footballer has so thoroughly embodied the entire style of a nation and led to a genuine changing of the footballing world as Xavi. For four years between 2008 and 2012, Xavi dominated the club and international game with impeccable rhythm to the extent that the entire world’s perception of football is now different. Now that is what you call a legacy.

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Combined XIs:

Rankings are all well and good but how would these players look in an actual team? How would the best international centurions since the year 2000 fit together in a team? Because there’s been so many, lets split it into two teams: one for UEFA centurions, and another for the rest of the world. Who fits into each confederation? Read on!

UEFA Combined XI:

The UEFA XI is predictably full of Spanish players. In addition to the four in the top 10, we also have Gerard Piqué sliding into the back line. In midfield, David Beckham comes in on the right. No one embodied England’s golden generation more than he, and it was Beckham who carried the Three Lions to whatever meagre success they managed this century.

In attack next to Cristiano comes Miroslav Klose, who has scored more goals at World Cup tournaments than anyone else in history (16) and was a key figure to Germany winning it in 2014. The formation is a 4-4-2 but could easily shift into a 3-5-2 with Ramos forming a back three, Lahm pushing up onto the wing and Iniesta coming infield to form a trio with Xavi and Schweinsteiger. In attack the prospect of Klose and Cristiano attacking Beckham’s crosses is mouthwatering.

Rest of the world Combined XI:

This century has been dominated by UEFA sides, especially when it comes to the World Cup. But the rest of the world has produced some spectacular centurions all the same. Claudio Bravo helped Chile win consecutive Copas América in 2015 and 2016, the first trophies in their history. Kolo Touré was a beacon of consistency for the Ivory Coast and helped them win the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations after so many attempts, as was Lucio for Brazil (and he, of course, helped win the World Cup and multiple Confederations Cups).

Rafa Márquez is a legend for Mexico and has captained his side at five straight World Cups. In midfield, Arturo Vidal was the beating heart of Chile’s golden generation that have been so influential in the last decade. Yaya Touré likewise for the mighty Ivory Coast, seeing the perennial favourites over the line in 2015 after Didier Drogba’s retirement was a Herculean feat.

Out wide we have Andrés Guardado, a pillar of consistency and versatility for Mexico, with Ahmed Hassan on the right doing likewise for Egypt. No man has played more international games than Hassan’s staggering 184 and that alone deserves recognition (to say nothing of winning three Cup of Nations).

In attack, Alexis is Chile’s iconic talisman who led them to their two titles more than anyone. Messi dragged Argentina to three finals in three straight years and has been carrying his nation to an almost comical degree given the other talent his nation has. And then leading the line is the delightful Diego Forlan.