Toni Kroos will hope to be more Messi than Carragher in ranking of international football returnees

Will Ford
Toni Kroos Lionel Messi Jamie Carragher
Toni Kroos is the latest player to come out of international retirement.

It took Toni Kroos just seven seconds to make his mark on his return to international football, assisting Florian Wirtz from the kick-off in Germany’s impressive 2-0 win over France on Saturday.

The 34-year-old – who had not played for Germany since their defeat to England at Euro 2020 – looks set to be a crucial cog in Julian Nagelsmann’s team for their home European Championships this summer having come out of retirement.

But how might he stack up against other international returnees? We’ve ranked ten of the more notable unretirees (or in a couple of cases, players who didn’t officially retire, but had long old absences) from worst to best. There was only ever going to be one winner…


10) Jamie Carragher
Carragher ruled himself out of the Euro qualifiers in 2007 having grown frustrated at his lack of opportunities at centre-back. Steve McClaren tried but failed to lure him out of retirement and Fabio Capello’s first attempt in 2008 fell on deaf ears, before the Liverpool legend answered the call in 2010 amid concerns over the mounting list of defensive injuries ahead of the World Cup in South Africa

Rio Ferdinand was ruled out of the tournament and Carragher replaced the chronically crocked Ledley King in their opening group game against the USA, starting the next one against Algeria, before being suspended for their win over Slovenia, never to be seen in an England shirt again.


9) Roy Keane
Niall Quinn described Roy Keane’s response to being admonished by Mick McCarthy at the 2002 World Cup in front of his Republic of Ireland teammates for faking an injury as “the most surgical slaughtering anyone has ever got”.

You’re a fucking wanker. 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. You’re a fucking wanker and you can stick your World Cup up your arse. I’ve got no respect for you. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your bollocks.

And he was sent home for that? Keane returned two years later under Brian Kerr, earning nine more caps before hanging up his international boots for good in 2005.


8) Fabio Quagliarella
Having last represented Italy in 2010 as a 27-year-old, Quagliarella returned to the international fold to become his country’s all-time oldest goalscorer with his two penalties against Liechtenstein at the age of 36.

He had been on the periphery during that nine-year hiatus, earning two further call-ups but no caps, with Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli, Antonio Di Natale, Ciro Immobile, Alberto Gilardino, Graziano Pelle, Andrea Belotti and Fabio Borini among those to have played in his stead. Then 26 Serie A goals in the 2018/19 season – which meant he finished as top scorer – left Roberto Mancini with no choice but to select him.

Covid put paid to his chances of going to another major tournament as Euro 2020 was delayed by a year, at which point his goalscoring form had dropped to a point where it would have been an odd choice to select a then 38-year-old. They did alright without him.


7) Santi Cazorla
Cazorla recaptured his form and the imagination of fans all over the world having recovered from a career-threatening ankle injury which left the playmaker fearing he would never walk again on his return to Villarreal, after an already injury-plagued end to his time at Arsenal.

He once again became the linchpin of the La Liga side’s attack, racking up 22 goals and assists each across two seasons for the Yellow Submarine, earning him a Spain recall in 2019, four years after his last appearance for his country. The 34-year-old described his return to international football as “unthinkable” and there was barely a dry eye in the house as he scored against Malta, in one of four caps in his second spell.


6) Henrik Larsson
Larsson played in three World Cups and three European Championships between 1994 and 2008, scoring nine major tournament goals, and twice came out of retirement to play in those showcase competitions.

He retired after his Sweden side lost to Senegal in the 2002 World Cup, missing all of the Euro 2004 qualifiers before coming back for the tournament proper. And then after the World Cup in 2006 and defeat to Germany he again withdrew from international football only to return for Euro 2008. He essentially ended his career with two thirds of the number of caps he should have won, had he been arsed with qualifiers and friendlies.


5) Lilian Thuram
Retired briefly after Euro 2004, but was persuaded to return by Raymond Domenech for the World Cup qualifiers before playing every minute of the tournament in 2006, as France conceded just three goals in the seven games, thanks in large part to his formidable centre-back partnership with William Gallas.

Thuram was until recently France’s most capped player having represented his country on 142 occasions. Without his year off he would still hold that record over Hugo Lloris (145).

Zidane Makelele Thuram France
Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram all came out of retirement to play for France in 2006.


4) Claude Makelele
Arguably just as crucial to France’s run to the 2006 final was the man after which a position was named, with no-one, by definition, better in the ‘Makelele role’ than Claude Makelele. He and Patrick Vieira joined Zinedine Zidane in what must be up there with the most all-encompassing midfield trios in international football history.

Makelele also turned out for Euro 2008 but probably wishes he hadn’t bothered as defeats to Netherlands and Italy in the group of death saw them fail to make the knockouts.


3) Hakim Ziyech
Manager Vahid Halilhodzic left Ziyech out of the World Cup qualifiers in 2021 having publicly denounced him over his “poor attitude” amid suspicions the winger had feigned injury to avoid call-ups.

He missed the Africa Cup of Nations in 2022 for the same reason, announcing his retirement from international football on the back of it, then turned down Halilhodzic’s attempts to bring him back along with Noussair Mazraoui, before the Bosnian manager’s sacking in August 2022 paved the way for the Moroccan pair’s timely return for the Qatar World Cup.

Ziyech scored the opener in the group game win over Canada, a penalty in the shootout win over Spain in the Round of 16, and ended the historic tournament in which Morocco became the first team to reach a World Cup semi-final by captaining his nation in the third place play-off defeat to Croatia.


2) Zinedine Zidane
Zidane decided to call it a day for France in 2004, claiming after the tournament that “I was thinking about it before Euro 2004 and, whatever the result, I had planned to stop playing for France afterwards anyway”, before a “mysterious voice” called, presumably telling him he was still pretty bloody good at football, to coax him from retirement.

He was named player of the tournament at the 2006 World Cup after four goals and two assists in the four knockout games, including a panenka penalty in the final against Italy that has somewhat faded from memory as a result of him planting his head into Marco Materazzi’s chest in extra time. No doubt he would have scored again, and may have another World Cup in his list of honours had it been him taking the spot kick and not David Trezeguet in the shootout.


1) Lionel Messi
“For me, the national team is over,” Messi said after defeat to Chile in the Copa America final in 2016. “I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion.” If only we could have told him then how he would be feeling some six years later.

He was top scorer as Argentina lifted the South American showpiece in 2021, exorcising the demons of three previous Copa America final defeats, to go with the World Cup final defeat in 2014 – a wrong he would put right at Qatar.

Messi scored in every game of the World Cup, save the group game win over Poland, and twice in the most dramatic final in history before scoring his penalty in the shootout.

In an emotional letter posted to his Instagram account after glory in Qatar, Messi wrote: ‘Failure is often part of the journey and learning, and without disappointments it is impossible for success to come.’

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