Which lower-league footballers have appeared at the World Cup?

<span>Photograph: Tony Henshaw/Action Images</span>
Photograph: Tony Henshaw/Action Images

“What’s the lowest-ranked club side to send a player to the World Cup? Has anyone from the second or third tier popped up in a WC finals?” tweets George Davidson.

Second or third? How about the seventh tier? But first, let’s acknowledge some of the higher-profile players who went to a World Cup while slumming it in the lower leagues. “Some scandals in Italy that resulted in clubs being relegated provide a few examples,” writes Jonathan Bartley. “In 1982, during the fallout from the Totonero scandal, Milan were relegated to Serie B for the second time in three seasons, this time on sporting merit. That summer Franco Baresi and Fulvio Collovati were in Italy’s World Cup-winning squad, with Collovati playing every game, and Joe Jordan scored for Scotland against the USSR.

“Juventus were relegated in 2006 and had a few players at that year’s World Cup who stayed with the club in Serie B the following season: Pavel Nedved, Gigi Buffon, Alessandro Del Piero, Mauro Camoranesi and Robert Kovac.” Buffon, Del Piero and Camoranesi, like Collovati and Baresi in 1982, went on to lift the trophy.

As Emanuele Giulianelli points out, the future Bangor City manager Pedro Pablo Pasculli won the World Cup with Argentina in 1986 shortly after his club Lecce had been relegated to Serie B, scoring the only goal in the win over Uruguay in the last 16. While we’re on a Serie B tip – and we still can’t quite believe this happened – the wonderful Gheorghe Hagi spent the 1993-94 season in Italy’s second tier with Brescia before having the time of his life at USA 94. He was soon bought by Barcelona.

Old Gold goal machine Steve Bull was in the second tier with Wolves when he appeared for England at Italia 90. So was John Aldridge (Tranmere) when he scored for Ireland against Mexico (and, more memorably, almost chinned a Fifa official) four years later.

A generation earlier, Sweden’s Agne Simonsson made an even greater impact.

At the same tournament, the Wales squad was – and we say this with love, especially given what they achieved – a bit of a motley crew.

The “one” was midfielder George Baker, who played for Plymouth in Division Three South. The current squad includes two players from League Two, AKA tier four: Chris Gunter of AFC Wimbledon and Jonny Williams of Swindon Town.

But the best answers come from the 2006 World Cup, specifically the squads of Togo and Trinidad and Tobago. “In 2006, they took Dennis Lawrence, who was playing at fourth-tier Wrexham, and Evans Wise, who was playing in Germany’s fifth tier for Waldhof Mannheim,” writes Leigh Cartwright. “Brent Sancho, Ian Cox, and Chris Birchall were also selected from League One (Gillingham, Gillingham, and Port Vale, respectively).”

“During the same tournament, three Togolese footballers represented clubs on the lower rungs of French football,” adds Chai in Atalanta. “Affo Erassa played for AS Moulins (tier three), Alaixys Romao played for Louhans-Cuiseaux (tier three) and Richmond Forson played for amateur team Vendée Poiré sur Vie in Régional 1 (tier seven).”

Finally, Florian Camphausen has news of the one that got away. “Sherif Touré Coubageat from German seventh-tier club Concordia Ihrhove did play a few minutes for Togo in the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations. But he was not called up to represent them at the World Cup.” Some people have no respect for trivia.

The great World Cup flops

“Has any team ever qualified with a 100% record and then lost all three matches in their group? If not, what’s the worst World Cup performance for a team with a flawless record in qualification?” tweets Andy Brook.

Let’s start with an unlikely contender: Germany. Joachim Löw’s team were both holders and favourites in 2018, having qualified with 10 wins out of 10 and a goal difference of +39. Schadenfreudians will never forget what happened next. They were shocked by Mexico, scraped a late win over Sweden and then fell in a heap against South Korea. OK, they didn’t lose all three, but it was a shocking turn of events.

Mesut Özil in a sad crouching pose
Mesut Özil reflects on Germany’s early exit from the 2018 World Cup. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

In the modern era, where qualification is increasingly long-winded, few teams win every game. None of the 32 teams at Qatar 2022 did so. The majority of sides with perfect qualification records – a list that includes iconic teams like Brazil 1970, Brazil 1982, West Germany 1982 and Spain 2010 – went at least as far as the quarter-finals.

We think that only two sides have lost all three group games at the World Cup after qualifying with a perfect record, and they’re both Mexican. In 1950, Mexico reached Brazil by hammering the United States and Cuba home and away, scoring 17 goals in four games. But the step up was painful: they lost 4-0 to Brazil, 4-1 to Yugoslavia and 2-1 to Switzerland.

Twenty-eight years later they won all five games in the Concacaf Championship, scoring 20 goals in the process. In Argentina they found life much tricker. A side that included a teenage Hugo Sánchez lost 3-1 to Tunisia (the first time an African team had won a World Cup game), 6-0 to West Germany and 3-1 to Poland.

Tunisia’s Tarak Dhiab (No10) is tackled by Mexicans Alfredo Tena (No3) and Leonardo Cuéllar, right, during their World Cup match in 1978
Tunisia’s Tarak Dhiab (No 10) is tackled by Mexicans Alfredo Tena (No 3) and Leonardo Cuéllar, right, during their World Cup match in 1978. Photograph: Maasim/AP

(A bit of housekeeping. Many of the early World Cups either went straight to the knockout rounds or had three-team or two-team groups. For example, in 1954 there was a team that won every qualifying match and then lost both their group games. Yep, it was Mexico.)

Better late than never

“Which late call-up/injury replacement has been the biggest success story at a World Cup?” tweets David Ardisson.

The first person who springs to mind is Josimar, the unknown, uncapped, unemployed Brazilian right-back who scored two absurd screamers at Mexico 86 after being called up as a late replacement for Leandro. You can read about his story here.

Josimar celebrates his spectacular goal against Northern Ireland
Josimar celebrates his spectacular goal against Northern Ireland. Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock

“Just Fontaine holds the record for goals at a World Cup finals, 13 in 1958,” writes David Warriston. “In the previous four years he had managed only two games for the national team. The fact he played all six games in Sweden wearing another player’s boots supports the idea that he was not originally part of the coach’s plans.”

Fontaine did play in friendlies in March and April 1958, so we’re not 100% sure he qualifies as a late call-up. But if he does, we should also include Salvatore Schillaci. After a fine first season with Juventus, he made his Italy debut on 31 March 1990. You know the rest.

Chris Woods: an apology

In last week’s Knowledge, we looked at players who had been to multiple tournaments without getting on the field. And inevitably, we made a cock-up.

Knowledge archive

“Panini have to select the players for their World Cup sticker albums in advance of the squads being announced – so what has been the most glaring omission?” enquired Dan Leach in 2018.

Publishing schedules mean Panini and other sticker-album manufacturers cannot wait for the World Cup squads to be announced – and they certainly can’t wait for unlikely heroes to emerge once the tournament starts. That, and the fact the albums usually contain around 16 players rather than the full squad, inevitably means a few have slipped through the net.

“A mega one from Italia 90 would surely be Salvatore Schillaci, who was not included in the Italy spread,” began Ben Raza. “To be fair, he only had one cap to his name when the tournament began. The only striker who came close to matching his feats was Roger Milla … who also wasn’t featured. Nor was David Platt, if we’re talking about England.”

Italy’s Salvatore Schillaci runs away from the USA’s John Harkes
Italy’s Salvatore Schillaci runs away from the USA’s John Harkes. Photograph: Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

These are the most notable omissions:

1970: Clodoaldo (Brazil), Roberto Boninsegna (Italy).

1974: Rainer Bonhof and Bernd Hölzenbein (West Germany), Jan Jongbloed, Wim Jansen and Wim Rijsbergen (Netherlands), Andrzej Szarmach and Wladyslaw Zmuda (Poland), Elías Figueroa (Chile).

1978: Arie Haan and Dick Nanninga (Netherlands), Antonio Cabrini (Italy).

1982: Alessandro Altobelli (Italy), Manuel Amoros (France).

1986: Josimar (Brazil), Igor Belanov (USSR), Peter Beardsley (England).

1990: Salvatore Schillaci (Italy), Sergio Goycochea (Argentina), Roger Milla (Cameroon), David Platt and Mark Wright (England).

1994: Aldair, Mazinho and Viola (Brazil), Andrés Escobar (Colombia), Daniele Massaro (Italy).

1998: Emmanuel Petit and Bixente Lizarazu (France), Edgar Davids (Netherlands), Michael Owen and Alan Shearer (England), Javier Zanetti (Argentina).

2002: Ronaldinho (Brazil), Miroslav Klose (Germany), Nicky Butt (England).

2006: Jens Lehmann (Germany), Maxi Rodríguez (Argentina).

2010: Pedro (Spain), Thomas Müller (Germany).

2014: Benedikt Höwedes (Germany), Tim Krul (Netherlands).


Can you help?

“Ethan Ampadu has more Welsh international caps than appearances for any one club team. Has anyone else managed this?” asks Rob Berry.