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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Rooney, Ribery and Ibrahimovic lead the attack: Best XI of international retirees

As leagues around the world make way for international football, Ian Hawkey picks the best team of players who have made themselves unavailable for their national teams.

Wayne Rooney retired from international football last week, ruling himself out of contention for the 2018 World Cup in Russia next summer. Andy Rain / EPA
Wayne Rooney retired from international football last week, ruling himself out of contention for the 2018 World Cup in Russia next summer. Andy Rain / EPA

Wayne Rooney had been retired from international football for barely 24 hours when Gareth Southgate, the manager of an England for whom Rooney has scored more goals than anybody in history, suggested out loud he hoped the decision might be negotiable at some time in the medium-term future.

International retirement is like that, a vague concept, or in some cases, just regarded as plain "fake news".

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That is not to disregard Rooney’s honesty. Rather it is to take him at his word when he says nothing has thrilled him more than playing for and captaining his country. Because of that, Southgate hopes, he might be persuaded back, should England feel they need his knowhow, his goals come the World Cup finals in June.

This World Cup qualifying campaign, which enters a key phase over the next 10 days, has featured some big bold headlines about international retirement. Fourteen months ago, Lionel Messi announced he had quit the Argentina team, fed up with silver medals in so many finals. Cue panic, not least at Fifa headquarters.

A World Cup without Messi would be a World Cup diminished. Messi, 30, was talked back from his proposed exile and will hope his influence on the pitch can ease his country’s fears about their lowly position in the qualifying table this week.

Older players retire to seek respite from a busy calendar. That was David Villa’s thought when he announced that, having made himself Spain’s leading scorer in an era of two European championships and a World Cup triumph, he was stepping back. Fully three years later, aged 35, after a fulfilling successful late-career spell in America’s Major League Soccer (MLS), Villa has just been recalled.

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Others will see in Villa’s resumed role with Spain an important shift in thinking. The MLS is gaining respect as a properly competitive environment, where high standards can be maintained. If it’s good enough for Spain then it might be for, say, Italy.

Antonio Conte, Italy’s manager until last year, left out the MLS players Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco from his Euro 2016 squad and said he had done so because they had “chosen to play outside a leading European league”.

Southgate is not the only manager mulling over the possibilities of players’ unretirement in the coming months. There are plenty of talented international refuseniks playing high-level club football who might just be lured back to the national jersey if a World Cup is on offer.

Here’s an XI of them, talented, if in some cases, a little temperamental: