No matter how much we all loathe those pesky mid-season international breaks, the pay-off is always a summer of fun with a major international tournament.
Be it the World Cup or the European Championships, the switch from club to international football is suddenly welcomed with open arms and tournament fever infects the entire footballing world. Any team can emerge as a surprise package, while players have the chance to shine like never before and become a cult hero or jump to new heights.
90min has looked back at some of the greatest star performances throughout major tournaments and picked out the top 30.
Serving as tournament hosts was the extra boost a star-studded England side needed to finally bring football home. Well, almost.
Alan Shearer took that burden heavily on his shoulders, finding prolific form for the Three Lions on an incredible and emotional run to the semi-final of the tournament. Shearer bagged five goals to finish as the tournament’s top scorer, which included a brace in a 4-1 win over the Netherlands.
Cult heroes are often remembered for one sharp act of stardom on the big stage, but Hristo Stoichkov was a hit for club and country at the highest level.
Nicknamed ‘El Pistolero’ at Barcelona, Stoichkov carried his abilities into the 1994 World Cup with Bulgaria as the nation went on an unforgettable run to the semi-final in the United States. Six goals at the tournament and club exploits earned him the Ballon d’Or that year.
The highlight of a quiet yet successful career for Kim Vilfort – and various other Danes – was the unforgettable story of their sudden triumph at Euro 92.
For Vilfort, the sheer jubilation of winning the tournament against the odds was marred by the tragedy of having to leave the camp to see to his daughter who was battling leukaemia. He returned and scored the second goal in their emphatic 2-0 win over Germany in the final.
Similarly to Stoichkov, an international tournament proved to be the final piece of the puzzle in pursuit of the Ballon d’Or for Matthias Sammer.
Playing in the libero role that he had been moulded into with Borussia Dortmund, Sammer was virtually impenetrable for Germany and scored a winner in the last eight as Die Mannschaft powered on to win the lot, with the midfielder winning Player of the Tournament.
The Netherlands fell short of reaching the tournament’s closing stages once more, but Wesley Sneijder shone in an exciting Dutch side.
The attacking midfielder was at the peak of his powers in the late 2000s and put it on show for the Dutch, thrilling fans with exciting runs, chance creation and goals of his own, generated from an intelligent brain and tricky footwork.
Two goals and an assist doesn’t sound like a great contribution, but stats are boring. Proper boring. We do good football here, as did Francesco Totti at Euro 2000.
The Roman emperor arrived in scintillating form and carried it through the tournament as he balled out in a stunning Italian side that fell at the very last hurdle in the final to France. See also: Totti calling his own Panenka penalty in the quarter final and scoring said penalty. Smooth operator.
Six years on from the Euro 2000 heartbreak, Italy rallied once more and became champions of the world following an emphatic run.
Gianluigi Buffon was between the sticks in the tournament and set a precedent throughout, conceding twice from seven games and recording five clean sheets. He was a vital cog in a real throwback of an Italian defence, which was tactically superior and virtually impossible to break through.
From an understudy to the main event star. Oliver Kahn showed why he was arguably the greatest keeper in the world for so long at the 2002 World Cup.
Fierce, talented and rather intimidatingly shouty, Kahn had it all. He conceded just three times throughout the entire tournament and played the final with torn ligaments in his finger. It was his error that ultimately allowed Brazil to win, but Kahn was otherwise flawless and key to seeing Germany completely defy any expectations of them.
Having burst onto the scene as one of football’s most exciting teenage talents in the mid-1990s with Ajax, Patrick Kluivert was ready to turn excitement into excellence at Euro 2000.
And while it wasn’t to be for the Netherlands, Kluivert gave a fine account of himself as a more polished player, finishing joint top scorer with his five strikes.
Truthfully, Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning team was full of resilient and talented individuals all over, which is what made it so special.
But Andrea Pirlo was different. The man that doesn’t feel pressure has spoken about his relaxed methods before such huge finals, which makes his poetic displays throughout the tournament even more elegant. None more so than the culmination of it all, when he hit full stride in the final against France.
The vibes from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were pretty damn good. Aside from, you know, those awful vuvuzelas that drowned out every game.
Still, though, the football. And few enjoyed the football more that summer than Diego Forlan, plying his trade now as a veteran for Uruguay. Forlan was finding the back of the net for fun at the tournament, famously with long range strikes against South Africa and later the Netherlands in the semi-final.
A World Cup win for Uruguay would’ve been one for the culture, but the Spanish winning the lot made the most sense. And Xavi was key in them doing it with supreme style.
Xavi danced around each pitch the Spaniards played on, gracing the game with cutting edge movement, decision making and one-touch passing excellence as they blitzed to another tournament win. Mesmerising.
Sure, football’s greatest players and biggest names are fun. But the game’s true, forgotten cult heroes is where the cool kids hang out.
Roman Pavlyuchenko’s cereal at Euro 2008 was turbocharged, just like his feet. Leading the line with Andrey Arshavin as help, Pavlyuchenko bagged important goals and led his team into the semi-final with his ability and leadership. A wild time.
With the world’s eyes on France, it was inevitable that Zinedine Zidane would steal the show for Les Bleus as hosts in 1998.
Zizou was electric as ever, mazing beyond opponents and drawing up obscenities throughout the tournament as France were crowned champions of the world.
In another run from nothing from a tournament underdog, Greece winning Euro 2004 as the home nation was nothing short of incredible.
Midfielder and captain Theodoros Zagorakis was key to that emphatic win, leading his side through the tournament with a string of exceptional performances that earned him Player of the Tournament status.
Astonishingly, the 1974 World Cup was the only one where the Netherlands benefitted from the services and genius of Johan Cruyff.
1974 saw the birth of the Cruyff turn – yeah, that turn you learn at your first ever football training session as a kid – with the Dutchman running wild on every defender’s ankles all summer long, weaving and turning with elegance and conviction to carry the Oranje to an agonisingly close second place finish.
It’s hard to truly feel connected to football of another generation, but that doesn’t mean we cannot honour those who topped the charts in older days.
Just Fontaine reached unthinkable heights for the French national team at the 1958 World Cup, netting an unthinkable 13 goals from six games, with four of those coming against defending champions West Germany.
Xavi took the spotlight in 2010, but it was his dance partner Andres Iniesta who stood out two years later at Euro 2012.
Excelling in the slightly more free role, Iniesta was yet another master of the tiki-taka and progressed an unworldly Spain side up the pitch with positional drifting into wide areas, quick interchanges of passing and chance creation.
The streets will never forget James Rodriguez at the 2014 World Cup.
The immaculate vibes of incredible football, Brazilian weather and passionate fans everywhere you looked, James Rodriguez thrived on the big stage and exploded for Colombia. He finished up with the Golden Boot and earned himself a big money move to Real Madrid come the end of the tournament.
Football is a brutal game for goalkeepers, clouded by the finest of margins.
With Dino Zoff pulling out of the squad and Gianluigi Buffon falling to injury, Francesco Toldo was thrust into the first choice role for a top level Italy side. And despite early wobbles, Toldo quickly found his feet and thrived on the chance, helping Italy to finish runners up. He put in a fine performance in the last four, saving three penalties in total against the Netherlands.
After a decade of top level performance for Real Madrid, injuries and age seemed to slowly be creeping up on Pepe heading into Euro 2016.
Still, he was one of his nation’s strongest options at the back and proved that you simply cannot buy experience. Pepe played out of his skin as Portugal ousted France in the final, carrying the nation to their first ever international title. A tireless performance that was a fitting showing of his abilities at the top.
After the heartbreak of narrowly missing out in 1998, Brazil were back with a vengeance four years later.
R9 arrived in Japan and South Korea with a taste of blood and wasted no time in firing his country to world champion status. An iconic tournament for an iconic player. Truly one of a kind.
It was showings on an international front that had convinced Manchester United to sign Peter Schmeichel in 1991. Those showings were key to Denmark becoming European champions a year later.
Schmeichel produced a catalogue of saves throughout the tournament to grab clean sheets and epitomise the resilience of the Danes, inspiring them on to win the tournament against the odds. Coming out party.
With the now renowned Pele out injured, Brazil were desperate to find someone to provide the magic of 1958 in order to replicate their success.
Enter Garrincha, arguably football’s greatest ever right winger. Playing in 1958, he stepped up significantly four years later in the absence of Pele and carried Brazil to retaining the trophy with a highlight reel of skills, dribbles and goals on the big stage.
Go on, proclaim that he scored against farmers.
Those farmers must’ve been ill and missed the 1958 World Cup, where a 17-year-old Pele completely rinsed each nation’s strongest crop of players to carry his country to the trophy.
Injuries had ravaged Marco van Basten in the season leading upto Euro 1988, meaning expectation was low.
A hat-trick against England and the winner in the final against West Germany were fun, but the Dutchman’s finest moment came with a sensational volley against the Soviet Union. Playground stuff.
Before all the UEFA corruption and boring bad stuff, Michel Platini was once a terrific footballer.
He put that on show at its unrelenting best at Euro 84, captaining France to a tournament win on home soil. Of the 14 goals France scored, nine of those came from Platini. He was unplayable.
Having found his streak with Bayern Munich at a domestic level, the 1980 Euros presented Karl-Heinz Rummenigge with a chance to blow up on the big stage.
And he did. Rummenigge was electric for West Germany in their pursuit of silverware, leading a new-look, younger side to the title with a myriad of goals and flair.
Endless skill shows, pure fun away from the pitch and that hand of god. The 1986 World Cup was simply the summer of Diego Maradona.
The pitch was his canvas, and Maradona created art with a perfect blend of controversy, elegance and charisma. All of that combined seamlessly as the Argentine bamboozled the best defences in the world with his eccentric style, picking up the trophy at the end of it all.
Despite doing his best with a dislocated shoulder four years earlier, a blend of heroism and top class defending wasn’t enough to see West Germany lift the World Cup.
Franz Beckenbauer returned in 1974 as West Germany hosted the tournament, successfully stifling their competition and halting one of the Netherland’s – and football’s – greatest ever sides, with Beckenbauer keeping Johan Cruyff quiet in pursuit of tournament victory. Increible.