With the European Championships so very nearly upon us, the collective gaze of the football world is understandably locked on the very best the continent has to offer. But what of the other names that will jump out of team sheets?
The ‘is he still playing?’ centre-halves who you thought were slow ten years ago, the central midfielders with Premier League pasts now confined to very difficult pub quiz questions and the ‘these must be terrible if gets a game’ players you can’t quite believe are starting at a major international tournament.
Without wishing to spoil the moment of surprise when a commentator says a name you vaguely recognise but aren’t quite sure why, here are a collection of the unsung heroes of the European Championships.
We will start with one of the players on this list certain to have a big role to play. Having led Sweden through warm-up wins over Finland and Armenia, it seems we can expect former Sunderland man Larsson to captain his country this summer at the grand old age of 36.
Only three players in Premier League history have scored directly from a free-kick more times than the Swede, and it is safe to say that his dead-ball prowess has not waned with age. His delivery will be key for a side who will, as ever, place great emphasis on set-pieces.
To focus on set-pieces alone is, though, to do a disservice to a talented and versatile player, to who the armband is a testament to the supreme professionalism of a player who epitomises the recent Swedish successes built on a team greater than the sum of its parts. Within those parts, we have a gold mine of names you’ll end be googling to check why you’ve heard of them.
Mikael Lustig played 160 times for Celtic and is still chugging along, proving you don’t need pace to play full-back; Martin Olsson, formerly of Blackburn, Norwich and Swansea, makes the squad, as does the eternal Andreas Granqvist, the hero of Sweden’s run to the quarter-finals three years ago, who, has played a solitary game of football since 2019.
Cardiff City’s one-time record signing, not to be confused with fellow Dane Nicklas Helenius, who arrived at Aston Villa in the same summer and had a similarly non-existent impact on the League, spent most of his unremarkable time on these shores on the treatment table.
Signed for what was, in 2013, a substantial sum of £8million, a then 20-year-old Cornelius was signed both for the present and the future by newly promoted Cardiff but went on to make just eight appearances for the Welsh club, never troubling the scorers in that time.
The 6ft 5inch striker returned to Copenhagen, where he rediscovered his goal touch, before again testing himself, with various degrees of ineffectiveness, in Europe’s big leagues at Atalanta, Bordeaux and Parma.
Nonetheless, he has made 28 appearances for his country, bagging 6 goals in that time, and played 3 games at the World Cup in 2018. Still only 28, Cornelius will once again find himself on the big stage in a Danish side tipped by many to do well at the tournament.
Googling Yuri Zhirkov to see if it’s still the same bloke who played for Chelsea about a million years ago gives me tournament déjà vu at this point. And it is the very same Yuri Zhirkov who won a League and Cup double at the Bridge in the 2009-10 season before disappearing to Anzhi Makhachkala a year later.
Zhirkov’s career did not capitulate on quite the same scale, but he has made a combined total of fewer than 150 appearances for Dynamo Moscow and subsequently Zenit St Petersburg since 2013. He is a centurion of the Russian national team though, making the Team of the Tournament as far back as Euro 2008, now 13 years ago.
Now 37, Zhirkov had retired after his country’s home World Cup but then appeared in the squad for their next set of internationals, and three years later he finds himself preparing for yet another tournament.
His double in England is joined by 5 Russian titles and 6 Russian Cups, as well as the 2005 UEFA Cup with CSKA, so it’s safe to say the left-back has been there and done it. How much he features remains to be seen, but he did start the 1-0 warm-up win over Bulgaria.
If he’s playing against Belgium, though, he might just be hoping our next entry starts on the right-wing.
No, you didn’t imagine it, Nacer Chadli really did start a successful World Cup quarter-final for one of the most well-endowed attacking units of our generation in 2018, and he makes the Belgium squad once again.
The former Tottenham and West Brom man is at Istanbul Baseksihir these days and has clocked up a remarkable 64 appearances for his country. Naturally talented but seemingly quite rarely inclined to show it, Chadli has been a regular part of matchday plans for both Roberto Martinez and his predecessor Marc Wilmots throughout what is now a decade-long international career.
Surely Martinez will be thinking of other options before the 31-year-old playmaker, but with injury doubts over de Bruyne, the Red Devils will be needing a replacement…
Sticking with Belgium, we find Thomas Vermaelen. Part of a stable of Belgian defenders who you can’t believe they haven’t replaced yet, the former Arsenal man is now at Vissel Kobe, along with his old Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta.
At 35, it’s safe to say it’s odd that the world’s number one ranked side still call upon him, but they also call upon Jason Denayer, who was part of David Moyes’ tragically bad relegated Sunderland side, so it seems they have to take what they can get in the centre-half department.
A good player in his time who probably won’t have any impact on the tournament beyond raising a few eyebrows when he appears in Belgium’s presumably ceremonial last group game with Finland, the centre back will undoubtedly be kept out of the by fellow elder statesmen Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.
You really wouldn’t be forgiven for assuming the former Napoli skipper had long since packed it in. Still only 33, so a relative spring chicken on this list, but Hamsik has been off the radar for a couple of years now since his move to Dalian in China – a payday probably hard-earned over the course of 408 appearances for the Neapolitans.
As hard as his ever-terrifying haircut would have you believe, Hamsik was also an incredibly gifted footballer, who his country will doubtless be turning to once again this summer as they clamour for places with Sweden and Poland below probable group winners Spain.
He returned to Europe with Gothenburg specifically to ensure he made the squad for this tournament, even breaking off his contract in China to do so. As he always was, Hamsik will be as hungry as anyone on the pitch, and if he still has anything close to the talents he showed for so many years in light blue, he could be box office.