National Football

5 of the most memorable international debuts

 • by Adam Newson
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Unless it is a major tournament many fans consider international football a chore. Yet for countless players it can often be the pinnacle of their careers.

Over the years countless world stars have spoken passionately about the pride they feel when representing their country. And almost all can recall vividly the first time they pulled on the national team’s jersey.

Some naturally have greater stories to tell than others – for the right and wrong reasons. Everton’s Richarlison, for instance, scored twice and registered an assist on his full debut Brazil. A dream start.

Yet he is far from alone in making an instant impact for his country. And we have taken a look back at five other players who had debuts to remember and forget.

Zinedine Zidane

Let’s go back to August 1994 and hop over to France – conveniently the Channel Tunnel opened in May that year so no need to get on a ferry.

Les Bleus had failed to qualify for the World Cup in the USA and were taking on the Czech Republic under new manager Aimé Jacquet. A morale-boosting victory was required but France found themselves 2-0 down at half time.

Their starting XI contained the likes of Eric Cantona and Marcel Desailly but they weren’t getting the job done. So Jacquet turned to the 22-year-old midfielder who was impressing at Bordeaux: Zidane.

The midfielder was introduced at half time alongside Corentin Martins. It was a bold move from their coach.

Yet he need not have worried as it took Zidane all of 40 minutes to get to grips with international football. His first goal for his country was a stunner, beating two players before rasping a 25-yard shot into the net.

There was no celebration; it was not the time. Two minutes later it was a different story. A corner was clipped into the Czech Republic penalty area and Zidane powered a header from 12 yards into the top corner. This time he allowed himself a small moment of jubilation.

It was the perfect start to a glorious international career, one that ended spectacularly for all the wrong reasons at the 2006 World Cup.

Leo Messi

“It was not like I had dreamed it would be.”

That sentence was uttered by Messi at the age of 18 after his debut for Argentina. Sadly for the little genius it is also one that sums up his international career.

Over the years the Barcelona superstar has had his loyalty to his country questioned yet has had to carry La Albiceleste to major competitions almost single-handedly. 

When Messi is with Argentina things often get complicated, and so it proved on his debut on August 17, 2005.

Fresh off starring at the Under-20 World Championships, Messi was called into the squad to face Hungary.

He was named on the substitutes’ bench but on 64 minutes his big moment came. He replaced Lisandro López. This was his moment. Unfortunately it lasted just 44 seconds.

After receiving the ball around 40 yards from goal, Messi turned and attempted to scuttle away from defender Vilmos Vanczak.

The Hungarian wouldn’t allow the teenager to escape, however, and in an attempt to get free from his clutch, Messi swung out his arm. Vanczak went down under minimal contact and the future Barcelona superstar was sent off.

“He came through me and had hold of me and I wanted to break free, but the referee interpreted it as though I had tried to shove him away,” Messi explained.

“I went on with a lot of time left in the game, but then what happened, happened.”

Harry Kane

It’s March 2015 and the Tottenham Hotspur striker is sterling form.

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He has gone from inconsistent striker to Premier League superstar in the space of eight months.

With 29 club goals to his name it was inevitable Kane would be called up by then Three Lions boss Roy Hodgson. Yet his form wasn’t enough to earn a place in the starting XI against Lithuania; Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck were preferred.

England, unsurprisingly, eased into a 2-0 lead in their 2016 European Championship qualifier and Hodgson felt comfortable in bringing off Rooney for the 21-year-old with 18 minutes to play.

There was intrigue. Would Kane be able to translate his club form to country? The answer came in just 79 seconds – less than half the time he spent waiting to be introduced.

Raheem Sterling delivered a cross to the back post and Kane, with just his third touch, headed home.

“I’m just proud,” he said. “A dream come true. It’s a special night and definitely one I won’t forget. It’s what you dream of as a kid, it’s a bit of a daze and enjoying every minute of it.”

Over the next three years Kane would go on to become England’s first-choice No.9, become captain of his country and win the World Cup Golden Boot. Not bad for a one-season wonder.

Serge Gnabry

After five years at Arsenal, which included an unsuccessful loan spell with West Bromwich Albion, the winger opted to return to his native Germany to kickstart his career.

On the back of finishing as joint top scorer and claiming a silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games, Gnabry joined Bundesliga side Werder Bremen in 2017.

He quickly impressed and after nine games in the German top flight had four goals and an assist to his name. That form, coupled with his excellent performances at the Olympics, resulted in a call from Joachim Löw.

“The coach called me up but I had to think about it for a bit whether it was true or not,” he told RND. “There are so many hoax calls from radio shows and I really did not want to be a victim of that.”

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Seven days after receiving his first call up Gnabry started in a European Championship qualifier against San Marino. And he achieved a feat no German had managed in 40 yards; score a hat-trick on debut.

Sure the opposition wasn’t the most illustrious, and he has only played a further 30 minutes for his country since, but the winger, now at Bayern Munich, will always be in the history books.

“Naturally, I did not expect to score three goals on debut – that pleases me very much,” Gnabry said to the DFB website after the game.

“The coach told me to simply play my game and show my self-confidence.”

Rickie Lambert

Not as illustrious as many of the other names on this list but Lambert’s international debut was still one of the most memorable in recent England history.

It came at the age of 31 years old and in the opening stages of only his second season as a Premier League player. Prior to the 2012/13 season with Southampton, Lambert had played in the lower levels of English football, with the likes of Stockport County, Macclesfield Town and Rochdale.

Yet on on August 15, 2013, he was given the opportunity to represent his country at Wembley in front of packed crowd.

Scotland were the opposition and had twice gone ahead. England had clawed the game back to 2-2 before Lambert was introduced. He replaced Wayne Rooney and thumped home a header from a corner to win the game for the Three Lions. It was his first touch.

“If that’s the only moment I’m going to have in an England shirt – hopefully not – I couldn’t have wished for it to have been any better,” he said

“I’ve dreamt for it to go like that for a long time and for it to have gone like that was a dream come true,” he said. “It’s probably the best header I’ve headed in my life.”

Lambert would go on to play a further ten times for England, and ended with three goals.

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