9 players who retired early from international football – and why

Eric Cantona France

Mesut Ozil says he just can’t go on with Germany, aged 29. Plenty under 30 have done the same before him, though… 

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1. Lionel Messi (age at 'last' game: 29)

Lionel Messi Chile 2016

Messi notched a record-breaking 55 goals for his country in 113 appearances, but failed to score in any of the four finals that really mattered. 

After missing a penalty in the 2016 Copa America Final, the Barcelona man called time on an often-fraught and trinket-less international career that spanned 11 years. "For me, the national team is over," he sobbed. "I've done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion."

Unlike Messi’s club career, it began as disastrously as it ended when, less than a minute into his international debut, he was sent off for elbowing a Hungarian opponent. After the game he was found crying in the dressing room – and eleven years later walked off the MetLife Stadium pitch in similar fashion.

He came back, of course – mere hours after his outburst. "I see there are many problems in Argentinian football and I don’t intend to create another one," said the red-faced star, who suffered World Cup woe again in 2018. 

2. Gerd Muller (28)

Muller, otherwise known as Der Bomber, scored an incredible 68 goals in 62 games for West Germany. He fired them to successive international titles in 1972 and 1974, scoring in both the European Championship and World Cup finals against the Soviet Union (twice) and Netherlands respectively.

Muller only played in two World Cups (1970, 1974) but still held the all-time goals record (14) for 32 years until Ronaldo broke it in 2006 (16). Miroslav Klose overtook them both in 2014 (16), after grabbing Muller’s Germany goalscoring record before the tournament started (albeit needing 75 more games to do so).

The ex-Bayern Munich man's international career ended abruptly after the ‘74 win on home soil – apparently unhappy that the players' wives weren’t allowed to attend the post-final banquet.

3. Alan Shearer (29)

Sixth on the all-time England goalscoring list doesn’t do Shearer justice. With the Geordie goal-glutton having made his international debut at 22, many expected the striker’s Three Lions career to last much longer – and produce the kind of devastating form he managed at club level. 

Following England’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, there was huge pressure on Shearer and the rest of the squad two years later as England played hosts for Euro '96 – not least as he hadn’t managed a goal since scoring twice against the USA in September 1994.

The soon-to-be Newcastle man top-scored at the tournament with five goals, then bagged another couple at France '98 – by which time he was captain. However, following a couple of bad injuries, he announced in spring 2000 that the forthcoming Euros would be his international farewell. Despite calls for his reinstatement in 2002 and 2004, he stopped on 30 times in 63 appearances for his country.

4. Paul Scholes (29)

Scholes never seemed to reach his true potential in an England team he believed was full of “very selfish” players. The former Manchester United man’s international highlights include scoring on his World Cup debut in 1998, and grabbing England’s first hat-trick for six years in 1999 against Poland.

His England career ended prematurely after Euro 2004, though, where England lost to Portugal on penalties. Scholes had been pushed out onto the left wing in order to accommodate midfield duo Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and his ineffectiveness there resulted in him being substituted in his final game – an inappropriate end for one of the country’s greatest-ever players.

5. Eric Cantona (28)

Cantona is another United legend who saw his international career cut short prematurely. Following his infamous kung-fu kick on a fan during a game against Crystal Palace in 1995, his France legacy was over.

By the time his eight-month suspension had run its course, Cantona had lost his captaincy and been replaced by Zinedine Zidane as les Bleus' key man, never to be picked again.

In spite of France’s failure to qualify for USA '94, Cantona managed 20 goals in 45 games for the national side.