When we think of the best soccer players in history, we rarely think about the relatively inconsequential goals they scored for their club teams in midseason matches against their middle-of-the-pack competition. Instead we think about how they played for their national teams, and especially how they performed at major international tournaments like the World Cup. We think of a 17-year-old named Pelé delivering Brazil its first title in 1958; we think of Diego Maradona ripping through England’s defenses (and famously getting a little handsy with the ball in the box) in 1986; we think of the French maestro Zinedine Zidane scoring twice on home soil to topple Ronaldo and Brazil in 1998.
Some players just seem built to wear their national team’s jersey.
We wanted to know if there are certain players who play well for their club but disappear when playing for their national team — and certain players who raise their production when playing for country. So we looked at the tallies of expected goals and assists per 90 minutes for every player at the World Cup and compared the difference between club stats and country since 2014. We also looked at each player’s share of his entire team’s expected goals plus assists.
Among the remaining stars at the 2018 World Cup, the best example of one who thrives while representing his country is Belgium’s Eden Hazard — at least based on raw production. The quick and crafty man from Wallonia has a knack for playing his best soccer when the world is watching. From 2014 to 2018, Hazard scored 0.30 more goals per 90 minutes and provided 0.68 more assists per 90 minutes while wearing a Belgium jersey than while repping Chelsea blue — while his expected goals plus assists are 0.45 better for Belgium.
Hazard’s exceptional international form has carried over into this World Cup: In three games played, he contributed two goals and two assists — one of which tied the match against Japan after Belgium had gone down 2-0. The diminutive Belgian danced at the left corner of the penalty area, shrugging off a pursuant Yuya Osako before delivering an inch-perfect cross with his left foot to the edge of the 6-yard box and onto Marouane Fellaini’s head. Fellaini scored, but Hazard’s brilliance was responsible.
Hazard’s form and contributions are expected. Thomas Meunier’s form and contributions, on the other hand, are a bit of a surprise. The right back has been perfectly competent for Paris Saint-Germain, but he’s been an outright world beater on the international stage: Since 2014, he’s scored 0.32 more goals per 90 minutes and provided 0.73 more assists per 90 minutes while playing for Belgium than for his clubs. The biggest of his 10 international assists was the one he provided to Nacer Chadli to knock off Japan on Monday. Both Meunier and Hazard are among the top seven players at the World Cup when it comes to expected goals plus assists for country versus club. But based on actual goals and actual assists, both Belgians are in the top three.
The leaderboard is peppered with players who have made a difference in Russia: Swiss mainstays Blerim Dzemaili and Xherdan Shaqiri led their team to the round of 16, while Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric have been the backbone of the Croatian attack. Another quick and crafty midfielder — this one from Colombia — has been very good for both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich over the past four seasons, but he’s been downright marvelous for Los Cafeteros: From 2014 to 2018, James Rodriguez scored nearly half a goal more per 90 minutes while wearing the yellow Colombia kit than while donning club colors. In our sample, his difference in expected goals plus assists from club to country is second to only Dzemaili, who plays for Bologna in Italy. It’s no surprise then that Colombia was eliminated by England in the round of 16 when a calf injury sidelined James.
Hazard and James are built to wear their national team jerseys. But there are others — two of whom are often invoked in the GOAT conversation — who seem to perform a little worse, or at least score with less frequency, on the international stage. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two best players in the world, but both have underwhelmed a bit while representing their countries.
From 2014 to 2018, Messi notched 0.61 fewer expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes while draped in the vertical blue and white stripes of Argentina. Ronaldo has found it more difficult to score for Portugal: Over the same span, he scored an entire goal per 90 minutes fewer with Portugal than he did with Real Madrid, and he averaged 1.53 fewer expected goals plus assists. And Uruguay’s superstar striker Edinson Cavani has had it even worse: He averaged 2.04 fewer expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes with La Celeste than he with Paris Saint-Germain.
The outlook gets brighter for Messi and Ronaldo (but not for Cavani) when you consider their contributions as a percentage of their national team’s expected goals plus assists versus their club team’s since 2014: Messi was responsible for 57.5 percent of Barcelona’s expected output and 63.3 percent of Argentina’s, while Ronaldo accounted for 54.6 percent of Real Madrid’s expected output and 59.4 percent of Portugal’s. They’re not in James or Rakitic territory, but they’re not in the red either.
Messi and Ronaldo probably only appear to be underperforming on the international level because they’ve spent the past decade thrashing defenses in Spain’s La Liga while playing for two clubs that are lousy with all-world talent. Scoring at a pace of roughly a goal per game is difficult to sustain over the course of a single season; Messi and Ronaldo have been doing it for 10. They’re not performing terribly for their national teams, they’ve just set the bar too high for themselves.
But then there’s Neymar, the other greatest player in the world. He has set his bar pretty high during his time with Barcelona and now with Paris Saint-Germain. But unlike the two legends lording over him, Neymar has been able to vault over it — he scores at roughly the same rate for Brazil as he does for his club, and he provides more assists. And Neymar has increased his share of the team’s expected goals plus assists by 12.8 percentage points from club team to national team.
Argentina is done; Portugal is done; Brazil and Belgium meet tomorrow in Kazan to decide who gets a spot in the semifinals. So it will be Hazard and Neymar trying to become the next Pelé, Maradona or Zidane.
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.