Every four years the World Cup seems to propel an unknown name to the forefront of the international game: from Geoff Hurst in the 1960s, through ‘80s icon Paolo Rossi to stars of the ‘90s like the hip-shaking Roger Milla and the unforgettable bulging eyes of Toto Schillaci.
In stark contrast, the leading scorer charts of the European Championships reads like an impromptu Hall of Fame inductee list: Gerd Muller, Michel Platini, Marco Van Basten, Alan Shearer, Patrick Kluivert, and David Villa have all taken home the Golden Boot, an award which has effectively become an indication of who are the best strikers in the game. Being the top scorer merely reinforces the reputation one has already established before the competition begins.
That trend may yet continue this summer as Robin van Persie and Miroslav Klose head to Poland and Ukraine in blistering form ahead of Euro 2012. Arsenal’s Dutch star is in the midst of what is comfortably the best spell of his career to date, his domestic scoring form only rivaled by the feats of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as the duo carve up la Liga on a weekly basis. Coach Bert van Marwijk will hope the 28-year-old can continue his hot streak internationally and the signs are positive, as his six goals in nine appearances in the Oranje shirt during 2011 prove.
German hit-man Klose has almost gone the other way, taking the form previously reserved for his country into his first season in Serie A with new club Lazio. The only player to have scored five or more goals in consecutive World Cups and the only man to have netted at least four in three different tournaments, he now just sits just five goals behind the national record of the legendary Muller. A return of 63 goals (not to mention 21 assists) for his 113 caps has always made him a stand-out performer but he has surprised many with just how quickly he has settled in Rome and struck sixteen times for the Italian side in 31 appearances before his recent injury.
It is important to regain my match fitness, but even so I still have enough experience to go to the European Championships in top form. Miroslav Klose
Klose has pledged to return before the end of the season and remains among the favourites to win the prestigious accolade, yet 2012 could well prove to be the year that the European Championships follow the example of the World Cup and deliver a previously unheralded name towards mainstream attention. Indeed, a number of major nations have key issues to address in attack which may see them turn towards players with very little (if any) experience at international level.
England are clearly one of those teams, with the two-game suspension handed to Wayne Rooney presenting perhaps an even greater challenge than the fallout of Fabio Capello’s exit and the continued furore surrounding the FA’s decision to strip John Terry of the captaincy. The last Three Lions squad - selected by Capello for the autumn friendlies against Spain and Sweden - contained four strikers with Danny Welbeck, Bobby Zamora and Daniel Sturridge having just eight caps between them. They have yet to register a single goal; while the fourth, Aston Villa’s Darren Bent (13 caps, four goals) must be the one Englishman who fears Harry Redknapp being appointed as Capello’s replacement given the history between them and has now also suffered a season ending knee injury.
Other recent call ups such as Andy Carroll (three caps,one goal) and Gabriel Agbonlahor (three caps, no goals) fare little better, and indeed only Peter Crouch - last capped back in August - offers anything resembling a proven pedigree, yet the Stoke City striker’s return of 22 goals in 42 appearances is often derided for the quality of the opponent in many of those games. Whether Stuart Pearce remains or Redknapp does indeed step in, finding a goal-scorer for the key games against France and Sweden will be their top priority with Grant Holt among those touted for a late call up thanks to a fine season with Norwich.
Reigning champions Spain find themselves in a not too dissimilar position, with the return of all-time leading scorer David Villa far from certain after the Barcelona star suffered a broken leg at the Club World Cup in December. While the debate over Fernando Torres’ continued selection - he was left out of their most recent match - will likely rage until the tournament kicks off in June, even without the misfiring Chelsea striker coach Vicente del Bosque has some quality options to turn to as the sustained success of Spain has allowed them to give playing time to others. That is reflected in the records of recent call-ups such as Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente (seven goals in 20 games), Alvaro Negredo of Sevilla (seven caps, five goals) and of course Roberto Soldado, who opened his account with a hat-trick against Venezuela and staked his claim for a place.
Italy, their opponents in the opening game of Group C, have been hit even harder as the cruciate ligament injury of Giuseppe Rossi was compounded by the loss of Antonio Cassano to a heart problem which has effectively ruled out both men. The pair had become mainstays under Cesare Prandelli as they looked to recover from a nightmare showing in South Africa, featuring in 13 of the new coach’s 16 games in charge and starting alongside each other in four of the five competitive games before their injury problems. Cassano, a surprising leading scorer for Italy in qualification with six goals (and four assists), has only recently returned to full training while Rossi, who added one goal and two assists, has broken down again and faces another six months on the outside looking in.
In their absence the Azzurri have a group of strikers every bit as unproven as England’s: with Giampaolo Pazzini (24 caps, four goals) continuing to misfire at international level and the rest - Mario Balotelli (seven caps, one goal) Sebastian Giovinco (seven caps, no goals), Alessandro Matri (five caps, one goal) and Pablo Osvaldo (two caps, 0 goals) - being wholly untested. Prandelli could be forced to call upon a long-time favourite of his, Alberto Gilardino, whose 17 goals in 47 appearances for his country is hardly inspirational.
Italy may yet turn to Antonio Di Natale, a player he promised to include in his next squad, or indeed Francesco Totti, who has never seemed comfortable with his international retirement and has openly courted one last hurrah. Udinese captain Di Natale is enjoying a remarkable Indian summer to his career, scoring 77 Serie A goals over the past three seasons, despite being 34 and hardly able to train in between matches, while Roma icon Totti recently became the player with most goals for a single club in the history of Italian football.
Villa and Cassano have both recently stated their belief they will recover in time and could complete fairytale returns; Torres could suddenly remember where the goal is on a consistent basis; or Rooney, having spent the opening two games kicking his heels, could repeat his exploits of eight years ago where he first exploded onto the international scene.
More likely is a parade to the Golden Boot for Klose or Van Persie. But maybe, just maybe, history will prove to be no guide and a new name could yet write a memorable new chapter in the story of the Henri Delaunay trophy.