It’s that time of the month again: the international break is well and truly upon us, and as usual, several new faces are suiting up for their national teams for the first time. Gavi became the youngest ever player to play for the Spanish national team at 17 years and 62 days old, leading La Roja to victory in the UEFA Nations League and snapping Italy’s 37-game unbeaten run. On the other side of Iberia, Rafael Leão earned his first call-up for the Portugal national team, replacing Rafa Silva after the Benfica forward was forced to withdraw due to injury. After leading Sheriff Tiraspol to a shock victory against Real Madrid, Greek goalkeeper Giorgos Athanasiadis was rewarded with a maiden call-up to the Ethniki, replacing Sokratis Dioudis after the Panathinaikos man picked up a viral infection.
At the same time, the international break serves as a painful reminder for so many talented footballers who, for whatever reason, have not seen their excellent form at the club level rewarded with a call-up to the national team. Let’s take a look at five players from five different national teams who are yet to receive their first senior call-up.
England: Ivan Toney
A country with as much footballing talent as England is bound to have its fair share of unlucky players miss out on an opportunity to represent their nation, and it’s no surprise that the likes of Dwight McNeil, Matty Cash and Adam Armstrong are yet to represent the Three Lions. Michail Antonio, one of the most dominant performers from the Premier League’s first seven weeks and the all-time leading goalscorer for West Ham, found opportunities so limited that he saw it upon himself to switch over to the Jamaican national team.
One player who could be following Antonio’s footsteps soon is Ivan Toney, who, despite rejecting Jamaica’s call-up in March, could be tempted to switch over to the Reggae Boyz if Gareth Southgate doesn’t ring his phone over the next few months. After setting a Championship record for the most goals scored in a single season and leading Brentford to their first-ever berth in the Premier League, Toney is buzzing for Thomas Frank’s Bees with two goals and two assists in his first seven appearances in England’s top-flight.
Whilst Portugal continues to pump out wave after wave of talented young footballers, it is undeniable that their veteran spine of Rui Patrício (33), Pepe (38), João Moutinho (35) and Cristiano Ronaldo (36) remains as important as ever to Fernando Santos’ plans. Replacing these legendary footballers is easier said than done, but one player who is proving capable of carrying the torch from Moutinho is Vítor ‘Vitinha’ Ferreira.
Born in Faro, Portugal, Vitinha joined Porto’s academy in 2011, leading the club to glory in the 2018/19 UEFA Youth League before joining Wolves on loan in the 2020/21 season, where he would play alongside Moutinho under Nuno Espírito Santo. Vitinha struggled for opportunities under Nuno and it was little surprise when the club neglected to make the deal permanent, but he nevertheless played a vital role in Portugal’s run to the U-21 Euros Final and is finally being given the consistent minutes in midfield for Porto that his unique talent deserves. If he can keep improving under Sérgio Conceição and consolidate a starting spot, it’ll only be a matter of time before he’s rewarded with a call-up to the senior national team.
Brazil: Caio Henrique
Moving onto the other Seleção, there are plenty of fresh faces who are playing for the yellow and green for the first time ever. Raphinha, Arthur Cabral, and Antony will be looking to add even more firepower to a sensational forward line that already boasts the likes of Neymar and Gabriel Jesus. Guilherme Arana’s impressive form at Atlético Mineiro has been rewarded with a call-up to the Brazil national team, and the ex Sevilla man could follow up his excellent performances at the Olympic Games by providing more guarantees in a position that both Alex Sandro and Renan Lodi have struggled to fulfil in recent years.
Another option at Tite’s disposal for the left-back position is Caio Henrique. Born in Santos, Caio spent his development at the Peixe’s academy before joining Atlético Madrid in 2016, where he failed to make a single appearance and was loaned out to various Brazilian teams before eventually joining Monaco in 2020. The 24-year-old has become irreplaceable under Niko Kovač, registering 8 assists and not picking up a single booking in his 50 appearances for the principality club. The likes of Jorge, Fodé Ballo-Touré and Antonio Barreca have failed to convince at left-back since Benjamin Mendy’s departure to Manchester City, but for €8 million, Caio has proven to be a major bargain and a menace on both sides of the ball.
France: Jonathan Clauss
Perhaps no other country has the wealth of talent that France boasts, yet one thing’s clear: their options at right-back leave plenty to be desired. Neither Benjamin Pavard nor Léo Dubois have quite managed to convince on the right side of defence, and whilst Jules Koundé has been tested there on various occasions, he seems to be a fish out of water playing outside of his natural position of central defence. One option that Didier Deschamps should certainly consider to fix this problematic position is Jonathan Clauss.
Less than two years after returning to the top-flight of French football, Lens currently sit second in Ligue 1 thanks in large part to Clauss’ sensational performances in the right wingback position. Franck Haise’s 3-4-1-2 formation prioritizes the offensive participation of the two wingbacks, and the 29-year-old has seamlessly fit into the system since arriving from Arminia Bielefeld, bursting down the right flank like a torpedo, whipping in pinpoint crosses and linking up with the central midfielders and forwards.
When justifying Clauss’ absence from Les Bleus, Deschamps stated: “You have to see position by position, there are about five candidates for each position … With the technical staff, we are attentive to a lot of players. If I tell you that I am watching him, I will give hope and I am not here to give hope. I’m not saying yes, I’m not saying no. We know very well what he does obviously, but it’s not enough to analyze the performance of a player in his club, we have to see what he can do at the international level, and there are levels to cross between the two.”
Argentina: Marcos Senesi
Since taking over as manager of the Argentina national team in 2018, Lionel Scaloni has not only led the Albiceleste to their first trophy in 28 years, but ushered in various young prospects such as Exequiel Palacios, Nahuel Molina and Julián Álvarez into the senior team set-up. However, one position where younger reinforcements are still needed is in the centre of defence. After Cristian Romero was forced off in the 79th minute due to injury, Argentina finished the Copa América Final against Brazil with a central defensive pairing of Nicolás Otamendi and Germán Pezzella, who have a combined age of 63 years old.
Whilst Romero and Otamendi is undeniably Scaloni’s first-choice pairing, Lucas Martínez Quarta (25), Juan Foyth (23), Nehuén Pérez (21), Leonardo Balerdi (22), Facundo Medina (22) and Lisandro Martínez (23) are a handful of players who could eventually replace Otamendi and form a promising duo alongside the 23-year-old Romero. The Benfica defender turns 34 in February and whilst he continues to be a force for club and country, it is clear that the twilight of his career is fast approaching.
One player who could step into Otamendi’s void is Marcos Senesi. Born in Concordia, Argentina, Senesi spent a decade rising through San Lorenzo’s academy and becoming a key player in defence for the Gauchos de Boedo, before joining Feyenoord in 2019. He has become a dual-threat in the Eredivisie, showcasing his brilliant aerial prowess and tackling ability whilst also proving capable of breaking the lines and setting up attackers in dangerous goal-scoring positions with his masterful left foot.
It is somewhat bizarre that the 24-year-old Senesi has not yet been called up by Scaloni, who has admitted: “He was going to be called up in March but then the World Cup qualifiers were suspended, so we opted for the players we knew for the June matches and for the Copa América. He is a player that we are following and we were in contact with the coaching staff, we are following him. You have to make the decision and think about it well, he is a guy who interests us and has a different profile from the others, he is left-handed and may be an option for the future.”
If he keeps performing at this level for Arne Slot’s Feyenoord, perhaps that call-up will come sooner rather than later.
Ibrahima Niane (Senegal), Christopher Nkunku (France), Raúl de Tomás (Spain), Lukas Nmecha (Germany), Pedrinho (Brazil), Umar Sadiq (Nigeria), Sven Botman (Netherlands), Ezri Konsa (England).