5 Modern Real Madrid Players Who Were Better for Country Than Club
Real Madrid are a club used to seeing their players perform at the elite level week in week out.
It comes with the territory, certainly if an individual wants to make a success of his career at the Santiago Bernabeu—with top-paid players and sky-high expectations, anything less than weekly brilliance is frowned upon.
It doesn't always happen, though. Even when top international stars are signed, they somehow don't quite hit the heights wearing the white of Real Madrid, and their performances for their countries seem somewhat more impressive.
Here are the five biggest names who have found that particular hurdle difficult to overcome—including one who is still trying to strike that balance.
5. Fernando Gago, Argentina
Fernando Gago arrived at Real Madrid along with Gonzalo Higuain, midway through the 2006/07 season.
Initially, it was all promising for Gago; he had a regular role, looked a classy star in the making and helped the team win the title in La Liga. It wasn't to last though, and he flitted from backup midfielder to treatment-room regular and, eventually, to a loan move away in the space of three seasons.
It somehow all went downhill for Gago, and despite his best season in Europe arguably coming way back in 2007/08, he has managed to stay heavily involved at international level with Argentina.
In a national squad flooded with offensive talent, Gago has won well over 50 caps as a deeper midfield option, winning Olympic gold in 2008, featuring at the 2011 Copa America and being a big part of the side at the 2014 World Cup.
Gago perhaps never hit the heights expected of him at Real—or AS Roma and Valencia—but he certainly made his mark with La Albiceleste.
4. Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands
Wesley Sneijder was another star whose Real Madrid career started in promising fashion, though he was already a well-established player among Europe's elite by the time he rocked up at the Bernabeu.
The former Ajax man should have been an integral addition to the side, and initially he was, but an injury and the ever-present threat of Real Madrid upgrading in the transfer market meant Sneijder was squeezed from relevance in the team.
He spent only two seasons at Real before departing for Inter Milan, but Sneijder—then and beyond for many seasons—had permanent residence in the Netherlands national team, the side's fulcrum of the attack and, later, its captain.
At Euro 2008, while Sneijder was a Madrid player, the midfielder was named in the team of the tournament after a series of telling displays and important goals. He helped his nation reach the 2010 World Cup final shortly after leaving Real, scoring five times along the way.
He remains a key figure at international level and one of the most recognisable names in European football, but Sneijder never quite made the grade for long enough at Madrid.
3. Sami Khedira, Germany
Sami Khedira was excellent at Real Madrid, a vital part of the team for three years—and then became a marginalised figure for a further two, initially on account of injury and then due to replacements.
While he was a big part of the Madrid side that won La Liga in 2011/12, it was later on that the team really enjoyed more success, in Europe and the Club World Cup—but a knee injury had decimated Khedira's career by that point.
At international level, though, Khedira retained a key place for Die Mannschaft; having won his spot just prior to joining Madrid and excelling at the 2010 World Cup. Four years later, he was back in the side en route to the final itself—despite having only played a handful of games at club level.
Khedira played a huge role in helping Germany lift the trophy in 2014, even if he missed the final through injury, but not even that impact could help him win a spot back at the Bernabeu.
To date, Khedira has won almost 70 caps for his nation; his final two seasons combined at Real Madrid saw him make only 15 La Liga starts.
2. Kaka, Brazil
When a former World Player of the Year turns up on your doorstep, you expect fireworks—and that's even before the absurd expectations of Real Madrid fans are brought into the equation.
Kaka joined Real from AC Milan in 2009 for a huge fee of around €70 million, and despite several patches where his best form was on show, Madrid fans will feel they never quite got to see the best of him in the way AC Milan and Brazil did.
Injuries beset Kaka in his second and fourth seasons in Spain, and despite there being plenty of goals and creativity in the middle, he was unable to influence matches regularly enough for Madrid in relation to the amount paid for the player and the expectations of him.
Even after that point, he continued to feature for Brazil, albeit intermittently, and he totalled close to a century of caps for the national team.
It was before and just after joining Madrid, though, where Kaka was at his best on the international stage; he played at the 2006 World Cup, was named the best player at the 2009 Confederations Cup and featured prominently at the 2010 World Cup—though his tournament in South Africa ended with a red card.
Even so, he was a household name for many years largely because of his prowess, skill and influence on the national side, which was never fully replicated at Madrid.
1. James Rodriguez, Colombia
Top billing in our list goes to James Rodriguez, the current superstar of Real Madrid's bench.
An outstanding 2014 World Cup with Colombia prompted Madrid to sign him from AS Monaco, and James enjoyed a stellar first year in Spain, often playing from the right in a 4-4-2. Goals, creativity, exciting individual talent...he looked destined to be a superstar of the team, but it hasn't gone that way since.
Injuries forced James out of the team soon after Rafael Benitez's arrival, and he has rarely won back a starting spot since, with Zinedine Zidane now also looking to alternatives in the squad, largely as the Colombia international doesn't quite fit the mould in the manager's 4-3-3.
James has only started seven games this season in La Liga for Real, a paltry 680 minutes on the field in league play, yet for his country he is a beacon of hope—the star of the team.
The attacking midfielder proved he was no one-tournament man with an impressive Copa America Centenario in 2016, scoring and assisting for his side as they made a run to the quarter-finals. He is assured of being the team's key figure for the 2018 World Cup campaign, even with his future at Madrid nowhere near guaranteed.
Indeed, unless James goes on to become a nailed-on starter for several seasons, there is little chance he'll surpass the standing and influence he has on the game at international level, where he is Colombia's prized asset and consistent hero.