Tim Howard and 10 World-Class Players on Middling Teams
Not all world-class football players play for world-class football teams.
Even in today's game of transfer-happy mega clubs, some great players manage to slip through the cracks.
But not for long.
Eventually, the best players always seem to make their way to the biggest, best and richest clubs in Europe. But at different points in their careers, world-class players can be found at less-than-world-class clubs.
There are a number of reasons why.
The first is youth. Young players often start at smaller clubs before catching the eyes of scouts from bigger clubs.
Wayne Rooney worked his way through the Everton youth system and made his first-team debut for that club at age 16 before quickly drawing attention from Manchester United. And he's just one of many.
At the other end, older players who are still world class can be found at lesser clubs after their skills have diminished.
And sometimes, the player doesn't change, but the club does. Sometimes a world-class player is with a team that's world-class one season and middling the next.
At the same time, middling can mean different things to different people.
While a club might perform well in its own country, it can be a minnow in Europe or globally.
For this list, we're taking the broadest view possible of the strength of clubs. To avoid the term middling, the club has to be among the world's best and most powerful.
1. Robin Van Persie, Arsenal
Nothing like a controversial selection to get the team started, right?
Well, consider these two facts: Robin van Persie is a world-class player. Arsenal, right now, is a middling club.
Now let's look at some more facts: Before Sunday's victory over Swansea City, Arsenal had won only two of its last 14 Premiership matches dating back to last season. During that time, the Gunners took 13 points.
That's relegation form.
Through it all, though, van Persie has remained world-class.
Taking over the captain's armband from the departed Cesc Fabregas this season, he has scored one of Arsenal's three (!) goals on the season and shown the leadership expected from his new role.
The Dutch international has scored 67 league goals in 160 appearances since 2004. Internationally, he has 25 goals in 58 matches.
Van Persie turned 28 in August, so he's now in his prime.
But as it stands now, his prime years might be spent at a middling club.
2. Tim Howard, Everton
No one doubts that Everton is a middling club, but because he's American, some might doubt Tim Howard's class.
Howard has been among the Premiership's top goalkeepers since moving from Manchester United to Everton in 2007. He quickly established himself as the Toffees' top goalkeeper, recording 15 clean sheets during the 2007-08 season.
Then, he turned his attention to making himself one of the best in England.
He saved two penalties in Everton's win over Manchester United in the 2009 FA Cup semifinals, and by the end of the 2009-10 season, he had kept 55 clean sheets in 109 appearances.
All this for a decidedly average team.
Everton has not won the league since 1987, and its best finish in that time was fourth in 1988 and 2005. The Toffees barely avoided relegation in 2004, finishing just above the drop in 17th place.
Imagine where Everton—and the United States national team—would be without Howard.
3. Giuseppe Rossi, Villareal
Yes, Villareal plays in the Champions League this season. No, the Yellow Submarine are not a world-class club.
Giuseppe Rossi is, on the other hand, a world-class talent.
He showed it in Villareal's season-opening loss to Barcelona, and he's shown it for years with both club and country.
Just 24 years old, Rossi has scored 52 times in 129 league matches with Villareal. He has also represented Italy at every level starting with U-16. Now with the senior side, he has scored six goals in 26 caps.
Rossi missed out on the 2010 World Cup, but here's guessing he'll be one of Italy's top players next summer at Euro 2012.
And here's guessing he'll be with a mega club by then.
4. Lucas Biglia, Anderlecht
Not familiar with Lucas Biglia? You probably will be soon.
Known as El Principito, Biglia has starred for Belgian club Anderlecht since 2006. He was named the Belgian league's Young Professional Player of the Year in 2006-07 as Anderlecht won the title.
Anderlecht also won the title in 2010, but for all its success in Belgium, Anderlecht is a middling club on the world stage.
Not true for Biglia. Just watch those videos for confirmation that he's a world-class player. And expect him to move on to a bigger club soon.
5. Ganso, Santos
This will probably get us in trouble with fans of Brazilian football. Oh well.
Ganso—full name Paulo Henrique Ganso—is a 21-year-old attacking midfielder who plays for Brazilian club Santos. Now, Santos is one of Brazil's most famous and most successful clubs and has won everything possible back home.
On the world stage, though, Santos is a feeder club. And that's exactly the role it will play in Ganso's career.
Ganso earned the award for best newcomer in the Brazilian league in 2009, and he's started to get attention from some of the world's largest clubs in recent months.
6. Neymar, Santos
Neymar is another Santos player with a huge pricetag on his head. And he's another world-class player who's going to move to a world-class club soon.
In just 11 appearances for the Brazilian national team, Neymar has already scored six times. Only 19 years old, he's been in Santos' senior squad since 2009, but he probably won't be there much longer.
7. Lucas, Sao Paulo
While we're on the topic of Brazil, let's take a look at Sao Paulo's attacking midfielder Lucas.
When the player was 18, FIFA said, "Creative genius, flair and dribbling ability have established this attacking midfielder at the forefront of emerging Brazilian talent. Set to thrill at the forthcoming South American U-20 Championship, Lucas is already excelling for Sao Paulo and considered a likely star of this year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup."
Sao Paulo, like Santos, is one of the most successful clubs in Brazilian history.
But like Santos, all of its best players eventually head to Europe. That'll be the case with Lucas, too.
8. Juan Sebastian Veron, Estudiantes
Staying in South America, for our next world-class player, we're going with a veteran Argentine who's back in his native country.
Juan Sebastian Veron has had a long, distinguished career with stops at European powerhouses like Lazio, Manchester United and Chelsea.
Now he's back with Estudiantes, his first club. And though Estudiantes is a great team in Argentina, it's a minnow on the world stage.
But as last summer's World Cup proved, Veron is still world-class.
Veron served as one of Argentina's top players during the tournament, and it was no coincidence the team struggled when he did not feature in the team's final game, a 4-1 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals.
Now retired from the international game, Veron is still one of the best midfielders in the world.
9. Vagner Love, CSKA Moscow
Vagner Love is yet another Brazilian featuring for a middling team.
This time the team is CSKA Moscow, which is playing in the Champions League this year but is still a minnow in Europe.
And Love, despite a few runs of poor form over the last few seasons, is still a world-class player.
In 151 league appearances for CSKA, he has scored 75 goals, a record of better than one goal in every two matches.
He's scored eight times in 20 appearances for Brazil.
For highlights, check out these four goals he scored in a Russian league match.
10. Marek Hamsik, Napoli
Yes, Napoli is competing in the Champions League this season, but that has more to do with the strangeness of the 2010-11 Serie A season than Napoli's status as a European power.
Make no mistake, Napoli is a European minnow.
Marek Hamsik, however, is one of Europe's up-and-coming talents.
At age 24, he captains the Slovakian national team, and he's been linked with moves to some of Europe's biggest clubs, including Manchester United.
11. Mario Götze, Borussia Dortmund
We saved Mario Götze for last, for a number of reasons.
First, Borussia Dortmund can hardly be called a middling club. It won the Bundesliga last season and the European Cup in 1997. The German club has been down in recent years, but it's on the way back.
Second, Götze seems to be one of Germany's brightest stars. And several clubs, including Manchester United and Arsenal have been rumored to be after him.
So why is he listed?
Despite its success, Dortmund will probably end up selling Götze and can't be considered among Europe's elite anymore. Götze, on the other hand, has been called "one of the best talents we've ever had" by Matthias Sammer, a former Dortmund and Germany star.
At just 19, Götze has already been capped eight times by Germany.
He made his senior international debut on November 17, 2010, aged 18. He was the youngest German international player since Uwe Seeler.
Götze is so young, in fact, that he was born under the reunified Germany.
Since making his first-team debut in 2009, Götze has scored 17 goals in 42 league appearances for Borussia Dortmund.
The next 12 months figure to be big for Götze.
Borussia Dortmund is playing in the Champions League (in the same group as Arsenal). And at the end of the season, Germany will play in Euro 2012, where they figure to be one of the top challengers for the title.