The chance to play at just one major international tournament is often seen as the pinnacle of a player’s career, yet for some, that opportunity presents itself over and over again.
With the European Championships having got underway on Friday night with Turkey taking on Italy in Rome, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the legends that have graced this great stage in the past.
Here’s a look then at the players who have made the most appearances in the competition’s history.
Edwin van der Sar – 16
The Dutch goalkeeping legend kicked off his international career by earning an inclusion in the Netherlands’ 1994 World Cup squad, before actually making his debut for the country a year later.
Part of Ajax’s ‘Golden Generation’ of the early 1990’s, the imposing stopper’s first taste of the European Championship’s came in 1996, a tournament that saw Holland just about scrape through the group stages, despite having suffered a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of hosts England in their third match.
Patrick Kluivert’s late consolation in that dismal defeat had taken Oranje into the knockout stages at Scotland’s expense, where they would ultimately suffer penalty shootout heartbreak in the quarter-final’s against France, legendary midfielder Clarence Seedorf missing what proved to be the decisive penalty.
Four years later, the Juventus number one played an integral role in Holland’s surge to the last four, shaking off injury to produce an excellent semi-final display against Italy, although he would once again suffer penalty shootout heartache, despite saving from Italian icon Paolo Maldini.
Following a shock move to Fulham in 2001, Van der Sar remained his nation’s number one, going on to feature five times at Euro 2004 as Dick Advocaat’s side reached the semi-final’s, including producing a vital save in the quarter-final shoot-out win over Sweden.
In his fourth and final Euro appearance in 2008, the then Manchester United ‘keeper captained his country to the last eight, where they were disappointingly dumped out by an impressive Russia side. He would call time on his international career later that year, having amassed a remarkable 130 caps – a record only bettered by Wesley Sneijder (134).
Lilian Thuram – 16
The versatile defender enjoyed a glittering career at both club and international level, spending hugely successful spells with the likes of Juventus and Barcelona, while also earning a record 142 caps for France following a stellar 14 years of service.
Having begun life at Ligue 1 side Monaco, Thuram’s first taste of a major tournament came at Euro ’96 where he would feature in all five games as Les Bleus reached the semi-finals, going on to suffer a 6-5 penalty shootout loss to eventual runners-up, Czech Republic.
Part of arguably his nation’s greatest ever side, featuring the likes of Marcel Desailly, Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry, the right-back would go on to help France lift the 1998 World Cup, before following up that success at Euro 2000.
That triumph saw Thuram feature in five of his side’s six games in the tournament, including in the dramatic showpiece win over Italy, Sylvain Wiltord bagging a 94th minute equaliser to force the game to extra-time, before David Trezeguet’s stunning Golden Goal strike clinched the trophy.
The holders then topped the group four years later after winning two of their opening three games, including a Zidane-inspired win over England in the first game, before suffering a shock defeat to eventual winners Greece in the quarter-final’s, with Thuram featuring in all four games at centre-back.
With their defeat in the World Cup final two years later marking the end of the nation’s ‘Golden Generation’, Thuram and co struggled to match previous tournament displays at Euro 2008, the Barca man featuring twice as captain as France finished bottom of their group with just a solitary point.
Andres Iniesta – 16
Arguably one of the greatest midfielders to have ever played the game, the playmaking maestro has a remarkable European Championships record, having won the competition twice, either side of a World Cup triumph.
After featuring just once in a dead rubber group stage match against Saudi Arabia at the World Cup in 2006, the Spaniard emerged as a key man for his country two years later, starting every game as Luis Aragones’ side romped to the title.
Having won all three group games, including a 4-1 thrashing of Russia in the opener, Iniesta and co then edged past Italy in the quarter-final’s via penalties, before once again powering past the Russians in the last four, the Barcelona man earning man of the match for his fine display.
After conquering Germany in the final, Spain would go on to build on their success in South Africa – with Iniesta scoring the winner in the final – before capping a stellar four-year spell as the world’s best team with another Euro’s triumph in 2012.
That tournament saw the diminutive midfielder at the peak of his powers, as he once again started every match in the competition, putting in another man of the match display in the stunning showpiece win over Italy, a performance that solidified his position as the tournament’s best player.
He would go on to play four more times as Spain bowed out in the last-16 in 2016, before calling time on his international career after another disappointing exit at the 2018 World Cup, having registered a staggering 131 caps for his country.
Cesc Fabregas – 16
Alongside the man above, Fabregas was another vital cog in that famed Spain machine that won all before them during a stunning four-year spell, becoming the only national side to have won three successive major titles.
Having burst onto the scene as a teenager at Arsenal, Fabregas earned a place in La Roja’s 2006 World Cup squad, although it wasn’t until two years later that he really made his mark on the international stage.
Despite largely featuring as a substitute at Euro 2008, the midfielder’s impact was no less crucial, as he netted his first international goal in the 4-1 win over Russia, before firing in the decisive penalty in the quarter-final shootout triumph over Italy.
Four years later, the then Barcelona man netted Spain’s first goal of the tournament in a 1-1 draw with the same opposition, having been deployed in a false nine role, while he would also once again net the winning spot-kick in the semi-final triumph over Iberian rivals, Portugal.
His performances earned him a starting berth in the showpiece, where he would tee up David Silva for the opening goal, Vicente Del Bosque’s men running out 4-0 winners against a shellshocked Italian side.
After switching the Nou Camp for Stamford Bridge following a disappointing 2014 World Cup, Fabregas developed into more of a deep-lying midfield role, where he would be deployed as Spain crashed out of Euro 2016 in the early knockout stages. Despite still featuring regularly for Ligue 1 side Monaco, he won’t be making an appearance for Luis Enrique’s side this summer after missing out on selection.
Gianluigi Buffon – 17
In truth, it’s no real surprise to see the veteran Italian on this list, after enjoying a lengthy and hugely successful spell as his nation’s undisputed number one, which saw him accumulate an astounding 176 caps between 1997 and 2018.
While he would feature in four European Championships during that time, his appearance record in the competition could have been even greater had he not been denied by injury on the eve of Euro 2000, the then Parma man suffering a broken hand which ruled him out of the tournament, with Italy going on to reach the final.
His first taste of the competition would come in Portugal in 2004, although despite avoiding defeat in all three games, Italy crashed out of the competition in the group stages on all goals scored, after finishing level with both Denmark and Sweden on five points.
Buffon and co would edge past France in the 2006 World Cup final, before suffering quarter-final exit at Euro 2008 following a penalty shootout defeat to eventual winners Spain.
— UEFA.com DE (@UEFAcom_de) June 13, 2020
At Euro 2012, the Juventus legend was both captain and an everpresent as Cesare Prandelli’s men reached the final, producing a fine display to deny England in the quarter-final shootout and blunting an impressive German attack in the last four, before ultimately succumbing to Spain in the final.
Having kept his place as skipper under new boss Antonio Conte, Buffon made what proved to be his final major tournament appearance at Euro 2016, featuring in four of Italy’s five games as they reached the semi-final’s, where they slipped to an agonising shootout defeat to Germany.
Now 43, he looks set to depart the Allianz Arena this summer, although seemingly has no intentions of calling time on his club career just yet.
Bastian Schweinsteiger – 18
While Manchester United and Premier League fans may not have seen the best of him in his brief stint at Old Trafford, the German midfielder was a real powerhouse in his pomp, remaining a firm fixture of the national team set-up from 2004 to 2016.
Amid a period of transition in the early 2000’s for Die Mannschaft, Schweinsteiger’s first major tournament ended miserably, as Rudi Voller’s side slumped out at the group stages at Euro 2004, the 19-year-old having featured off the bench in all three games.
Having impressed on home soil at the 2006 World Cup, the Bayern Munich midfielder didn’t get off to the best start at Euro 2008, missing out on the starting XI in the opening two group games, while picking up a straight red card in the 2-1 defeat to Croatia in the second game.
Despite that rough start, Schweinsteiger made a fine return in the quarter-final clash with Portugal, scoring once and providing two assists as Germany ran out 3-2 winners, before bagging a first-half equaliser in the semi-final win of the same scoreline against Turkey.
After suffering defeat in the final against Spain, Germany would then exit at the semi-final stage four years later, with Schweinsteiger featuring in all five games, before ending their barren run by lifting the 2014 World Cup.
Following that triumph, the central midfielder was appointed as captain, leading out his country at Euro 2016 – his last major tournament. Despite largely featuring off the bench, he continued to play a key role as the tournament progressed, starting the semi-final defeat to France.
Cristiano Ronaldo – 21
The Portuguese icon is in line to break a number of European Championship records this summer. Not only is he set to become the first player to feature in five different editions of the competition, but also the first to score in five finals, despite already being the only man to have scored at four.
The 36-year-old is entering his twilight years, yet remains supremely lethal in front of goal and could well become the outright top scorer in Euro’s history should he score at least once over the next month – the Juventus man currently sitting alongside Michel Platini in the all-time rankings with nine goals.
Arguably the most prolific striker in football history, Ronaldo truly marked his arrival on the international stage in front of home support at Euro 2004, ending the tournament with two goals and two assists as the hosts reached the final.
After a disappointing performance in 2008 in which he scored just once, he hit back with three goals in 2012 as Portugal reached the semi-final’s, where they lost on penalties to eventual winners Spain – Ronaldo left looking red-faced after opting for the ‘glory’ fifth penalty, yet the shootout was over before he could make his mark.
🛫 @Cristiano TAKEOFF! 🇵🇹
— UEFA EURO 2020 (@EURO2020) February 29, 2020
The five-time Champions League winner would match his tally of three goals at Euro 2016, including a stunning, hanging header in the semi-final win over surprise package Wales to set up a showpiece, showdown with France.
Against the much-fancied hosts, Portugal’s chances looked even slimmer when Ronaldo was forced off with injury inside the first-half. However, with their talismanic skipper willling them on from the touchline, Fernando Santos’ men clinched the trophy, courtesy of an extra-time belter from Swansea City flop, Eder.
See also – Five of the best players from Euro ’96