Here are the players that combined longevity and excellence to make the most World Cup appearances as a player.
The Most World Cup Appearances by a Player:
Lothar Matthäus: Germany, 25
Miroslav Klose: Germany, 24
Paolo Maldini: Italy, 23
Diego Maradona: Argentina, 21
Uwe Seeler: Germany, 21
Wladislaw Zmuda: Poland, 21
Cafu: Brazil, 20
Grzegorz Lato: Poland, 20
Javier Mascherano: Argentina, 20
Philipp Lahm: Germany, 20
Bastian Schweinsteiger: Germany, 20
Lothar Matthäus, Germany, 25 Apps
World Cups: 1982, 86, 90, 94, 98
The longevity king. Given their success in the World Cup, it is no surprise to see Germany’s most capped player of all time, Lothar Matthäus, sit resplendent atop this list. His World Cup career started with two fleeting cameos in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, and ended in 1998, when he was surprisingly called up as a replacement for the injured sweeper Matthias Sammer. But while those two tournaments would end in heartbreak, there was glory in between.
Matthäus captained Germany (then West Germany) to victory in the 1990 World Cup. The skipper played every minute of Germany’s successful campaign, finishing as his side’s top scorer at the tournament with four goals. After Germany’s 1-0 victory over Argentina in the final, Matthäus was the first German captain to raise the World Cup since Franz Beckenbauer in 1974. Sixteen years later and Beckenbauer was now Matthäus’s manager, looking on approvingly. The circle was neatly complete.
After that World Cup victory, he was awarded the Ballon d’Or. In 1991, he was named the first FIFA World Player of the Year and remains the only German to have received the award.
Together with Antonio Carbajal and Rafael Márquez of Mexico, Matthäus is one of only three players in history to have appeared in five separate World Cup tournaments.
Miroslav Klose, Germany, 25 Apps
World Cups: 2002, 06, 10, 14
Miroslav Klose, the record World Cup goalscorer, appears next on our list. No player has as many goals at World Cup finals as the German striker, who netted 16 times in 24 appearances across four separate tournaments. The only other players to score in as many as four World Cup tournaments are compatriot Uwe Seeler as well as Cristiano Ronaldo and Pelé.
Klose made his World Cup debut in the 2002 World cup in Japan and South Korea and got off to the perfect start, scoring a hat-trick in Germany’s emphatic 8-0 win over Saudi Arabia. He’s one of 13 players to score a hat-trick on their World Cup debut, but no player has managed to do it since Klose on this day in June 2002.
More statistically remarkable about Klose’s debut hat-trick is that all three of them were headers. The striker is only the second player in World Cup history to score a hat-trick of headers in a single World Cup game, after Tomas Skuhravy did it for Czechoslovakia against Costa Rica in World Cup ’90. The record scorer has also scored more headed goals than any other player in World Cup history.
The World Cup in 2014 was Klose’s last, and his crowning moment. His record 16th goal was the second in Germany’s emphatic 7-1 victory against Brazil, and he was substituted for eventual winning goalscorer Mario Götze in the final.
Overall, Klose’s 16 World Cup goals came from just 63 shots – a phenomenal record of converting 25.4% of his shots across the four tournaments he played in.
Paolo Maldini, Italy, 23 Apps
World Cups: 1990, 94, 98, 02
For a player who enjoyed such a decorated club career, Paolo Maldini’s international career was a story of near misses. He is the first player to appear on our list who has not won a World Cup (nor did he win a European Championships).
The graceful defender made his tournament debut at Italia ’90, appearing in all seven of Italy’s matches, as the hosts kept clean sheets in their first five matches at the tournament – a World Cup record for consecutive clean sheets. Claudio Caniggia was the first player to breach the Italian backline in this tournament, equalising for Argentina in the semi-final and ending Italy’s World Cup record run of 518 total minutes without conceding. After a goalless extra-time period, Argentina prevailed on penalties. Italy conceded a tournament-low two goals in their seven matches, and Maldini was rewarded for his defensive efforts in a spot in the Team of the Tournament.
Heartbreak in a penalty shootout was once again in store for Maldini in the 1994 World Cup in USA. Now vice-captain behind the legendary Franco Baresi, Maldini showcased his famous versatility, playing both as a centre-back and full-back as his national team got all the way to the final. Ultimately, they finished as runners-up after Roberto Baggio’s decisive spot kick sailed over the bar. It was the first time the World Cup was decided on penalties.
After Baresi’s international retirement in 1994, Maldini captained the side in 1998. The Azzurri’s campaign once again ended via penalties, with them going out to the hosts and eventual champions France. Penalties were Italy’s method of exit for the third consecutive World Cup.
Maldini’s fourth and final World Cup came in 2002. Italy flattered to deceive in their group games however and went out in controversial fashion to co-hosts South Korea in the last 16. Maldini retired immediately after and bowed out having played the most minutes of any player.
Heartbreak followed him to the Euros as well, with Italy famously getting to within moments of glory in 2000, before Sylvain Wiltord equalised in the final minute of stoppage time and David Trezeguet netted the golden goal winner for France.
Diego Maradona, Argentina, 21 Apps
World Cups: 1982, 86, 90, 94
Diego Maradona comes in at joint-fourth with 21 World Cup appearances for Argentina. In his homeland, he will always be remembered as the man who inspired his country to World Cup success in 1986, which remains the last time Argentina lifted the famous World Cup Trophy.
Maradona was a player who turned it on when it mattered most. A creative genius, he accumulated eight assists in World Cups since 1966 – more than any other player. To go with his assists record, Maradona also carried his own considerable goal threat. He’s one of only three Argentine players to have scored in three separate World Cup tournaments (1982, 1986 and 1994), alongside Lionel Messi (2006, 2014 and most recently in Russia 2018) and Gabriel Batistuta (1994, 1998, and 2002). Only Batistuta (10) has scored more World Cup goals for Argentina than Maradona, who ranks fifth overall for World Cup goal involvements across all countries (16).
Maradona’s influence on his country’s World Cup success in 1986 cannot be overstated – of Argentina’s 14 tournament goals, he either scored or assisted ten of them, including a double against Belgium in the semi-final. He remains to this day the only player in the history of the World Cup to score and assist at least five times during a single edition of the competition.
Uwe Seeler, Germany, 21 Apps
World Cups: 1958, 62, 66, 70
The third German on this list, Uwe Seller, made 21 appearances across four FIFA World Cups.
Seeler’s international career came just at the wrong time in terms of World Cup success. His first World Cup tournament at Sweden 1958 came one edition after West Germany’s first triumph in Switzerland, and he would miss out on their second trophy in 1974.
The German marksman played in some of the most famous World Cup encounters, coming closest to glory in 1966, where his side lost to hosts England 4-2 in extra-time. In 1970, he was on the end of another thrilling, but heartbreaking loss in extra-time, with Germany losing 4-3 to Italy in the semi-final, a match often referred to as the “Game of the Century”.
Nevertheless, he enjoyed a prolific career on the world’s biggest stage. Seller was the first player ever to appear in 20 World Cup matches and the first ever to score in four World Cups (a record he beat Pelé to by only a few minutes).
He also ranks third in all-time minutes played in World Cups, with 1,980, behind Paolo Maldini and Lothar Matthäus.
Overall, he is Germany’s joint-sixth highest scorer at the tournament.
Wladislaw Zmuda, Poland, 21 Apps
World Cups: 1974, 78, 82, 86
Wladislaw Zmuda is probably a player you didn’t expect to see so highly on this list, but the defender represented Poland at four different World Cup tournaments. After playing an instrumental role in Gwardia Warsaw’s UEFA Cup campaign in 1973-94, the 19-year-old burst onto the international scene at the 1974 World Cup. He was named the best young player of the tournament as Poland finished third.
Off the back of an Olympic silver medal in 1976, Zmuda appeared in the 1978 World Cup, as Poland were the surprise winners of Group 2, ahead of world champions Germany (then West Germany). Getting drawn in the same group as Brazil and Argentina in the second group-stage round was a hugely difficult ask, though, and despite victory over Peru, defeats against both other South American countries saw the Poles depart.
Zmuda played all seven matches at World Cup 1982 in Spain as once again they secured third place. With Poland’s Golden Era dwindling, Zmuda made his final appearance in the 1986 World Cup, appearing in Poland’s 4-0 last 16 defeat at the hands of the Seleção.
Where Do Modern-Day Greats, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi Stand?
With 19 World Cup appearances in total, Lionel Messi holds the record for games played among all currently active players. If Argentina were to make it to the final in 2022 (or the third-placed game), and Messi appeared in each of those seven matches, then the PSG star would break the record for the most World Cup appearances in history.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos have each made 17 World Cup appearances, so while it’s unlikely that Portugal’s icon will be back in 2026 to break the record – although you never know – there’s a chance he breaks into the top five in Qatar.
Other active players on 16 World Cup appearances are German duo Manuel Neuer and Thomas Muller, as well as Uruguay’s Fernando Muslera.
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