Background Checking the Top Intl. Goal Scorers

In the wake of Wayne Rooney doing what many thought he was destined to do, and should have done a lot sooner - that is, getting his 50th for England - a number of media outlets showed stats around the elite company he’s in.

The fact that 14 of his goals came in friendlies (let’s face it, almost all pointless games, bereft of intensity and meaning) got me wondering - how do the other players’ friendly goal contributions stack up? And for once, the internet did not oblige. Despite multiple searches, I couldn’t find any data that split out international goal scorers’ goals by competition. So one Sunday afternoon, I started to delve into this.


After getting the list of the top 50 international goal scorers from good ol’ Wikipedia, I tried to find the goals-per-competition breakdown. For a few key players (Ronaldo, Messi, Rooney) there’s a Wikipedia article about international goals, outlining the specifics of each one. For lesser known, yet prolific goal scorers like Hussein Saeed (Iraq) and Hossam Hassan (Egypt), the only source of such info was this list.

Luckily the data is in a relatively clean text format, so I was able to paste it into Excel and run a ‘text to columns’ to dissect it. [For anyone who tries to emulate it, the trick is to use the ‘Fixed Width’ option rather than the ‘Delimited’ option in Excel.]

Given my football following is highly European, my natural inclination was to divide the goals into the following 5 categories:

  1. World Cup Goals
  2. World Cup Qualifier Goals
  3. Continental Cup Goals (Euros, Copa America, AFC Cup etc.)
  4. Continental Qualifier Goals
  5. Friendlies & Other Goals

I realised about a quarter of the way through that ‘Continental Qualifiers’ does not apply to most of the other teams - 10 South American teams automatically qualify and in Asia the AFC Cup doubles up as a WC qualifier as well. So my classification system might be a bit harsh on players who’ve scored a lot of goals in the ‘Gulf Cup’ or the Olympics, but a line had to be drawn somewhere.


The point of the exercise was to assign different weights to each type of goal. The coefficients I’ve gone with are:


[Thanks here must go to my colleagues who contributed through the appropriately named ‘football banter’ channel on our internal communicator, Slack!]


You see the table right at the top. Bear in mind that it is filtered to only show the players for whom I’ve split the goals across competitions - it is by no means the ‘top 16’.

The first thing it tells us is that the Iranian, Ali Daei, the only one to have scored 100+ goals for his country, deserves his top spot. Thanks to his tally of goals across WC & Continental Qualifiers, Continental cup goals and friendlies, his score based on my co-efficients is a whopping 40 points ahead of the next player. In fact his friendly goals count over his 109 goals is less than 25% - very admirable indeed! Only the modern day goal machine, Cristiano Ronaldo, has a smaller friendly goals percentage of 20% - a stat I’m sure he’ll be only too happy to change in the friendlies leading up to Euro 2016!

You could argue that Ali Daei’s continental cup and qualifier goals came against weaker opposition than, say, a European or South American player. But bear in mind two things:

  1. He played for a team that would not have had the most prolific midfielders, providing him numerous chances.
  2. Thanks in part to the weaker team, he only played 5 world cup games (two of which were the last of his career) and never managed to get a goal worth 2x according to my system.

The table is not so kind on the next player on the list - the mercurial Pele. 51 of his 77 official goals (66%) came in what I deemed to be friendlies! But South American teams don’t play qualifiers for the Copa America, and 11 WC goals in 3 WC winning runs probably makes up for all that!

The player who gets the highest bump out of my ranking system is a true legend of the game - the Brazilian Ronaldo. Not surprising given he is the highest World Cup goal scorer, including the amazing 8 in the 2002 WC, that Brazil won! Perhaps a subsequent edition might give an even higher rating when players score in tournaments the team goes on to win - the hypothesis being that these are key goals that in one way or the other drove the team onto the greatest glory there is in the game.

What next?

You can un-filter the data in the table and add players data to it. And here's the link to the Excel spreadsheet you can use to see how I split the goal level data once I copy pasted it from the list.

If you want to change the co-efficients, create a copy and have a play. And let me know if you come across any interesting results, either as a comment here or by emailing

And if you think this is worth it, perhaps you could use the same method to split these players’ goals by the country they were scored against? Let’s slice and dice the beautiful game’s greats!

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Kartik does online marketing stuff at Onfido. He plays with marketing technology, gets excited by data and comes up with weird logic regarding pool, football and every thing in between.