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Dec 6, 2012

Who is the fairest of them all?

If you have any questions on football facts, statistics or trivia, please send them to ESPN's team of football anoraks at asknorman@hotmail.com and they will try to answer as many as possible.

I am a Liverpool fan and browsing across legends I read a piece on Ian Callaghan. It said that he was booked just once in 857 games! So it got me wondering if this is the lowest ratio for any outfield player having played such insane number of games or are there other instances as well? Ashutosh Singh asked

Callaghan's is an impressive record, but not a unique one. His near contemporary Sir Bobby Charlton was only booked once in 758 Manchester United games and even that wasn't official as the referee opted not to report it.

In eras when cautions were rarer - indeed red and yellow cards had not been officially introduced - such feats were more common. Billy Wright, whose 105 England caps was a record until Charlton went one past it, was never cautioned for club or country. Nor was Sir Stanley Matthews, who played until he was 50, or his rival for England's right-wing spot, Tom Finney. Others with unblemished disciplinary records (and lengthy careers) included John Charles, Tommy Lawton, Billy Liddell, Eddie Gray and, more recently, Gary Lineker. Matthews' total of 783 club games and 54 internationals means that, with 837 matches in total, he may have made the most appearances of anyone who has never had their name taken.

This season, German club Fortuna Dusseldorf are back in the Bundesliga after a 15-year absence. They were in the fourth tier of German football as recently as 2004. My question is twofold:

1. What is the lowest tier a team has fallen to in their national competition but crawled their way back to the top division?

2. What is the longest period of time a team has had between seasons in their nation's top division? Fifteen years doesn't sound very long, so I expect some other team to have this distinction, Barbarossa asked

In both cases, I'm not aware of definitive records, so this is what my research suggests. When Livorno were promoted to Serie A in 2004, it was not just the fact that they had been absent for 55 years - they had been down to the sixth level of Italian football, the Eccellenza, in the 1990s. This is the biggest fall and rise I can find.

In one respect, they emulated Notts County, who were promoted to England's Division 1 in 1981 after a 55-year absence. However, since then, they have been surpassed. Bradford City were relegated from Division 1 in 1922 and returned to the top tier 77 years later, with promotion to the Premier League in 1999. That, as far as I can determine, is a record absence.

Pauleta has never played a top-flight match in his native Portugal, having spent his professional career in Spain and France. Are there any other players who fall into this category? Joe Misika asked

Yes, Pauleta is Portugal's record goalscorer but has never appeared in their top flight. There are actually plenty of other prominent internationals who have never plied their trade in their domestic league, but there is normally a good reason: for example, with the comparative weakness of the League of Ireland and the precedent for Irish players to come through the youth systems of English or Scottish clubs, it is easier to name Ireland internationals who have not played in their top flight.

In countries with more powerful leagues, however, it is rarer, but there are examples. Another record goalscorer, Uruguay's Diego Forlan, never appeared in his native league after beginning his first-team career in Argentina with Independiente. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink never played top-flight football in the Netherlands (though, like Pauleta in Portugal, he did appear in the lower leagues) and made his name abroad. Steve Bull, by the way, appeared for England without appearing in the top division anywhere.

There are plenty of modern-day internationals from prominent countries who have never played in their homeland because they moved abroad to complete their footballing education. The most prominent example is Lionel Messi, who has never played in the Argentine league. Others include Rafael da Silva (Brazil), Charles N'Zogbia (France), Tim Krul and Jeffrey Bruma (Netherlands).

In addition, there is a group of German-born, or German-reared, Turkey players who have not appeared in the Turkish league, including Liverpool's loan signing Nuri Sahin, while Muzzy Izzet, who was born and played in England, appeared for Turkey when they reached the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup.

There are two examples of players representing England before playing there though, in the cases of both Joe Baker and Owen Hargreaves, they did later in their careers. The same applies to players like Cesc Fabregas, capped before playing in Spain's top flight.

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