Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t the first footballing superstar to head to one of the world’s supposed minor leagues in the final years of his career.
It is often difficult to resist the temptation to touch a last big payday, to be a pioneer in a country that seeks to improve its position in this sport or simply to try something different. Not all players finish at the top like Zinedine Zidane – even if the Frenchman was sent off in the last game of his career, the final of the 2006 World Cup.
Others, like Pele, John Cruyff, Zico, Xavi Hernández and today Ronaldo37, who plays for the Saudi clubAl Nassrextend their careers in unlikely places, usually for large sums of money.
Here is an overview of some of them, spread across five different countries:
Pelé in the USA
This decision changed the history of sport in United States. Pelé, with his three World Cup winners’ medals, signed for the New York Cosmos in 1975 after being courted by the team for four years. The two and a half seasons that Pelé spent there – he earned $2.7 million, according to the Cosmos general manager at the time, Clive Toye – enabled the USA to host the World Cup in 1994 and to launch the Major League Soccer two years later.
Average attendance at the Cosmos nearly tripled in Pelé’s first year and grew steadily. He scored 37 goals in 64 matches in the North American Soccer League and carried out all the communication necessary for its mission, which was to make football a sport for the masses and to support the development of youth participation.
« We wouldn’t be where we are today »says MLS commissioner Don Garber, « if Pelé had not decided to come to the United States. » So many top players have since made their way to the United States, usually to end their careers and for lifestyle reasons: Franz Beckenbauer, John Cruyff, George Best, David Beckham and Thierry Henryto only cite a few.
Zico in Japan
Zico is almost as popular Japan that in his native country, the Brazil. After 12 successful years at Flamengothen two years at theUdinese in Italy, the playmaker put an end to his playing career, before coming out of retirement at the age of 38 to contribute to the professionalization of the japanese soccer.
He played for four seasons at Kashima Antlers from 1991 to 1994, a period which saw the inauguration of the J League in 1993. Zico remained in Japan until 2006, remaining in Kashima as technical director then coach before becoming the national team coach for the four-year cycle leading up to the 2006 World Cup.
Zico has since been elected to the Japanese Football Hall of Fame and is known as the « Soccer God » in Japan. With the English player Gary Linekerwho also played in Japan at the start of the league, Zico is considered a key figure in the development of Japanese football and the growth of its popularity. Dunga, Hristo Stoichkov and more recently Andres Iniestawinner of the 2010 World Cup with Spain playing for the Vissel Kobe since 2018, are other big names to have played in Japan.
Xavi Hernandez in Qatar
Xavi wasn’t the first star player to land in the Qatar Premier League, but he may have had the most impact, having arrived midway through 2015 – aged 35 – after having been the captain of the FC Barcelona having won the Champions League a few weeks earlier. The league had been in existence for over 40 years then, and since the turn of the century had attracted top players like Marcel Desailly, Pep Guardiola and Gabriel Batistuta in 2003 and 2004 and Raul Gonzalez in 2012.
Even the Brazilian Romario came to play in the small, oil-rich emirate for just three games in 2003, at a cost of $1.5 million to Al Sadd, the biggest club in Qatar. That was before Qatar won the right to host the World Cup 2022.
Xavi, one of Spain’s greatest players, has been the most famous football importer. His stay in the country lasted six years and proceeded according to a plan that saw him earn his coaching qualifications and become ambassador of the World Cup. He was a player for Al-Sadd from 2015 to 2019 and then coached the team from 2019 to 2021 before returning to Barcelona as a coach.
Alessandro Del Piero in Australia
Del Piero, the majestic Italian world champion striker, is the biggest name to play in Australian rules football after his two years with the Sydney F.C. (2012-14) on what was described by the club as the « biggest professional sports contract in Australian history » – a reported amount of $2 million per season.
Del Piero scored 24 goals in 48 games but, as the rare superstar to play in Australia, said his greatest satisfaction was helping the sport grow. A record 35,000 spectators attended the 38-year-old Del Piero’s debut and Sydney FC’s subscriber count topped 10,000. Club chairman Scott Barlow said that boosted the « A-League on the World Stage ».
No other player in the A-League comes close to matching the fame of Del Piero – the former striker of liverpool and England Robbie Fowler had brief stints at two Australian clubs before the Italian’s arrival, and Dwight Yorke spent a season in Sydney before that – so in a sense it was a missed opportunity in a country where the rugby and the cricket are kings. Australian rules football received a timely boost at the recent World Cup in Qatar, when the national team reached the round of 16.
Didier Drogba in China
In 2012, Chinese clubs made a concerted effort to attract big stars to its highest league – the Chinese Super League – after recovering from the fallout of a corruption scandal which damaged his reputation. Not enough, however, to deter Didier drogba to sign at shanghai shenhuaperhaps the biggest attraction of this first batch of top players which also included Nicolas Anelka.
At the time, Drogba, then 34, was a huge star, not least because the Ivory Coast striker had just led chelsea to his first title in Champions League by scoring an equalizer in regulation time, then the decisive penalty in the penalty shootout of the 2012 final.
The president of Shenhua, Zhu Junwas willing to pay Drogba $300,000 per week to help his team move up the rankings. Chinese soccer officials hoped it would boost the country’s hopes of becoming a major global player.
Drogba only lasted six months before returning to Europe with Galatasaray in a messy separation and China never managed to compete with Europe as a benchmark league. However, the Guangzhou Evergrande became the first Chinese team to win the Asian Champions Leaguein 2013 – he won it again in 2015 – and another wave of top players arrived in 2017, including Carlos Tevez, Alexandre Pato and Oscar.