Big stars in small leagues: Cristiano Ronaldo, the latest star to end his career in football’s outpost

Cristiano Ronaldo is not the first football superstar to leave for one of the world’s so-called minor leagues in the final years of his career. The temptation for one last big payday, to be a pioneer in a country looking to boost its standing in the sport, or simply to try something different can often be too great to resist. Not every player bends to the top like Zinedine Zidane – even though France’s great was sent off in the last game of his career, the 2006 World Cup final. Others, such as Pelé, Johan Cruyff, Zico, Xavi Hernandez and now the 37-year-old Ronaldo at Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr finds themselves extending their careers at unlikely football posts, usually for huge sums. Here’s a focus on a few of them, in five different countries:


It was a move that changed American sports history. Pelé, the Brazil great and owner of an unprecedented three World Cup winners medals, signed for the New York Cosmos in 1975 after being wooed by the team for four years. Pelé’s 2 1/2 season there — he earned $2.7 million, according to the Cosmos’ general manager at the time, Clive Toye — set American soccer on the path to hosting the 1994 World Cup and launching Major League Soccer two years later. The average attendance of the Cosmos almost tripled in Pelé’s first year and continued to grow. He scored 37 goals in 64 games in the North American Soccer League and did all the PR work necessary in his mission to make soccer mainstream and support an increase in youth participation. “We wouldn’t be where we are today,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber, “if Pele hadn’t decided to come to the United States.” So many top players have since come to the US, usually to end their careers and for lifestyle reasons: Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, George Best, David Beckham and Thierry Henry, to name a few.


Zico is remembered almost as fondly in Japan as he is in his native Brazil. After two highly successful spells with Flamengo, alongside two years with Udinese in Italy, the playmaker retired from his playing career at the age of 38 to help professionalise Japanese football. He played four seasons with Kashima Antlers from 1991-94, a period that began with the inauguration of the J-League in 1993. Zico remained in Japan until 2006, staying with Kashima as a technical director and then a coach before entering the national team coach for the four-year cycle up to the 2006 World Cup. He has since been elected into the Japanese Football Hall of Fame and is known in Japan as the “god of football”. Together with the great Englishman Gary Lineker, who also played in Japan at the start of the competition, Zico is considered a key figure in the development of Japanese football and its growing popularity. Dunga, Hristo Stoichkov and most recently Andres Iniesta, the 2010 Spanish World Cup winner who has played for Vissel Kobe since 2018, are other big names who have played in Japan.


Xavi wasn’t the first star player to land in Qatar’s top division, but he was arguably the most famous, arriving in mid-2015 – aged 35 – as he captained Barcelona that won the Champions League weeks earlier. won the trophy. The league had existed for more than 40 years at that point and had attracted high-profile players since the turn of the century, such as Marcel Desailly, Pep Guardiola and Gabriel Batistuta in 2003 and 2004 and Raúl González in 2012. Even Brazil’s great Romário came to the small, oil-rich emirate to play, if only for three games in 2003 at a reported cost of $1.5 million for Al-Sadd, Qatar’s biggest club. That was before Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup in 2010. In that 12-year span, Xavi – one of Spain’s greatest players – was the most famous football importer. His stay in the country lasted six years and followed a plan where he took on his coaching qualifications and became a World Cup ambassador. He was a player for Al-Sadd from 2015-19 and then coached the team from 2019-21 before returning to Barcelona as a coach.


Del Piero, the majestic Italian World Cup winning striker, is easily the biggest name to have played in Australian football following his two years with Sydney FC (2012-14) on what was described by the club as the “biggest professional sports contract in the world”. world”. Australian history” – a reported $2 million per season. Del Piero scored 24 goals in 48 games but, as a rare superstar to play football in Australia, said his greatest satisfaction was helping the game grow Down Under, as TV viewership and attendance increased in Sydney A record 35,000 spectators watched 38-year-old Del Piero’s debut, Sydney’s membership grew to over 10,000, and the club’s president, Scott Barlow , said it “brought the A-League onto the world stage” No other player, past or present, in the A-League comes close to Del Piero’s gravitas – former Liverpool and England striker Robbie Fowler had brief spells at two Australian clubs before the Italian arrived, and Dwight Yorke spent a season in Sydney before that – so in a way it’s been a missed opportunity in a country where rugby league and cricket are king. Australian football received a timely revival at the recent World Cup in Qatar, when the national team reached the last 16.


In 2012, Chinese clubs made a concerted effort to attract top stars to their top league – the Chinese Super League – after overcoming the fallout from a corruption scandal that damaged their reputation. Not enough, however, to deter Didier Drogba from signing for Shanghai Shenhua as arguably the biggest draw of this first crop of leading players, which also includes Nicolas Anelka. Drogba, then aged 34, was a big deal at the time, not least because the Ivory Coast striker had just led Chelsea to their first Champions League title by scoring a late equalizer in regular time and then kicking the decisive penalty in the shootout of the 2012 final. Drogba called it a “leap into the unknown”, with Shenhua chairman Zhu Jun willing to pay Drogba a reported $300,000 a week to help drag his team to the top and Chinese football officials hoping this will boost the country’s hopes of a to become a major global player. . Drogba lasted for six months before returning to Europe with Galatasaray in a messy split and China never managed to compete with Europe as a go-to league. However, Guangzhou Evergrande became the first Chinese team to win the Asian Champions League in 2013 – they won it again in 2015 – and another wave of top players arrived in 2017, including Carlos Tevez, Alexandre Pato and Oscar.

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