A question mark had surrounded Cristiano Ronaldo’s next career move since confirmation that the forward’s second stint at Manchester United came to a premature, unceremonious end last month.
Ronaldo had his contract at Old Trafford mulched with six months to run after spending much of this season on the bench and then venting his frustration towards the club and manager Erik ten Hag in an explosive interview with Piers Morgan.
The 37-year-old was afforded a timely opportunity to put his club woes aside and focus on his international aspirations while representing Portugal at the FIFA World Cup. Things didn’t quite go to plan, however, as Portugal saw their run in Qatar quashed at the quarterfinal stage by resilient underdogs Morocco.
After entering the fray as a second-half substitute, the galling 1-0 defeat saw Ronaldo leave the arena in floods of tears amid the realization that what was likely to be his final stab at World Cup glory had ended in such unfulfilling circumstances.
However, Ronaldo will not have long to wallow in disappointment after it was confirmed on Friday that the former United man has already secured himself a new day job. Indeed, it has been announced that his club career will continue in Saudi Arabia with Al-Nassr.
While many assumed the five-time Ballon d’Or winner would remain in Europe to continue his personal quest of extending his record as the UEFA Champions League’s all-time record goal scorer, Ronaldo has instead decided to leave for a fresh start on a brand new footballing frontier.
Of course, he isn’t the first big-name player who has unexpectedly opted to leave European football behind in search of a new challenge in a far-flung league on the other side of the world.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (US)
The so-called “gold rush” to American soccer first began in the 1970s, when legendary names such as Pele, Johan Cruyff, George Best and Franz Beckenbauer arrived to great fanfare in the North American Soccer League. However, Beckham’s box-office switch from Real Madrid to LA Galaxy in 2007, at the comparatively young age of 31, best encapsulates the more contemporary wave of big-name European stars seeking fresh, lucrative, late-career challenges in Major League Soccer.
Since Beckham re-opened that transatlantic pathway a whole cavalcade of European football’s most decorated players have tried their hand Stateside — including Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Andrea Pirlo and 2007 Ballon d’Or winner Kaka.
After joining Barca as an 11-year-old before going on to serve as their crucial midfield metronome throughout a golden era of success, Xavi left at the age of 35 back in 2015. Having won all there is to win at club and international level , the man they call “El Maestro” was drawn to Qatar Stars League club Al Sadd, which offered a project in which Xavi would initially take on the responsibilities of player and coach as well as an ambassadorial role for the 2022 World Cup.
Xavi wasn’t the first former Spain international to wind down a glittering career at Al Sadd, with former Real Madrid striker Raul also spending a couple of years in the Gulf between 2012 and 2014 after a spell at Schalke 04 before moving to New York Cosmos for one final hurrah in 2014-15.
Fellow ex-Real Madrid forward James Rodriguez also spent a fairly unremarkable season in Qatar with Al-Rayyan in 2021-22, only to return to Europe with Greek club Olympiakos after plodding through just 13 entirely unremarkable appearances for the club and having his contract terminated by mutual consent.
Another emotional parting of ways came for Barcelona at the culmination of the 2017-18 season, when Iniesta — Xavi’s right-hand man in midfield for so many years — announced in floods of tears that he was bringing his outstanding 22-year association with the Catalan club to an end.
Shortly after winning his ninth LaLiga title, Iniesta left the Camp Nou to sign for J1 League club Vissel Kobe, owned and chaired by billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani — CEO of Rakuten, the Japanese retail group that just so happened to sponsor Barca’s shirts at the time .
Iniesta was soon joined in the Vissel Kobe squad by another high-profile signing in Germany international striker Lukas Podolski, who moved from Turkish club Galatasaray, while his former Spain teammate David Villa arrived the following season.
Plenty of aspiring players have made the big move from the Argentinian Primera Division to the bright lights of Italy’s Serie A, but the pipeline that runs the other way is not as well-travelled.
Roma legend De Rossi bucked the trend in the summer of 2019, signing a short-term contract with Boca Juniors after playing more than 600 times for his beloved Giallorossi.
Aged 35 on arrival at The Bombonerathe grizzled World Cup-winning midfielder mustered just seven appearances for Boca before retiring shortly after his 36th birthday in order to begin his coaching career back home in Italy.
It’s already in La Boca! pic.twitter.com/h2G3PPrRBi
— Boca Juniors (@BocaJrsOfficial) July 25, 2019
Alessandro Del Piero: Juventus v Sydney FC (Australia)
Although several others (Dwight Yorke, Robbie Fowler, etc.) had made the switch beforehand, Del Piero was undoubtedly the most prestigious name to grace the A-League when he signed for Sydney FC in 2012. After leaving Juventus as a club legend, the 37-year-old World Cup-winning forward reportedly snubbed interest from Liverpool and elsewhere to become the highest-paid athlete across all codes of Australian team sport.
Del Piero was actually the second World Cup winner to play competitively in the A-League, after Juninho Paulista (who won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002), with David Villa becoming the third when the Spain international signed for Melbourne City in 2014.
You can technically count Romario, too, although the revered striker — spearhead of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning team — signed for Adelaide United in 2006 on a five-match guest contract and left after only playing four games.
Roberto Carlos: Delhi Dynamos (India)
Over a span of 11 years and 400-plus games at Real Madrid in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Roberto Carlos forged his reputation as one of the greatest full-backs and set-piece specialists of the modern era.
Two decent years at Fenerbahce followed before a one-season stint back home in Brazil with Corinthians took him up at the end of the 2010-11. Carlos then returned to Europe at the age of 37, when he joined newly flush Anzhi Makhachkala — the first of a number of expensive signings made by the Russian club in a bid to cement itself as a serious contender on the domestic and continental front. The Brazilian defender lasted one season (2011-12) before calling time on his career aged 39, shortly before the great Anzhi experiment fell apart amid financial chaos.
However, Carlos wasn’t quite done. Having seen a number of his contemporaries — including Del Piero, Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet — take part in the inaugural 2014-15 season of the Indian Super League, the 42-year-old was tempted from his dotage to became the new player-manager of Delhi Dynamos for the 2015 campaign.
The old master made three appearances for the Dynamos before ending his professional playing career for the second time after his side were eliminated from the ISL playoffs at the semifinals stage.
France striker Andre-Pierre Gignac raised more than a few eyebrows when he ended an 11-year stint in Ligue 1 with Lorient, Toulouse and Marseille by agreeing to decamp to Liga MX in the summer of 2015. The 29-year-old was hot property after scoring 21 league goals for Marseille the previous season, but his preferred destination was not Arsenal or Inter Milan but rather UANL Tigres of Mexico.
The move did not harm Gignac’s international prospects, however, as he was called up to France’s squad for the 2016 Euros. He appeared in six of the host nation’s seven matches as they reached the final, where they lost to Portugal.
Now aged 37 and several contract extensions later, Gignac is still plying his trade for Tigres having won nine major honors with the club and seeing one of his goals — an acrobatic bicycle kick scored against Pumas in 2020 — nominated for a Puskas Award.
The target man’s success in Mexican football has also sparked a Marseille reunion at Tigres, with Florian Thauvin joining his former teammate at the Estadio Universitario in May 2021. What’s more, ex-France international Jeremy Menez also enjoyed a brief foray in Mexico when he spent the 2018-19 season at Club America.
Seedorf enjoyed a long and distinguished career during which he won silverware at an array of European football’s most revered clubs in Ajax, Sampdoria, Real Madrid and both Inter and AC Milan. After a 10-year stay at the latter, the midfielder chose to finish things off by swapping the Italian Serie A for its Brazilian namesake and agreeing to a two-year swansong with Botafogo. Despite being 36 at the time of his arrival, the Dutch veteran proved a popular signing and made 59 appearances for the Rio de Janeiro-based side (almost twice the amount of games he played for Sampdoria in the mid-1990s) before retiring in 2014 .
The Milan-to-Botafogo trail was blazed a few years later by fellow Rossoneri alumni Keisuke Honda when the Japan international left European football in order to sign for the Lonely Star in 2020.
There was a time not so long ago when China became the destination of choice for footballers based in Europe who had reached some sort of career impasse or, indeed, just fancied a fresh challenge on a different, unusual frontier before bowing out.
Scores of players opted to spend a year or two in the Chinese Super League at the far end of their playing days, with stars such as Anelka, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Drogba, Asamoah Gyan and Alberto Gilardino all leaving European clubs in search of one last adventure .
However, Oscar’s decision to leave Chelsea in Jan. 2017 on a vast £60 million transfer to Shanghai SIPG at the age of 25 signaled a new dawn of players heading to China at a much earlier career juncture than they once might have considered.
Many followed suit, with Axel Witsel, Hulk, Stephan El Shaarawy, Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Ramires and Paulinho (twice) all joining Chinese clubs in their late 20s and early 30s.
Fabio Cannavaro: Juventus to Al-Ahli (United Arab Emirates)
Fabio Cannavaro shocked Italian football fans when he decided to join the United Arab Emirates club Al-Ahli after Italy’s shambolic exit from the 2010 World Cup group stage.
The refined centre-back was bestowed with the Ballon d’Or after captaining the Azzurri to World Cup glory in 2006, but after the defending champions’ hopeless capitulation the 36-year-old went to the UAE just one year after re-signing for the Bianconeri from Real Madrid.
After signing a two-year deal and exclaiming that it had always been his “dream” to play in Dubai, Cannavaro played just 16 times for Al-Ahli before announcing his retirement from professional football in July 2011.