As well as bringing an end to a long-running transfer saga, Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al Nassr likely brings the curtain down on one of the greatest careers in elite European football history.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner will unquestionably become the highest-profile player to feature in the Saudi Pro League when he makes his debut, but he is by no means the first to make a move of that nature.
A tradition of elite players spending the twilight of their careers in an unfamiliar league – whether for one last payday or to raise the profile of the competition – is long-running.
Here, Stats Perform looks at how a series of other superstars fared after making comparable moves, including all-time greats Pele and Johan Cruyff, and a legendary Spanish midfield duo.
Pele (New York Cosmos)
When Pele joined the North American Soccer League (NASL)’s New York Cosmos in 1975, the Brazilian had already cemented his place among the very greatest to play the game by winning three World Cups – the first as a teenager and the last as part of one of the all-time great Selecao teams.
Despite his advancing years, Pele’s class remained on display in the United States, where he scored 37 goals and registered 30 assists in three years with the Cosmos, who won the NASL’s Soccer Bowl in 1977.
Franz Beckenbauer (New York Cosmos)
Having signed one World Cup legend in Pele, the Cosmos repeated the trick in 1977 with the acquisition of Beckenbauer, who played four seasons for the club either side of a brief return to Germany with Hamburg.
The Bayern Munich great can certainly count his time in the NASL as a success, winning three Soccer Bowls – the latter two without Pele.
Johan Cruyff (Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats)
As another highly decorated player moving to the NASL in the late 1970s, Cruyff represented both the Los Angeles Aztecs and the Washington Diplomats following his brief retirement in 1978.
The Dutch innovator complained of playing on artificial surfaces in the United States before bucking the trend of most players on this list – Cruyff returned to Europe in the twilight of his career, leading Ajax to two further Eredivisie titles as well as winning the division with their rivals Feyenoord.
Samuel Eto’o (Anzhi Makhachkala)
While every transfer on this list was left-field, few created as much shock as Samuel Eto’o’s 2011 move from Inter to big-spending Russian outfit Anzhi Makhachkala.
Eto’o reportedly became the world’s best-paid player with his move to Anzhi, for whom he scored 25 league goals before billionaire owner Suleyman Kerimov scaled back ambitions at the now-defunct club, leading the striker to head to Chelsea.
David Beckham (LA Galaxy)
The NASL established the tradition of footballing luminaries arriving in the United States, but Beckham’s 2007 move to LA Galaxy helped Major League Soccer break new ground.
Beckham won two MLS Cups and two Supporters’ Shields with the Galaxy, but the wider impact of his move – which inspired several other big names to head stateside and led the former England captain to found Inter Miami – was huge.
Xavi (Al Sadd)
Xavi called time on his playing career with Barcelona as a Champions League winner in 2015, opting to spend four years representing Qatar Stars League side Al Sadd before cutting his managerial teeth at the same club.
The 2010 World Cup winner won the Qatari top-flight once as a player and once as a coach before returning to Camp Nou last year, having both played and managed over 100 games with Al Sadd.
Andres Iniesta (Vissel Kobe)
The second of Barca’s pass masters left the European game in 2018, when Iniesta joined J1 league side Vissel Kobe in a shock move.
Considering he still captains the side at the age of 38, Iniesta must have enjoyed his time in Japan, where he has since been joined by compatriots Bojan Krkic and Sergi Samper.
James Rodriguez (Al Rayyan)
Whenever the World Cup rolls around, the idea of breakout stars is discussed. Few players have been more deserving of that tag than Colombia’s Rodriguez, who top-scored at the 2014 edition.
Having enjoyed title successes with European heavyweights Real Madrid and Bayern Munich and enjoyed a – rather less successful – spell at Everton, Rodriguez is now plying his trade with Al Rayyan, who are languishing in eighth place in the Qatar Stars League.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy)
Most of the players named on this list enjoyed some form of success – whether it be on or off the pitch – after making their surprise moves, but few can match the feats of Ibrahimovic.
Ibrahimovic was – like Ronaldo – 37 when he left Manchester United in 2018, scoring 53 MLS goals for the Galaxy in two hugely successful seasons before returning to Europe to help Milan win the Scudetto earlier this year.
While Ronaldo now looks unlikely to return to the pinnacle of European football, if Ibrahimovic can do it, few would bet against the Portugal great doing likewise.
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