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Before Messi and Ronaldo: Famous players who left Europe for football backwaters

Football history will undoubtedly remember the early part of the 21st century as the Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo era.

Their performances at club and international level have put them firmly in the conversation to be classed as two of the greatest players of all time.

Having won a plethora of silverware during their respective careers, Messi and Ronaldo have left European football to secure bumper paydays elsewhere.

Ronaldo was the first to jump ship to Saudi Arabia, while Messi has recently signed a deal to play in Major League Soccer.

With that in mind, we look at some of the other top stars who left Europe behind to ply their trade in what are generally called footballing backwaters.

Pep Guardiola – Qatar

Long before Qatar bought a football club and hosted the World Cup, the Middle East nation splashed the cash on attracting big-name foreign players to its top league.

Several legendary names ended up in the Qatar Stars League in 2003/04 including Pep Guardiola, who had previously spent most of his career with Barcelona.

His link-up with the country has continued into management, with Guardiola engaging in an ambassadorial role for the 2022 World Cup.

David Beckham – United States

Even Pele couldn’t help ‘soccer’ break the stranglehold of the four traditional North American sports when he signed for New York Cosmos in the 1970s.

However, it was a different story in 2007, when David Beckham stunned the football world by joining Los Angeles Galaxy from Real Madrid.

Beckham helped to put Major League Soccer on the map and has since maintained his connection by becoming part-owner of expansion franchise Inter Miami.

Oscar – China

Oscar’s move from Chelsea to the Chinese Super League in 2017 for a reported £67 million was one of the most surprising transfers of all-time.

You would be hard-pushed to describe his time in Shanghai as a success, with the club winning the title just once since he arrived there.

However, having been paid a level of salary that most players can only dream about, the 31-year-old will likely be unconcerned about the contents of his trophy cabinet.

Robbie Fowler – Australia

Australia does not have a track record for attracting top-class players from overseas, making Robbie Fowler’s move there in 2009 pretty big news.

Fowler was a busted flush in England after disappointing spells with Cardiff City and Blackburn Rovers but did reasonably well during his two years Down Under.

He was the top scorer for North Queensland Fury in his first season before repeating the feat with Perth Glory the following year.

Alessandro Del Piero – India

India is another country that does not have much football heritage, and top-class overseas stars generally do not end up playing there.

The inaugural season of the Indian Premier League in 2014 was the exception to the rule, with eight ‘marquee players’ signed to boost its profile.

They included Alessandro Del Piero, who won multiple trophies with Juventus and was a World Cup winner with Italy in 2006.

Julio Baptista – Brazil

As highlighted by Messi and many others, the player pathway between South America and Europe is generally a one-way street.

However, there have been several noteworthy examples in recent years including former Sevilla and Brazil star Julio Baptista.

After struggling to live up to the hype with Real Madrid and in Serie A, Baptista cut his losses to sign for Cruzeiro where he won two Brazilian league titles.

Andres Iniesta – Japan

Having built up a reputation as one of the finest midfielders of his generation with Barcelona and Spain, Iniesta exited Europe for Japan in 2018.

While the move surprised many people, Iniesta insisted he could not contemplate the prospect of playing for any other European club.

He has helped Vissel Kobe win the Emperor’s Cup and Japanese Super Cup since heading to Asia but is set to sever ties with the club in July.

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