Football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo is not the first soccer heavyweight to head off to one of the world’s minor leagues in the latter years of his career. The temptation for huge pay has forced great players like Pele, Johan Cruyff, Zico, Xavi Hernandez, and now the 37-year-old Ronaldo at Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr, prolonging their careers at unlikely soccer outposts.
Here is a look at some of the great players who have played in minor leagues and smaller clubs for big money…
The move changed US sports history. The Brazil great and winner of an unprecedented three World Cup winners’ medals-Pele signed for the New York Cosmos in 1975. Pele earned $2.7 million for his two-and-a-half-year season with the club. He scored 37 goals in 64 matches in the North American Soccer League.
Zico is almost as fondly remembered in Japan as he is in his native Brazil. After two highly successful spells at Flamengo, on either side of two years at Udinese in Italy, the playmaker quit, only to come out of retirement at the age of 38 to help usher Japanese soccer professionalism. He played for four seasons at Kashima Antlers from 1991 till 94, a period in which J-League was inaugurated in 1993. Zico remained in Japan until 2006, staying at Kashima as its technical director and then coach before becoming the national team’s coach for the four-year cycle up to the 2006 World Cup.
Xavi Hernandez wasn’t the first star player to land in Qatar’s top league but he might have had the most prominence. He arrived midway through 2015 at the age of 35 on the back of being the Barcelona captain who lifted the Champions League trophy weeks earlier. Xavi is one of Spain’s greatest players. He was also the most famous soccer import. He was a player for Al-Sadd from 2015-19, Then he coached the team from 2019-21 before returning to Barcelona as its coach.
Alessandro Del Piero
Del Piero, the great Italian World Cup-winning forward, is comfortably the biggest name to have played in Australian soccer during his two years stint with Sydney FC (2012-14). He was described by the club as the ‘largest professional sporting contract in Australian history’ with $2 million a season. Del Piero scored 24 goals in 48 games as a rare superstar to play soccer in Australia.
In 2012, Chinese clubs made a concerted push to attract top stars to its highest league — the Chinese Super League. Drogba, at the age of 34, was a huge deal at the time. Drogba called it a ‘leap into the unknown’. Shenhua chairman Zhu Jun was willing to pay Drogba $300,000 a week to help drag his team up the league and Chinese soccer officials hoping it would boost the country’s hopes of becoming a competitive team globally. Drogba lasted six months before returning to Europe following a messy split.