Skip to content

From Pele to Beckham: 4 superstars who left soccer's elite leagues

Harry How / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Argentine football superstar Lionel Messi's move to spend the final years of his stellar career in the United States will come as a crushing blow to Barcelona fans who dreamed of a return to the club that nurtured him.

The 35-year-old Messi will be following a well-trodden path of the greats of the 'Beautiful Game' by taking a lucrative pay day in football's less celebrated leagues.

Here, AFP Sport picks out four examples:

Pele: New York Cosmos (1975-77)

It took the persuasive powers of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to lure the man, who vies for the mantle of greatest ever with Messi and Diego Maradona, to the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1975.

"They want to make soccer big in the United States," Pele told CNN in 2011.

"That was the reason (I went). I started my mission."

Aged 34 at the time, he stirred huge public interest and crowd numbers soared.

Averaging below 10,000 fans a match before his arrival, Cosmos attendances surged to over 40,000. Pele took to the New York nightlife but did not neglect his duties on the pitch, inspiring the team to a Football Bowl title in 1977.

His endorsement of the NASL prompted other legends such as Franz Beckenbauer and George Best to sign up -- though it was to crash and burn in 1984.

Gabriel Batistuta: Al Arabi (2003-05)

The Argentine striker took the high road to the previously low-key Q-League on a free transfer and reportedly received $8million to join Al Arabi.

'Batigol's' eye for the back of the net -- which had seen him rattle in the goals for Serie A sides Fiorentina and Roma -- did not desert him in Doha. He scored a record 25 goals for the club in his maiden season.

Batistuta was joined by Pep Guardiola, Frank de Boer and Marcel Desailly as Qatar raised its football profile in what was arguably a key first step towards successfully winning the rights to hosting the 2022 World Cup.

Zico: Kashima Antlers (1991-94)

His exploits on the pitch earned him a stint as Brazil's sports minister but despite being in his early forties he broke off his nascent political career to play for second-tier Japanese side Sumitomo Metals.

The task was to secure them a place in the first ever Japanese professional league which was due to kick off its inaugural season in 1993.

Even in early middle age, the Brazilian inspired them to promotion and then to the runner-up spot in the J League -- and the club changed its name to Kashima Antlers.

There is a statue of him outside Kashima's stadium and he draws great pleasure from the subsequent success of Japanese football -- this month Urawa Red Diamonds won their third Asian Champions League crown.

"It was all about starting from scratch and getting the direction right," Zico told FIFA.com last December.

"And look at Japan today. They haven't missed one World Cup since the game went professional there. That's pretty pleasing."

David Beckham: LA Galaxy (2007-2012)

It was a coup when the MLS franchise secured the signature of arguably European football's highest-profile player at the age of 32, bringing to an end his time as one of Real Madrid's Galacticos.

Beckham's five-year contract -- paying $6.5 million a year -- reaped dividends for Galaxy in terms of a new shirt deal and a huge rise in season ticket sales.

Of far more importance to the former England star, though, was the clause that stated he could buy an MLS franchise -- with the exception of New York -- in the future for a fixed rate of $25 million.

He duly exercised that right in 2014, purchasing Inter Miami.

"I'm not saying me coming over to the States is going to make soccer the biggest sport in America," said Beckham when he signed for Galaxy.

"But I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think I could make a difference."

Beckham inspired Galaxy to two MLS Cup successes before he returned to European football -- with Paris Saint-Germain.

Comments
From Pele to Beckham: 4 superstars who left soccer's elite leagues
  Got something to say? Leave a comment below!

Daily Newsletter

Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox