These aren’t the seven who left the earliest, or the best seven, the best paid seven – or anything else like that. These are simply seven we randomly chose for your enjoyment, feel free to share your examples in the comments.
Here are 7 players who left Europe too early
7. Andres Iniesta
We might as well start with Andres Iniesta. He wasn’t quite a late bloomer, but it took until his early 20’s for Iniesta’s true talents to be widely acknowledged. For the last 13 or 14 years, Iniesta has been one of my favourite players to watch. A wonderfully intelligent footballer, Iniesta is near-perfect technically. His touch and close control are there to be marveled at, as is his vision and immaculate weight of passing. Iniesta is 34 now, so I think he’ll be the oldest player in this seven at the time of their European departure – but we’d still put him among the ten best central or attacking midfielders in world football. Iniesta can do what he likes in football, but we wish he’d have stayed for another season or two.
6. David Beckham
Some people may think David Beckham was some way over the hill veteran when he agreed to leave Real Madrid to join LA Galaxy, but that really isn’t the case. He was 31 at the time, and had just turned 32 when he eventually joined the California-based outfit. Beckham’s peak had undoubtedly come during his time at Manchester United, but he was still an excellent technician and creator who would have been an asset to almost any team when he joined the Galaxy in 2007. Brand Beckham may have been the priority, but Becks’ loan moves to AC Milan were pretty much an acknowledgement that he should really have played in Europe a little longer. Beckham did return to Europe permanently in 2013, but he played only 14 games in six months at PSG before hanging up his boots.
5. Juan Roman Riquelme
It’s hard to believe, but I think this is my first time talking about Juan Roman Riquelme on HITC. The quite-brilliant Argentine was one of my favourite players of the 2000’s, and I for one was a bit gutted to see him leave La Liga for his native Argentina. Riquelme was a throwback of a number ten, who had no interest in contributing to multiple phases of play, but would happily destroy an opposing defence in the blink of an eye if a team was willing to accommodate him. His touch, vision and passing abilities were all first class, and for an exhibit of prime Riquelme, watch him routinely embarrass Claude Makelele for Boca Juniors against Real Madrid in the 2000 Intercontinental Cup.
Riquelme played for both Barcelona and Villareal in Europe, but regularly fell out with teammates and coaches, and just seemed more comfortable back home in Argentina – where he was clearly afforded more freedom, both on and off the pitch. He left Europe for a return to Boca Juniors aged 29, and he is a legend at the Buenos Aires club.
4. George Best
In many respects, George Best did everything too early. He peaked too early, he first retired too early and tragically, of course, he ultimately passed away too early. From his mid-20’s onwards, Best didn’t live the life of an elite athlete, and that would be to his detriment. Always an extremely individualistic talent, Manchester United could accomodate that flaw due to his rare genius on a football pitch. At his best, Best was hard to tame. His best, unfortunately, was at around the age of 23. By the time he had just turned 28, Manchester United had been relegated and Best left Europe for a brief loan spell in South Africa. He eventually left the continent for good to play in America aged 30, and he only later returned for brief spells with Fulham and Hibernian.
3. Ruud Krol
The man we named as the third greatest left-back of all time back when we did our all time series, Ruud Krol was equally capable of playing as a centre-back, defensive midfielder or sweeper. That versatility was the result of his supreme understanding of the game and footballing intelligence when in or out of possession of the ball. Technically tremendous and faultless in terms of his work ethic, Krol starred in an Ajax side which won three European Cups and a Netherlands team which reached two World Cup finals. In 1979, aged 30, Krol came third in Ballon d’Or voting, but a year later he left Ajax for Vancouver Whitecaps. The lucrative NASL was snapping up some of the best players on the planet, and Krol certainly fell into that category. He spent just a season in the States, returning to Europe to spend four seasons with Napoli and two with Cannes.
We have often sung the praises of Brazilian legend Romario, so we’ll try to keep it brief here. Put simply, he is one of the greatest centre-forwards of all time. A naturally blessed goal scorer with explosive pace, masterful movement and an ice-cold finish in front of goal, he was absolutely prolific throughout his extensive career. His time in Europe was certainly no exception. He scored 127 goals in 142 games for PSV, 39 goals in 65 games for Barcelona and 6 goals in 12 games for Valencia. Aside from the brief stint at Valencia, Romario left Europe aged 29, and even including it he was only 31 when he left again. He went on to enjoy much success with Flamengo, Vasco and Fluminense.
1. Johan Cruyff
We said this seven was in no specific order but we do seem to have saved the best player until last. Johan Cruyff is quite possibly the greatest European footballer of all time, and a true footballing innovator. A marvelous technician with absolute mastery over the ball, supreme confidence in his own ability and an understanding of the game which perhaps hasn’t been bettered by anyone before or since. Cruyff starred for both Ajax and Barcelona, but considered retiring shortly after his 30th birthday. Poor financial decisions meant he couldn’t, and he ended up making a lucrative move to the United States.
Cruyff was just 31 when he joined the Los Angeles Aztecs, later turning out for the Washington Diplomats as well. He returned to Ajax in 1981, where he won two league titles and one domestic trophy in two seasons. When his boyhood club didn’t renew his contract at the age of 36, Cruyff joined arch rivals Feyenoord for one final season. He scored 13 goals, as Feyenoord won their first league title in 10 years in a league and cup double, with Cruyff being named as the Dutch Footballer of the Year.
In other news, Arsenal could reportedly lose a staggering amount of money