Many foreign football legends have graced the shores of Britain. Dennis Bergkamp, Eric Cantona, Christiano Ronaldo, Gianfranco Zola and Thierry Henry to name but a few have had success on the island. However, there are stars, some of the biggest superstars in football history who never managed to come to Britain. But they almost did.
Football Legends who Almost Played in Britain
Johan Cruyff to Dumbarton and Leicester City
This may have just been a publicity stunt, but it got Scottish Second Division side Dumbarton on to the back pages. In 1980, with the Dutch master 33 years old, an offer was made for the former Ballon d’Or winner.
Believe it or not, the move nearly happened. Unfortunately though for lowly Dumbarton, Cruyff opted to stay in America. Looking back the Dutchman said, Was I tempted? Yes, of course. Playing in England, or Britain, was something I had always wanted to do. But I thought I was too old to go to Scotland, where you know the weather will be difficult. When you’re old your muscles get stiff and moving to a cold country is asking for problems.”
One year later, a move to Leicester City almost came to fruition. After weeks of negotiating, the then Foxes manager Jock Wallace revealed “I think I have my man”. A deal worth a reported £4000 per week was agreed and the Dutch magician was expected to line up for his new club against rivals Nottingham Forest. Soon after, Cruyff, an ex-Barcelona star, decided to head back to Spain with Levante. Leicester meanwhile were relegated.
Ronaldinho to St Mirren
This actually very nearly happened. In the summer of 2001, having agreed a deal to join Paris Saint-Germain, the forward wanted a short-term deal in Europe to acclimatise himself. Now, the Scottish League is not similar to the various parts of France the Brazilian would be visiting, but he was allegedly persuaded to go to Love Street for a short spell.
Unfortunately, the dreams of St Mirren fans of Ronaldinho playing in their black and white strip were short-lived. A scandal back in the Brazilian’s native country regarding a passport held up the transfer. With the hold up ongoing, Saints were unable to complete his registration in time. The club were relegated that season with a –40 goal difference. Could the star have made much of a difference? Probably not. However, it would surely have been fun watching him at Love Street, Tynecastle and Dens Park among others.
Maradona to Sheffield United
In the late 1970’s, Sheffield United boss, Harry Haslam spotted a 17 year old by the name of Maradona while on a scouting trip. The Blades manager, obviously impressed with youngster immediately set up the transfer. A deal of around £350,000 was put in place. However, with United struggling in the old Second Division, the board of the Yorkshire club reluctantly refused to pay the fee Argentinos Juniors wanted.
In the end United signed Maradona’s compatriot Alex Sabella for £160,000. The Blades were relegated that same season. This has to go down as one of the greatest “if only” transfers ever. For the sake of £190,000, United could well have beaten relegation and had a player who could have single-handedly got them promoted to the top tier of English football. His sell-on price would have given the board a tidy profit too. At the age of 40, he almost went to Dundee too.
Zinedine Zidane to Blackburn Rovers
At the time Rovers were being bankrolled by Jack Walker’s millions. So when a player of Zidane’s ability became available, even if he was in the early stages of his career, Blackburn were interested. Kenny Dalglish wanted to bring both Zidane and team-mate Christope Dugarry to Ewood Park to strength his already expensive squad.
The deal never happened, Rovers went on to sign Garry Flitcroft instead. Owner Jack Walker reportedly said “why sign Zidane? we already have Tim Sherwood.” Indeed, Jack, indeed.
Zidane went on to win trophy after trophy with Juventus, Real Madrid and France. Rovers, after their Premier League title win, struggled. Could Zidane have made a difference? Who knows, but this “one that got away” may still have fans thinking “What if?”
Pele to Manchester United
Pele is arguably the greatest player to have never played in Europe. The legend that is Pele never had any desires to play for anyone but Santos. This did not stop many from trying to persuade him to leave though.
In the late 1960’s, Manchester United came calling. And they kept calling in the hope that they could convince the superstar to link up with the likes of George Best and Bobby Charlton. Pele’s love for Santos was too strong and he rejected every advance from United and any other giant within the game. Pele, Best, Charlton and Law. No team would have relished facing that quartet.
Rivaldo to Bolton Wanderers
In 2004, Wanderers nearly pulled off a major transfer coup. Former Footballer of the Year and Brazilian superstar Rivaldo really was in advanced talks to joining Bolton. After leaving Milan, he had a brief and unsuccessful spell back home with Cruzeiro. Sam Allardyce, then Bolton’s manager, made his move.
According to representatives then at the club, an offer was made and the star was thinking over the move. Rivaldo had desires to regain his place in the Brazil national side, and playing in Europe’s top league may help that cause. However, money and not football matters allegedly became a stumbling block. After around a month of thinking, which included talking to various other clubs, including clubs in Qatar, the Brazilian ended up in Greece.
The Brazilian went on to star for the likes of Olympiacos and AEK Athens while in Greece. He wound up his career playing for several clubs including São Paulo in his native Brazil. This episode did not endear him to many in Bolton. After battling relegation, Rivaldo stated that if he signed he had ideas of taking the club into Europe. As it happens they didn’t need him. Wanderers finished sixth and qualified for the UEFA Cup. Rivaldo has also stated in recent years that he turned down moves to Manchester United and Liverpool.