Earlier in the week I covered imports, today I’m looking at players who left South America for Europe and had a lasting impression. Again the list isn’t constricted to those who simply won the most individual or collective awards. It includes players who had a big impact on their club(s) with the standard of football, passion and entertainment they brought to European shores. It includes those who crossed the ocean and achieved something unique. Remember if you don’t agree, give me your Top Ten below – the only rule is that they had to have been born and played in South America (e.g. Conmebol) before moving to play in Europe. Enjoy!
10. Ruben Sosa (Uruguay) – Real Zaragoza, Lazio, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Logroñés
The Uruguayan frontman was a childhood favourite of mine for his aeroplane celebration that I used to copy in my garden. But sentiment aside he was a success wherever he went in Europe. He departed Danubio aged 19 to play for Real Zaragoza and scored a deflected free kick in the final of the 1986 edition of the Copa Del Rey against Barcelona. His second trophy was secured in Italy while playing for Inter Milan who he joined after four seasons at Lazio. There he finished the 1993/94 season as Inter’s leading goalscorer and as they won the UEFA Cup. In 1995 Sosa moved north to Germany to play under Ottmar Hitzfeld at Borussia Dortmund. In his first season he helped them successfully defend their Bundesliga crown sharing attacking duties with Karl-Heinz Riedle and Stephane Chapuisat. Ruben Sosa may not be a household name but he had a knack of scoring when it mattered and winning things – a pretty useful combination.
9. Marcelo Salas (Chile) – Lazio, Juventus
When he controlled the ball his left foot seemed to caress it, when he shot at goal he seemed to murder it which is probably how Salas earned the nickname El Matador. Lazio signed him for 18 million dollars in 1998 with high expectations. The man from Temuco delivered in some style. In his first season he scored three times en route to the last ever Cup Winner’s Cup Final which Lazio duly won. Earlier that season the Biancazzurri won their only other European trophy to date; the UEFA Super Cup. Salas was also Lazio’s top scorer in the league as the club finished a remarkable second. The following season he went one better, once again Lazio’s leading goalscorer but this time they won the Scudetto for only the second time in their 110 year history. Victory in the Coppa Italia against Inter Milan secured an unprecedented double. At Juventus Salas picked up two Serie A titles but played little part in the campaign due to injury. It doesn’t matter – he earned his place on this list for his astonishing achievements at Lazio.
8. Mario Kempes (Argentina) – Valencia, Hércules, First Vienna, St. Pölten, Kremser SC
Only one foreign-based player was named in the 1978 Argentina World Cup squad, that was Valencia’s Mario Kempes. Signed from Rosario Central in 1976 the striker spent 7 years at Los Che (interrupted by a two-year stint at River Plate) and although Valencia didn’t win a league title it wasn’t for a lack of Kempes’ goals. His trademark left-foot raspers from outside the box were often seen at La Mestalla. Kempes made sure he didn’t return empty-handed to his homeland. Back-to-back Pichichi winner in 1977 and 1978, Copa Del Rey in 1979, scoring both goals to defeat Real Madrid, and both the Cup Winner’s Cup and UEFA Super Cup in 1980. El Matador finished with 116 goals in 185 games before leaving for Hércules and then Austria.
7. Cafu (Brazil) – Real Zaragoza, Roma, Milan
Cafu started his European adventure in Spain with Real Zaragoza before heading back to Brazil. By the time he arrived at Roma in 1997 he was 27 but it was by no means too late for Cafu to make an impact. Adored by the fans for his relentless running, never-say-die attitude and flashes of skill that contributed to their first league title for 18 years in 2001. He moved north to Milan two years later and won another Serie A title before finally getting his hands on the Champions League at the ripe old age of 37. He was a consistent performer, revered at Roma and in a AC Milan shirt he proved that age is no barrier. He isn’t even the highest right back on this list but he received one of the best endorsements a full back can ever hope for, a compliment that sums him up perfectly. “I remember Cafu who was up and down the touchline at 38 – it was like the guy had two hearts.” commented Sir Alex Ferguson in a recent interview.
6. Rivaldo (Brazil) – Deportivo La Coruña, Barcelona, AC Milan, Olympiakos, AEK Athens
By today’s standards Rivaldo arrived in Europe a little late. He was 24 when he was transferred from Palmeiras to Deportivo La Coruña, but the midfielder didn’t waste anytime in making his mark. 22 goals in 46 games earned him a transfer the next season to Barcelona for a mind-boggling 4000 million pesetas! In his debut season with the Blaugrana he secured a league and cup double. When he won La Liga for the second time in 1999 his individual contribution was also rewarded, becoming only the third South American to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award. Even when Barcelona were struggling he came to their rescue with an unforgettable goal of breathtaking skill that secured Champions League qualification. At Milan he spent a lot of time on the treatment table yet still won the Champions League, the one major trophy that had previously eluded him. He led Greek side Olympiakos to a hat trick of league titles from 2005-2007 before moving to Asia. Like Sosa a man who won things across Europe – Rivaldo just did it in more style.
5. Ronaldinho (Brazil) – Paris St. Germain, Barcelona, AC Milan
Aged 21, little Ronaldo, left his hometown club Gremio to play for Paris St.Germain. While the French club’s star continued to wane, Ronaldinho’s was shooting in the other direction. His individual performances led to a race between United and Barcelona for his signature and it was at the Nou Camp that Ronaldinho reached untouchable heights. At times he was simply unplayable, he would do things nobody had ever seen before, his now much-copied “flip-flap” trick was nothing compared to his reinterpretation of a “back pass”. Even at the very highest level he didn’t fail to produce, in the Champions League he danced in front of Chelsea before scoring and the next season he went to the Bernabeu and was so good he received a standing ovation from the home fans. Between 2004 and 2006 he won every major trophy on offer and was World Player of the Year two years running (only the 2nd person to achieve this). He has been unable to recapture this form at current club AC Milan and is yet to win a trophy there. This inability to match those Barcelona heights is the only reason he isn’t even higher in this list.
4. Diego Maradona (Argentina) – Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla
The Argentinian is a living legend for what he has achieved at both national and domestic level. After the 1982 World Cup Barcelona splashed out a world record fee of £5 million for a man who had lit up the Argentinian Primera División. First with Argentinos Juniors and then winning the championship with Boca Juniors. His two seasons with the Catalan giants were marred by disputes with the directors, illness and a broken leg from one of the most gruesome challenges of all time. Despite that Maradona left for Italy for another world record fee, three domestic trophies under his belt and a scoring record of 38 goals in 58 games. At Napoli he helped build the team (if you believe his autobiography) and after his triumphant return from the 1986 World Cup he led them through four glorious years. The club won the Coppa Italia, UEFA Cup and Serie A twice. To this day it remains their only major European trophy and league titles, none of which would have been possible without El Diego.
3. Javier Zanetti (Argentina) – Inter Milan
Another South American right-back, who plies his trade in Italy. Zanetti has made 700 appearances for Inter Milan since leaving Banfield for the Nerazzurri 1995, the most appearances by a non-Italian born player. His honours list is longer than Robin Hood’s criminal record, 5 Serie A titles, 3 Coppas Italia, 3 Italian Super Cups, a UEFA Cup and last season the Champions League to complete an unprecedented treble. He was captain of that treble-winning team, Mourinho made him play more matches in a season than he had ever previously played in his career (55 in total). But even at the age of 37 the Argentine didn’t let up in his consistently high performances that has earned him the undying respect of the fans who called him Il Trattore (The Tractor) for his stamina and spirit. Zanetti still has 3 years left on his contract as he embarks on his 16th season under Rafa Benitez, his 15th manager and undoubtedly the 15th manager to thank his lucky stars he has this man in his team.
2. Ronaldo (Brazil) – PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, AC Milan
If you thought Ronaldinho had a good three years in Europe how about this for size. Between 1994/95 and 1996/97 Ronaldo scored 76 league goals in 83 league games picking up three domestic cups, one continental trophy and becoming the first person ever to be named FIFA World Player of the Year for two consecutive years. Of course if you were to make it five years you can add a UEFA Cup and the goalscoring record remains imperious, 134 games yielded 115 goals. Serious knee injury kept Ronaldo out of the game for almost three seasons but he bounced back, leaving Milan for Real Madrid where he lived up to his nickname of the phenomenon. He netted 83 league goals in 127 games and was instrumental in winning La Liga in his first season. His individual success is unrivalled, he is the only player to have won the Pichchi trophy at both Barcelona and Real Madrid picking it up in 1997 and 2004. Along with Zinedine Zidane he is the only person to have been named FIFA World Player of the Year three times and arguably he is the only player to make Sir Bobby Robson react like this.
1. Alfredo di Stéfano(Argentina/Colombia) – Real Madrid, Espanyol
Di Stéfano was a huge success in Argentina and Colombia before he left to join Spanish giants Real Madrid in 1953. In the all white strip of Los Merengues he was an instant hit. In his first season he plundered 27 goals in 28 games to become the first non-Spaniard to win the Pichchi trophy and guide Real Madrid to the La Liga title. The Saeta Rubia won 7 more league titles at Madrid in his 11-year career scoring at least 10 league goals every season (even the 1962/63 campaign when he only made 13 appearances!). If that wasn’t enough he also had time to star in a film about his life. For 45 years he remained the club’s leading hitman until a certain Raúl González Blanco replaced him last year. Di Stéfano was also part of the Real Madrid set up that won the five consecutive European Champion’s Cups; utter continental dominance that has never been repeated. Alfredo di Stéfanois a South American whose success has never been repeated, which puts him at number 1 in this list.
This week was pretty hard to whittle down to 10 because there have been so many South Americans who have played in Europe in the last 60 years. Here is a quick nod to those who nearly made it.
Batistuta – Argentinian striker, a Fiorentina legend and natural goalscorer.
Romario – Brazilian forward, Barcelona hero and first South American to win World Player of the Year
Paolo Montero – Uruguayan hardman loved at Juventus for his no nonsense approach and 5 league titles.
Check back on Tuesday for a look at the Top Ten Goal Celebrations!