A player being bigger than a club is an idea that will be immediately rejected by some. An individual who thinks they're 'bigger than the club' is a phrase which has become far more prominent thanks to Sir Alex Ferguson, who often used those words or similar to justify the sale of a major player with a supposed ego problem. Whilst Manchester United are one of the biggest clubs on the planet, and no player is bigger than that club, that is not always the case with lesser sides.
In some cases, the player is genuinely bigger than the club. This list is a collection of the 15 most glaring cases of exactly that. It counts only players who spent a significant amount at a club - at least two seasons - thus ruling out examples such as Socrates at Garforth Town or Paul Gascoigne at Boston United. The list includes some of the greatest and best known players of all time, as well as some who are far less well-known, that is because the list accounts for the relationship between the respective size of the player and the club.
'Bigger' does not have an absolute or concrete meaning within the world of football, and as such, there could be some confusion. However, we have used the term 'bigger' largely to mean the global appeal, worldwide interest and recognition of either the player or club. It is also worth noting that the list relates only to when the player was at the club, it is not to say the players time at the club eclipsed that of their entire history. Here are the top 15 soccer players who are/were bigger than their clubs:
15 Alessandro Del Piero - Sydney FC
An Italy and Juventus legend, Alessandro Del Piero is widely regarded as one of the finest players of his generation and one of the greatest Italian footballers of all time. A second striker/deep-lying forward, Del Piero is the joint second highest scoring Italian footballer in history. A Serie A, Champions League and World Cup winner, Del Piero joined Sydney FC from Juventus in 2012 as a marquee signing. Other marquee signings for the club include Dwight Yorke and Juninho Paulista, but neither are on the same scale as Del Piero, who scored 24 goals in 48 games in Australia for the 12 year old club.
14 Matt Le Tissier - Southampton
Southampton are a club of decent stature, having won the FA Cup once in their history and having a sizeable fanbase. However, over the years in which Matt Le Tissier played for the club, the languid forward was bigger than the club itself. Essentially a one-club man, Le Tissier spent 14 years playing as an attacking midfielder on the south coast and is the fifth highest scoring midfielder in Premier League history. One of the most technically gifted players in the league's history, the Englishman had a multitude of opportunities to join so-called 'bigger' clubs but remained at Southampton.
13 Zico - Kashima Antlers
Nicknamed the 'white Pele', Zico was a marvellous footballer who had it all; skill, vision, goals and he was also one of the finest passers of a ball the game has ever seen. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many considered him the most talented player on the planet. Zico spent the majority of his career and his best years playing for Flamengo in Brazil, but in 1991, aged 38, he headed to Japan, where he signed for Kashima Antlers.
He went on to spend three years at the club as a player, scoring 35 goals in 45 games from midfield, before managing the team and consequently the Japanese national team in the 2002 World Cup. Zico wasn't only bigger than the Antlers when he joined the club, he was bigger than Japanese football itself, and went on to change the face of the sport on the continent.
12 Raich Carter - Hull City
Up until 2008, Hull City had never reached the top flight of English football, but that hadn't stopped them from having one of the true greats of the English game grace their team. Rich Carter was considered one of the best players in the world both shortly before and after WWII, and although he was 35 when he joined Hull City, he was still a superstar of his era. 33,000 people witnessed his debut at Boothferry Park in an era that co-incided with Hull's highest ever crowds. Even the Tigers away games would see bumper crowds, with Second Division teams keen to see the England great in action. Carter went on to spend four years as Hull City's player/manager.
11 Samuel Eto'o - Anzhi Makchkalala
One of the greatest African footballers of all-time, Eto'o is in fact the most decorated African footballer in history. His list of honors include three La Liga titles, one Serie A title and three Champions Leagues. When Eto'o left Inter Milan for Anzhi Makhachkala, he was widely regarded as one of the finest strikers in the world. Although the deal, completed in August 2011 made Eto'o the highest paid player in the world, most were still shocked he made the move to the wealthy Russian minnows.
Anzhi are not a major club, not even in Russia, where they have never won a league title or a cup, and Eto'o was certainly bigger than the club in the two years he spent there.
10 Sir Stanley Matthews - Stoke & Blackpool
Not even the lure of seeing modern day stars such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo can compare to the sense of excitement and anticipation which surrounded seeing the great Stanley Matthews live, in the era before games were globally televised. The fact that Stoke and Blackpool were both good teams during Matthew's day means he ranks no higher than tenth, but even alongside Neil Franklin at Stoke or Stan Mortensen at Blackpool, whichever team Matthews graced, he was always the star and by some distance too. Games involving Matthews, like Carter but to an even greater extent, always saw bumper crowds, he was the biggest footballing superstar of his day.
9 Thierry Henry - New York Red Bulls
Arguably the greatest player of the Premier League era and both the French national team and Arsenal's all-time record goal scorer, Thierry Henry is unsurprisingly the biggest name in history to have played for the New York Red Bulls. Founded in 1995 as the MetroStars but known as the NY Red Bulls since 2006, the team based in the big apple are far from titans of the world game. Henry meanwhile was a major coup for the club, a star of the modern game with a worldwide appeal, and was certainly bigger than the club when he signed from Barcelona in 2010.
8 Pele - Santos & New York Cosmos
There is no shame in being smaller than Pele, arguably the greatest player in the sport's history and now a global ambassador of the beautiful game, a phrase he popularized, Pele is one of the most recognizable faces in world sport. Some would take issue with describing Pele as bigger than Santos, who are a fine club steeped in history and the joint most successful in Brazil. However, in the 18 years Pele spent in a magnificent Brazil team, he was undoubtedly always the star, and his worldwide appeal was on another level. Santos made a fortune touring the world, and their USP - more than being a great team - was Pele.
At New York Cosmos, a significantly smaller team who had almost no history at that time, Pele was without doubt bigger than the club.
7 Diego Maradona - Napoli
Similarly to Pele, being smaller than Diego Maradona in footballing terms is a little like being smaller than Michael Jordan in basketball terms - no great shame. The Argentine maestro took centre stage in every team he ever graced, including the Argentine national team, but none more so than at Napoli. While Napoli certainly are a big club, they were never a successful club, before the arrival of El Diego that is.
In seven years, Maradona transformed the club from mid table obscurity to two-time league champions and even UEFA Cup winners. Not many clubs were bigger than Maradona in the 1980s, and Napoli were no exception.
6 Giorgio Chinaglia - New York Cosmos
The second New York Cosmos player to make this list, the five-time NASL champions were no stranger to a marquee signing, with Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto being other blockbuster examples. While commercially and globally Pele was certainly the biggest, none had a greater impact on the pitch itself than Giorgio Chinaglia.
The fiery Italian known for his combative style of play, large ego and confidence in his own ability spent seven years in America with the Cosmos, scoring 193 goals in 213 games, before having the number 9 shirt retired by the club upon his retirement. Chinaglia was bigger than the Cosmos and revelled in it, particularly how untouchable it made him at the club.
5 Asamoah Gyan - Al Ain
A quick and skilful forward with an eye for goal, Asamoah Gyan gained worldwide recognition for his performances for Ghana at the 2010 World Cup. He moved to the Premier League with Sunderland shortly after, but after only 34 league games, his ambition seemed to have been thwarted somewhat. A huge contract was waved in front of him by Abu Dhabi-based Al Ain and Gyan was on his way. He scored 128 goals in 74 games for the club, playing at a really poor level which was quite clearly below him for four years.
Aged 30, Gyan joined Shanghai SIPG for an even bigger deal worth $330,000 a week. Gyan is bigger than both clubs, but particularly the UAE-based side, whom are relative minnows on the international stage.
4 Jose Andrade - Nacional & Penarol
Not too indifferent to that of Matthews, Maradona and Pele, in that Andrade was a worldwide superstar playing in still a fairly large club. Nacional and Penarol are in fact by far the two biggest clubs in Uruguay, but they were both dwarfed by the worldwide celebrity and appeal that was Jose Andrade. Ever since the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris Andrade had been considered the greatest player in the world, and both Nacional and Penarol were able to have lucrative tours of Europe as fans clamoured to see the 'Black Marvel', as he was known, in action.
3 Magico Gonzalez - Cadiz
Few clubs are as synonymous with a single player as Cadiz are with Magico Gonzalez. It is a testament to the player's global celebrity that even today, almost a quarter of a century since he played for the club, that Gonzalez is still more famous himself than the current Spanish third tier side. Cadiz have spent a total of 12 seasons in their history in the top flight, seven came whilst Gonzalez was at the club.
By far the club's greatest ever player, before the arrival of Diego Maradona at Barcelona, Cadiz were the most watched team to tour the United States in the 1980s, despite the team themselves being largely uninspiring, such was the appeal and excitement in witnessing the skill and ability of the Salvadoran forward.
2 David Beckham - L.A. Galaxy
David Beckham was specifically signed due to his incredible fame and superstardom in an attempt to validate the MLS, give it increased global attraction and lead to an upsurge in interest in soccer throughout the U.S. Whether or not that worked is a matter that is still hotly debated, but the former Manchester United man certainly had an impact on the league. Supporters flocked to see the man who captained the English national team for six years, and few could argue that Beckham - the most famous footballer on the planet - wasn't bigger than the then 12-year-old L.A. Galaxy.
1 Phil Younghusband - Loyola Meralco Sparks
It might seem laughable that the relatively unknown Phil Younghusband ranks higher than one of the most famous sportsmen of all time in David Beckham, but in terms of the relative size of the player and club, no-one compares to Phil Younghusband at Loyola Meralco Sparks. Phil and his older brother James both came through the Chelsea FC academy, but never broke into the Premier League champions first team. Having seemingly failed to establish themselves within the English game, the pair began to give up on their hopes of becoming professional footballers.
Until being thrown a lifeline by the country of their mothers birth that is, namely the Philippines. Both brothers signed for Loyola Meralco Sparks in 2011, where Phil in particular has gone on to have quite unprecedented success. He scored 7 goals in a 15-1 win on his debut, rather setting the tone for what has followed. The Sparks, who were only founded in 2006 and play in a stadium which seats only 2,000 people, have nowhere near the appeal and celebrity of Younghusband, who is now a hero in the Philippines thanks to his achievements with the national team.