We recently compiled a list of former soccer stars now plying their trade in the rapidly emerging Chinese Super League, which has really laid down a marker for developing soccer leagues during the January transfer window, with a number of lucrative and high-profile signings. In the article, we outlined that the other two regions that have embarked on similar projects in recent years were in the US and in the Arabian Peninsular.
Given that most readers will be well-aware of the stars who have swapped Europe or South America for the states and the MLS, but many may be less in the know with regards to those who have headed to soccer’s third emerging force, it made sense to cast our eyes to the soccer stars in that part of the world. The Arabian Peninsular consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen, but in truth, it is only Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE that have really made any strides in terms of their soccer leagues.
These incredibly wealthy nations have targeted soccer as a way of promoting their countries on more than just a sporting level in recent years, best exemplified by Qatar’s lucrative and highly controversial winning bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Some of you may be aware that these players were playing in this part of the world, but a number are likely to come as a shock to even big soccer fans. Here are the top 20 soccer stars you didn’t know were playing in the Arabian Peninsular:
20. Sergio Garcia
A product of the famed La Masia academy at Barcelona, Sergio Garcia is a talented Spanish forward who represented his country at every level from under-16s to the senior team. Garcia was with Barcelona for a decade, but despite a better than 1 in 2 goal scoring record for Barcelona B, he played only nine games for the clubs first team. Moves to Zaragoza, Betis and Espanyol followed, and Garcia was considered a very decent La Liga player, and was even part of Spain’s victorious Euro 2008 squad. In 2015 though, aged 31, Garcia left Spain for an unlikely destination, when he joined Qatari side Al-Rayan SC. He has since scored 11 goals from 17 appearances.
19. Yannick Sagbo
Born in Marseille of Ivorian descent, Yannick Sagbo first made the grade with Monaco. He played 19 games for the club before joining Evian in eastern France. With Evian, Sagbo played and scored in the 2013 Coup de France final as Evian lost 3-2. Months later, he joined the Premier League, signing for newly-promoted Hull City. By the end of that season he had reached another domestic cup final, the FA Cup final, losing 3-2 once more, this time to Arsenal. Sagbo scored a total of 4 goals in 43 games in England. In the summer of 2015, the Ivorian international turned down offers from France, Morocco and Turkey to join Qatari Stars League outfit Umm Salal SC.
18. Luis Jimenez
Former Chilean international Luis Jimenez has won 26 caps for his country and played in two Copa Americas. He moved to Italy aged 18, and spent the next nine years playing in Serie A and B with Ternana, Fiorentina, Lazio, Inter Milan, Parma and Cesana. His only time away from Italy between 2002 and 2011 was a brief loan move to the Premier League with West Ham in 2009. The attacking midfielder left Italy in 2011, joining Dubai-based UAE Arabian Gulf League outfit Al-Ahli Dubai FC, where in 4 years, he scored 40 goals in 80 games, winning 5 trophies. In the summer of 2015, Jimenez joined Dubai rivals Al-Nasr Dubai SC, where he has since played 15 games and scored 6 goals.
17. Nadir Belhadj
A former Premier League player with Portsmouth, Nadir Belhadj is a former Algerian international, noted for his versatility and athleticism. Born in France, Belhadj played for the likes of Lens and Lyon in Ligue 1, before spending two seasons in the Premier League with Portsmouth, the first on-loan and the second as a permanent signing. He left Pompey in 2010 following their financial demise, joining Qatari club Al Sadd SC. The move lost him his place in the Algeria setup, but in five-and-a-half years in Doha, Belhadj has played 126 games for Al Sadd, scoring 19 goals and winning 6 trophies.
16. Jorge Valdivia
The second Chilean international to make this list, Jorge Valdivia has been a regular for his country since making his debut over a decade ago. Considered a legend of Chilean football and one of the countries greatest ever players, Valdivia has won 73 caps for his country, and was instrumental in their shock 2015 Copa America title. Although Valdivia has only played very briefly in Europe, his starring role for Chile at a number of major international tournaments has made him fairly well-known. He is currently in his second spell in the Arabian Peninsular, the first came with Al Ain, and the current is also in Abu Dhabi, this time starring for Al-Wahda FC. He has played a total of 59 games in the region over two spells, scoring 22 goals.
15. Everton Ribeiro
A name known to most due to his persistent transfer links with Europe’s elite over a period spanning around 18 months. The pacy and tricky Brazilian capable of playing as either a winger or an attacking midfielder was linked with a whole host of Europe’s biggest teams, particularly AC Milan, Manchester United and Monaco, before ultimately joining Al-Ahli Dubai FC of the UAE Gulf League. A Brazilian international at the time, aged only 25, Ribeiro was immediately dropped and hasn’t been capped by his country since the move, but is reportedly on a very handsome wage packet. Since joining Al-Ahli, Ribeiro has scored 8 goals in 26 appearances.
14. Modibo Maiga
The second former West Ham player to make this list, Modibo Maiga had become something of a figure of ridicule by the end of his three years at the Boleyn Ground. Loaned out twice, first to QPR and then to Metz, Maiga only actually played 45 games for the Hammers, scoring 7 goals in that time. Before moving to West Ham, Maiga had become a regular in Ligue 1 for a number of teams, and despite being linked with a move back after his time at West Ham came to an end, the Mali international chose to take his career in a different direction, joining Saudi Arabian side Al-Nassr FC, where the 28-year-old has since scored 2 goals from 12 appearances.
13. Ruben Amorim
Ruben Amorim is a 31-year-old Portuguese midfielder. Gifted on the ball with an eye for a pass, Amorim spent 12 years playing in the Portuguese Primeira Liga with Belenenses and Benfica, as well as a season on-loan at Braga. A very capable all-round midfielder, Amorim won 10 trophies in seven years at Benfica, and a further one whilst on-loan at Braga. He made over 150 appearances for the Portuguese giants, as well as winning 14 caps for Portugal and representing his country at two World Cups. In 2015, aged 30, Amorim shocked many by making a surprise move away from Portugal and Europe, joining Qatari outfit Al-Wakrah Sport Club on a season-long loan from Benfica.
12. Moussa Sow
Prolific forward Moussa Sow has been one of Europe’s leading marksmen for some time now, although he has never played in the Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga. French-born, Sow scored 31 goals in 54 games for Lille in Ligue 1, before making a move to Turkish giants Fenerbahce. He continued his impressive record in the Turkish capital, scoring 52 goals in 107 games for Fener, winning 4 trophies in 3 years. In 2015, aged 29, few clubs in Europe would have turned their noses up at the Senegal international, but when a big-money move from UAE side Al-Ahli Dubai came in, it was too good to resist apparently, and the former France under-21 international has scored 5 goals in 12 games since the transfer went through.
11. Hugo Viana
Another Portuguese international midfielder, and Hugo Viana is of even higher reputation than that of Amorim. A product of the simply excellent Sporting Lisbon academy, Viana went on to play for Newcastle, Valencia, Osasuna and Braga, winning 29 caps in a highly competitive Portugal midfield in the process. In 2013, Viana left Braga, joining Al-Ahli Dubai, much like Jimenez, Ribeiro and Sow on this list before him. However, after two years, in which time he played 29 games, Viana swapped Al-Ahli for fellow Dubai-based outfit Al-Wasl FC, who were formally managed by Diego Maradona; he has since played 23 games for the club.
10. Chico Flores
A familiar face to fans of La Liga, Serie A or Premier League football in recent years, as Chico Flores has played in all three leagues very recently. He played in La Liga with Cadiz, Almeria and Mallorca, playing in Serie A with Genoa and most recently the Premier League with Swansea City, where he spent two years playing under Michael Laudrup. Despite being only 27 when he left Swansea, and having faired quite well in England’s top flight, Flores chose to join Qatar Stars League club Lekhwiya SC, where he reunited with former Swansea boss Michael Laudrup. The former Spanish under-21 international scored on his debut and has, to date, scored 4 goals in 25 appearances.
9. Krisztian Nemeth
Liverpool fans will remember Hungarian forward Krisztian Nemeth, although perhaps not all that fondly, after he spent three years at Anfied between 2007 and 2010, although he barely ever broke into a match day squad. Nemeth is also someone who will be known by a number of US soccer fans, having spent a season in the MLS with Sporting Kansas City after a number of failed European moves. The Hungarian scored 10 goals in 28 games for Sporting KC, even picking up the MLS Goal of the Year Award, but was soon on the move once more, this time joining Qatari side Al-Gharafa in January 2016, when he has made a flying start, scoring 3 goals in 2 games.
8. Vladimir Weiss
Very highly-rated as a youngster at Manchester City, Vladimir Weiss was widely expected to become a big part of the club’s first team one day, and perhaps would have if the club hadn’t started to splash their millions in the transfer market. The Slovakian international went from promising youngster to established pro to money grabbing mercenary in the eyes of many in barely the blink of an eye. Having failed to establish himself in the Premier League, Weiss had a very impressive 17 games at Olympiakos, and was once again being touted for greatness. But before the hype had barely begun, Weiss joined Qatari side Lekhwiya SC, and after scoring 20 goals in 43 games from the wing, he joined Al-Ghafara in January 2016, where he will now play alongside the aforementioned Krisztian Nemeth.
7. Royston Drenthe
Nothing should surprise us in the bizarre world which is the career of Royston Drenthe, one might not blink twice should his next move be to a club in North Korea or on the moon. The once-star of the 2007 Euro under-21 Championships was bought for well in advance of $20 million by Real Madrid at the age of 20. Six years later he couldn’t get a game for Reading in the Championship and two years after that he found himself in the Turkish second division. The next step was inevitably a move to the Arabian Peninsular, and the former Dutch wonderkid did not disappoint, joining Emirati outfit Baniyas Club of the UAE Gulf League in September 2015.
6. Brett Holman
Part of the so-called Australian ‘Golden Generation’ of the decade between 2004 and 2014, Brett Holman won 63 caps for his country, scoring 9 goals, appearing in one World Cup and scoring in it. Holman moved from Australia to Holland at the age of 18, and stayed there for the next 10 years, playing for Feyenoord, Excelsior, NEC and AZ Alkmaar, winning a famous league and cup double with AZ in 2009. He spent a season in the Premier League with Aston Villa before making a drastic departure from Europe, joining Al-Nasr Dubai SC in 2013, where he played 50 games and scored 8 goals. Holman was on the move once more in 2015, but remained in the UAE, joining Emirates Club.
5. Kenwyne Jones
Kenwyne Jones joined Southampton in 2004 as a Premier League player, but the Saints were quickly relegated, and in 2007, he moved on, remaining in the Premier League, by signing for Sunderland. In total, Jones spent 11 seasons in England, 7 of those in the Premier League. He became known for his power, strength and aerial presence. He scored a total of 105 goals in 376 appearances in England, and is still on the books at Cardiff City. The Trinidadian international who has 73 caps to his name and is still going strong, joined UAE side Al Jazira Club in January 2016 in a loan deal until the end of the season.
A player Arsene Wenger was particularly fond of, the tidy Brazilian midfielder made over 150 appearances for the Gunners under the Frenchman’s watchful eye. Denilson played for Arsenal between 2006 and 2013, although he did spent the last two years of his contract on-loan at Sao Paolo, the club where he first made the grade coming through their academy. Known for his ball retention and passing abilities, Denilson returned to Sao Paolo on a permanent transfer in 2013, but left his boyhood club in the summer of 2015, aged 27, also heading to the UAE Gulf League, in his case joining Al-Wahda FC.
Brazilian striker Nilmar has had an up-and-down career at times, often flattering to deceive and he never became the truly world class player many felt he could, but no-one can deny his undoubted ability with a ball at his feet. He has played for Lyon and Villarreal in Europe, as well as a number of top Brazilian sides, and has always had roughly a 1 in 3 goal scoring rate. He made his Brazil debut at 19, and has won 23 caps for his country, scoring 8 goals.
Injuries disrupted his career and took their toll on his once explosive pace, and in 2012 he signed for Qatari sports club Al Rayyan, he later played for El Jaish, before a brief return to Brazil but in the summer of 2015 he returned to the Arabian Peninsular, putting pen to paper on a new deal with UAE Gulf League side Al-Nasr Dubai, he has scored 9 goals in 17 games since sealing the move.
2. Sulley Muntari
Sulley Muntari was an integral part of Inter Milan’s team that won a famous and historic treble in 2010, winning the domestic league and cup double as well as the Champions League, becoming the first Italian side to ever win all three in a single season. Muntari spent 4 years with Inter, and also played for Udinese, Portsmouth, Sunderland and AC Milan, before making his move to the Arabian Peninsular. It must be said, Muntari, who has won 83 caps for Ghana, had seen his stock fall dramatically since that 2010 treble when he joined Saudi Premier League side Ittihad FC in 2015. He has played 11 games and scored one goal since moving to Saudi Arabia.
An easy choice for top spot, by far the most high-profile playing in the Arabian Peninsular right now is Barcelona and Spain legend Xavi. One of the finest players of his generation and one of the finest passers and most intelligent players to have ever graced a football pitch, his move to Qatar was his first away from Barcelona. He joined the La Masia academy at the age of 11, and spent the next 24 years playing for the Catalan giants, in which time he played 767 games, scored 85 goals and won 25 trophies, including 8 La Liga titles and four Champions League trophies.
Xavi also had immense success on the international stage, winning 133 caps for his country, scoring 13 goals, and playing a pivotal role in their Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 successes. In May 2015, having won a fourth Champions League trophy in his parting game, Xavi joined Qatari club Al Sadd, where he accepted an ambassadorial role for Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup. The 36-year-old has played 13 games and scored 2 goals since moving to Qatar.
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