Over the last 20 years, England has been truly privileged to witness the talents of some of the most accomplished footballers in recent memory, as they plied their trade in the Premier League.
The likes of Eric Cantona, Gianfranco Zola, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Cristiano Ronaldo are widely considered to be amongst the greatest foreigners ever to have played in the Premier League, and will forever be remembered for their ethereal skills, awe-inspiring auras and the indelible marks which they left on their respective clubs and the league as a whole.
The Premier League will consider itself richer for having witnessed these players’ illustrious careers.
However, the fact remains that the appetites of football fans around the world will likely never be sated, and people will always ask of their fellow football fanatics and historians: “What if?”. “What if the godly Diego Maradona had joined Arsenal from Boca Juniors all those years ago?”, “What if Dave Whelan had bought Manchester United when he had the chance?”, “What if Baggio and Baresi hadn’t missed their penalties in 1994?”, “What if Messi had been born in the 60s? Would he have been the player he is today?” ….. The list is endless, the possibilities are infinite.
This article takes a look at a particularly intriguing “what if”, and reminisces about five transfers of world-class footballers to Premier League clubs that almost happened and–had they taken place–would have changed the face of the Premier League forever.
5) Andrea Pirlo to Chelsea, 2009-2011
By his own admission, the legendary Italian midfielder had all but agreed to follow Carlo Ancelotti to English giants Chelsea after his contract with AC Milan had expired in 2010.
After Ancelotti led Chelsea to Premier League and FA Cup success in his first season in charge at Stamford Bridge, he resumed his attempts to coax the midfield maestro into leaving Italy after his contract with Milan had expired, but Rossoneri president Silvio Berlusconi convinced Pirlo to give the club another season.
Pirlo joined fallen Italian giants Juventus at the start of the 2011-2012 season, and in his two seasons in Turin so far, he has won numerous accolades and awards on both a personal front and as part of a rejuvenated Juve squad. Pirlo has defied the limitations of his advanced years by being the main man for both club and country, and has established himself as one of the world’s best creative midfielders, even at the age of 34.
On the other hand, in the two years since Ancelotti’s departure, Chelsea have fallen well behind their rivals in the Premier League, despite winning two European titles.
Chelsea will only wonder what might have been had they managed to acquire the services of the magical Italian. A midfield of Lampard, Essien, Pirlo and Michael Ballack behind the offensive talent of Didier Drogba would have been scary to behold, and Chelsea could have provided a much stronger challenge to the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City in the race for the Premier League title.
4) Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Arsenal, 1998
Looking back at the fantastic career that Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has enjoyed, having played for the likes of Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain and won innumerable trophies, it seems obvious that Arsenal missed out on a truly special player when they failed to sign up the then-16-year-old striker after he refused to train with the first team without first signing a permanent contract with the club, saying, “Zlatan doesn’t do trials”.
Arsene Wenger had been told by his scouts to watch the young striker, but was met with a display of self-confidence from the Swede that would go on to become typical of the player.
Wenger has since gone on to say that he couldn’t have possibly complied with the striker’s demands and signed him without so much as a glimpse of his abilities, and does not regret missing out on Ibrahimovic, but this seems a tad hard to believe, seeing as Arsenal have not won a trophy since 2005, while Ibrahimovic won eight league titles in a row between 2003 and 2011.
One only shudders to imagine the likes of Ibrahimovic and Arsenal legends Henry and Bergkamp lining up in the same team. The prospect of the Swede playing during and after the era of the ‘Invincibles’ of 2003-2004 is one on which Arsenal fans will reflect with more than a slight tinge of regret, as Ibrahimovic would have offered the club a whole different level of firepower to that which the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Nicklas Bendtner and Eduardo did.
The 21st century has seen Arsenal initially thrive as the dominant footballing power in England, before subsequently losing some of its aura of invincibility and falling behind the growing powers of Chelsea and Manchester City in the race to challenge Manchester United on a consistent basis. With Ibrahimovic in an Arsenal jersey, who knows, the Premier League might have been different in terms of the distribution of titles than it is today.
3) Kaka to Manchester City, 2008-2009
Manchester City had showed the world their ambition for immediate success as, backed by Sheikh Mansour’s billions, they wasted no time in spending a then-club record fee of £32.5 million on Brazilian striker Robinho. Showing no intentions of faltering in their pursuit of the world’s best players, they were quickly linked with some of the best players in the world, but even they probably knew that the lure of all the money in the world would not have been enough to convince Cristiano Ronaldo and Fernando Torres to leave historic clubs like United and Liverpool.
Which is why City targeted AC Milan’s former World Player of the Year, Kaka. City offered Milan a transfer fee that -standing in at £100 million -emphatically eclipsed the then-world record amount of £46 million that Madrid had paid for Zinedine Zidane in 2002. Milan had to serious consider the offer, seeing as it would have completely erased the club’s debt and then filled its coffers in preparation for a rebuilding process of the squad.
However, Silvio Berlusconi ended up resisting the offer, deciding to convince his star midfielder to stay at the San Siro. The player himself never seriously considered the mammoth 500,000-pounds-a-week salary offer, choosing to remain at Milan, where he had become a firm fan-favourite.
Mark Hughes’ early Manchester City team boasted the offensive talents of Robinho, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Craig Bellamy, Elano and Stephen Ireland, but Kaka would have been a massive step up from these players in terms of quality, and -had he signed with the club- would possibly have led the side to Premier League glory much earlier than Mancini, Aguero, Silva and Co. did in 2012.
Also, having the likes of Torres, Ronaldo, Rooney, Gerrard and then Kaka playing in the same league could have firmly established the Premier League as the best in Europe, and the perfect destination for the top players in the world, unlike the situation that we have seen over the last few years, where Barcelona and Real Madrid have emerged as the two top destinations for the world’s finest.
Imagine a team that boasted the likes of the imperious Kaka, the monstrous Yaya Toure, the mighty Vincent Kompany and the irrepressible Aguero.
A feast for the senses, a team truly worthy of challenging Manchester United for the Premier League title. Who knows what might have been.
2) Zinedine Zidane to Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United, 1995 &1996
We’ve already mentioned some of the greatest players to have graced the Premier League, and talked about some world class performers who never did, but it is a downright shame that the best player of the last 20 years, and one of the greatest of all time, Zinedine Zidane, never played for a Premier League side.
Then-Blackburn boss Kenny Dalglish had grand plans for the club after leading them to the Premier League title in the 1994-1995 season, and wanted to sign Bordeaux duo Zidane and Christophe Dugarry, but was met by this response from chairman and club owner Jack Walker: “Why do you want to sign Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?”. While this gaffe can be put down to ignorance on the part of Walker, what happened a year later can only be described as absurd.
Newcastle United were offered Zidane for a fee of £1.2 million, but decided upon watching the 24-year-old that he wasn’t good enough for the First Division (the second tier of English league football).
As we all know, Zidane went on to play in two World Cup finals, won the World Player of the Year award thrice, the UEFA Champions League once, and also won innumerable individual accolades.
The Frenchman is widely considered to be one of the most technically skilled players of all time. Had he joined Blackburn, who knows, maybe the club’s league-winning squad might have resisted being split up so quickly, and the club wouldn’t have been relegated in 1998-1999.
Zidane and Shearer lining up together in the Premier League would undoubtedly have been a stunning sight for neutral fans to behold, and Newcastle could have maintained a stronger challenge for the league title under Kevin Keegan. While these are all “ifs” and “buts”, one thing that can be said for sure is that had Zizou made the move to either Rovers or Newcastle, a move to a bigger club would soon have followed for the supremely talented midfielder.
Any takers for a midfield of Keane, Scholes and Zidane at Old Trafford? Or how about the likes of Zidane, Pires, Bergkamp and Henry playing together under Arsene Wenger at Highbury?
These are questions that will never be answered, but that only makes the consideration of the possibilities they suggest all the more intriguing. The sight of Zinedine Zidane in the Premier League is one that most of us would have welcomed with open arms, but thanks to a couple of atrocious errors of judgment, England missed out on the greatest footballer in recent memory.
1) Ronaldinho to Manchester United, 2003
The peerless, incomparable Zidane has rarely finished second on any list, but despite me being the biggest fan of Zizou, I couldn’t help but reserve top spot for the magical, incandescently brilliant Ronaldinho and the move to Manchester United that almost happened.
It was always going to be between Paris Saint-Germain’s attacking-midfielder Ronaldinho and Sporting Lisbon’s exciting teenage winger Cristiano Ronaldo as Sir Alex Ferguson sought to replace the Real Madrid-bound David Beckham. In hindsight, United’s decision to recruit the latter for a fee of £12.5 million paid off handsomely, as Ronaldo went on to become a club legend despite spending just six years in Manchester.
One can’t help but wonder what might have been had they opted to increase their bid of £21 million for the World Cup winner who first made a name for himself with that outrageous free kick against England in 2002.
Although no one could have possibly predicted the dizzying heights that Ronaldinho would go on to scale at Barcelona, winning two consecutive La Liga titles (2004-2005, 2005-2006), one UEFA Champions League (2005-2006), two Spanish Super Cups (2005, 2006) and two FIFA World Player of the Year awards (2004, 2005), it is fair to say that he would have contributed immense quality to a United team that did not win a single Premier League title in the three years immediately following Beckham’s departure.
Cristiano Ronaldo was just 18 when he joined United, and (arguably) did not make a serious impact on the Premier League title race between United, Chelsea and Arsenal till the 2006-2007 season, but if Ronaldinho had had his say, United probably wouldn’t have suffered that barren spell between 2003 and 2006.
A move to United would perhaps have been the best for the player as well, as the watchful tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson would probably have ironed out the player’s tendency to visit night clubs on a regular basis, and this might have added a few more years to the career of arguably the most naturally-talented player of his generation. Ronaldinho could captivate audiences of 80,000 with a single deft touch or skilful flick, and Old Trafford would certainly have enjoyed every display of jaw-dropping genius from the iconic Brazilian. Maybe in another universe, Ronaldinho and Manchester United would have been perfect for each other.
So there you have it. Five world-class footballers who could so easily have joined Premier League clubs had it not been for a combination of loyalty, an unforgivable lack of judgment and the bullish attitude of a 16-year-old future taekwondo champion.