14 great players who left Europe too early: Neves, Oscar, Witsel, Carrasco…

When a player departs Europe for Major League Soccer or the Saudi Pro League, they may have reasonable justification for their decision, but the discourse surrounding the move always links back to money.

Stars past their peak will often see out their career in America or China, with the likes of David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Patrick Vieira and more following the American dream for one last paycheck. Fair enough.

However, when a player entering his prime decides to make the big-money switch, there is often disappointment.

Whilst these moves can be vital for the non-European leagues to boost their profile, seeing players capable of playing Champions League football depart early for a pay rise has fans regularly questioning their passion for the sport.

Players may have personal reasons for making such moves, and some later come to regret them. We’ve listed 12 stars who departed Europe when they still had a lot to offer at the higher levels.

Ruben Neves

Neves was widely expected to join a Champions League club in the summer of 2023 after a series of eye-catching seasons at Wolves, but decided to join the Saudi Pro League and Al-Hilal to many people’s disappointment.

He later admitted that the move to Saudi Arabia was partly down to the money, but also the opportunity to grow the game in a different part of the world. Neves has been linked with a move to Saudi-owned Newcastle ever since leaving Molineux.

Gabri Veiga

After impressing at Celta Vigo, Veiga was on the wishlist of a host of top European clubs – but the midfielder stunned everybody by moving to Al-Ahli instead.

“I did not join Saudi just for money,” the 21-year-old said. “It was the best option to develop as a player, grow under a young coach, team full of stars and league improving as Saudi PL”.

“I’m 100% proud of my choice.”


Once a prodigal big-money signing at Chelsea with the world at his feet, some inconsistent spells in North London killed his confidence, and in 2016 Oscar departed Europe for good, moving to Shanghai SIPG for around £52million.

Just 25 at the time of his move, Oscar justified his decision and his price tag somewhat, earning a place in the team of the season and winning the league in his second year.

“Every football player, or every person who works, wants to earn money to help their families,” he told Copa 90 in 2017.

“I came from a social background in Brazil that is very poor.”

“All the foreign players who come here are at a really high level. China has incredible financial power and sometimes makes offers that players can’t refuse.”

Now 30, Oscar hasn’t been in the best of form but has been linked with a shock return to Europe with Barcelona.

Cedric Bakambu

Once one of the deadliest strikers in La Liga, Bakambu became the most expensive African player ever when he transferred from Villarreal to Beijing Guoan in January 2018 for around £38million.

The Congolese forward was a popular figure in Spain and helped fire Villarreal to a fourth-place finish and Europa League semi-final.

Villarreal suffered after losing the 26-year-old despite receiving such a significant sum of money, narrowly avoiding relegation in the season after he left, but Bakambu thrived in China.

He scored 58 times in 87 games for Beijing, before moving back to Europe in January 2022 with Marseille. Now 30 though, his prime years look to be behind him.

Axel Witsel

The midfield powerhouse was a star in the Belgian national team, and was constantly linked with a move to Europe’s biggest clubs when running the show at Zenit Saint-Petersburg.

There was therefore some surprise when the 27-year-old joined Tianjin Quanjian in China for just £17million in January 2017, with many fans believing their club had missed out on a bargain.

Witsel didn’t last long in China, moving back to Europe with Borussia Dortmund in summer 2018. He’s now at Atletico Madrid.

Yannick Carrasco

An utterly bizarre transfer saga saw Yannick Carrasco depart Atletico Madrid for Dalian Yifang in February 2018 for around £28million.

Carrasco was a star at Atletico, and he even scored in a Champions League final, so there was considerable surprise when the club decided to part with the 24-year-old.

The winger lasted just under two years in China, before returning to Atletico on loan in January 2020 which was then made permanent for around £25million.

His second spell has seen him convert himself into a very useful wing-back, and was crucial to Atletico Madrid’s La Liga title win in 2021.

“Certainly if, like me, you do what you always wanted from an early age, then you are used to someone polishing your shoes, bringing you fresh clothes and pata negra [Iberico ham] on the table,” Carrasco stated in 2018.

“Then when you end up somewhere where football isn’t that popular … suddenly you have to shine your shoes, wash your clothes and there are no good restaurants to eat. China was a life lesson for me. It made me grow. And realise how lucky I am in Europe.”

That’s two years of his career he’ll never get back.

Alex Teixeira

In January 2016, Alex Teixeira looked like he would become one of Jurgen Klopp’s first signings at Liverpool.

A star at Shakhtar Donetsk, the Brazilian was strongly linked with a move to Merseyside, but Jiangsu Suning came in with a higher bid, and he left Europe for around £45million.

The winger did well at Jiangsu, scoring 72 times in 150 games, before leaving the club for free in January 2021 after they encountered financial problems.

Now with Vasco de Gama, he may wonder how differently his career could have panned out had he made the move to Liverpool instead.

We don’t think they’re too upset anymore.

Alexandre Pato

Once the world’s best teenager, Pato’s career is a symbol of unfulfilled talent, but when he left Villarreal for Tianjin Quinjan in January 2017, there was considerable shock, considering he had only made the move to Spain just six months before.

A fee of around £18million meant Villarreal made a healthy profit on Pato, having spent just £3million to bring him to the club.

Had he stayed in Spain longer, who knows if he could have rejuvenated his career? With the way it’s panned out now, there may be some regret on his side about his departure.

Alexandre Pato of AC Milan and Brazil, September 2009

READ: Remembering Pato at Milan: one of the greatest wonderkids ever

Sebastian Giovinco

A promising striker in Serie A, Giovinco moved to Toronto FC in 2015 after struggling for game time at Juventus.

The Italian was a massive success in the MLS, scoring 83 times in 143 games, and many felt he deserved more of a chance to prove himself in his home country.

Giovinco was also criticised for his move by the Italian national team, who refused to call him up despite his incredible goalscoring exploits, because he was playing outside Europe.

Antonio Conte excluded Giovinco from the squad for EURO 2016 alongside Andrea Pirlo because of this.

“When you make a certain choice and go to play in certain leagues, you do so taking it into account that they could pay the consequences from a footballing viewpoint,” Conte stated in the buildup to the tournament.

Bit harsh, especially when considering that he was overlooked in favour of Simeone Zaza.

Anthony Modeste

The Frenchman had developed into a hit in the Bundesliga, earning plaudits as he scored 45 goals in 73 games at FC Koln.

However, a controversial transfer to Tianjin Quanjian in July 2017, having helped fire Koln back into Europe for the first time in 20 years, quickly turned him from hero to zero.

Leaving on an initial loan which was made permanent for around £30million, Modeste only lasted one season in China, before going AWOL and returning to Koln, but his career never hit the same heights he reached prior to his move.

Definitely a bad decision.

Luiz Araujo

A title winner at Lille in their shock-winning campaign in 2021, the Brazilian forward was just 25 when he left Europe for Atlanta United in the MLS.

Although not the most prolific forward, he left the club and the chance to play in the Champions League for a move abroad for around £10million – a path which many players would probably not choose to follow.

With five goals in 17 games at Atlanta, he’s not done too badly – but it’s hardly the biggest football stage is it?

Stephan El-Shaarawy

Once one of the most exciting wingers in Europe, injuries and inconsistency saw El-Shaarawy’s form drop off a cliff.

A talent with plenty of skill and flair at AC Milan and Roma, El-Shaarawy joined Shanghai Shenhua for £16million in 2019, but scored just one goal in two years, and returned to Roma with his tail between his legs two years later.

A bad deal for all involved which should have never happened.


A popular player at Chelsea, and one that Jose Mourinho loved, Ramires was in his prime when he moved to Jiangsu Suning in 2016, aged 28.

£25million was enough to convince Chelsea to sell, and the player who had scored one of the most important goals in the history of the club had departed Europe for good.

He still had plenty more to offer.

READ: A love letter to Ramires and his perfectly-timed moment of magic


An appropriately named player capable of breaking buildings with his long shots, Hulk was a star at Porto and Zenit Saint-Petersburg before he joined Shanghai SIPG in 2016.

Many were intrigued to see how Hulk could have handled a top league in Europe, after watching him tear apart the Russian Premier League with his sheer strength, but it wasn’t to be.

After 51 goals in 100 games in the Chinese Super League, Hulk returned to Brazil with Atletico Mineiro, and his European career looks all but over.

The idea of Hulk playing away at Burnley is nothing but an impossible dream now.

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