From Ronaldo to Messi to Neymar, there are countless South American superstars that have lit up European football over the past 30 years. But examples the other way round are few and far between.
It’s increasingly common to see European greats move further afield, with MLS and Saudi Pro League clubs offering lucrative contracts to attract big-name players.
And lots of veteran Brazilians and Argentinians return to their homeland after spending their prime years with top European clubs. But you almost never see European players move to South America.
These are the exceptions. We’ve identified nine notable examples of European players turning out in South America.
The West Ham and Marseille cult hero always did things differently. Think Payet was going to see out the final years of his playing career in Saudi Arabia or the Turkish Super Lig? That would be so unimaginative.
Instead, after being released by his beloved Marseille at the end of last season, the 36-year-old has signed for Brazilian club Vasco da Gama.
“I am really happy to be here and see all this passion from the part of the fans. I can’t wait to play for them,” the mercurial Frenchman said upon his arrival in Brazil.
He’s yet to make his debut for Vasco but we can’t bloody wait.
— Vasco da Gama (@VascodaGama) August 20, 2023
Daniele De Rossi
Just like his old pal Francesco Totti, De Rossi always seemed destined to retire at Roma as one of the all-time great one-club men.
But the midfielder always thought differently. When the Giallorossi hierarchy decided against renewing his contract in 2019, he decided to continue his journey elsewhere.
De Rossi joined Boca Juniors and became the first European with no Argentinian heritage to sign for an Argentinian club since Hungarian winger Ferenc Sas joined the same club all the way back in 1938.
“Every player should enjoy what I’m feeling right now, because if you love playing football, you can’t do without an experience like this,” De Rossi explained at his press conference unveiling.
“I grew up in the years just after Diego Maradona’s Napoli. You can’t help but fall in love with a player like that, so he got me interested in Boca and then my focus moved on to the madness of being here.
“I lived in an environment of madness at Roma, fans who live football 24 hours a day. I might’ve been a more relaxed person playing somewhere else, but that’s just what I’m like.
“I chose Boca because whatever happens this season, I will be enriched as a person and my family will feel that way too.”
He was 36 at the time and had over 600 appearances for Roma and 100 caps for Italy in his legs. That evidently took his toll as he announced his retirement after making just seven appearances for the club.
Still, he certainly made the most of his short time there. He scored on his debut, won the Argentinian Primera Division and blessed us with the Most Daniele De Rossi moment of all-time:
Daniele De Rossi getting his Boca introductions done.pic.twitter.com/h1F5Y63iFr
— Who Ate All The Pies (@waatpies) August 26, 2019
The right-back might be best remembered for missing a penalty for Atletico Madrid in their 2016 Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid, but he departed the Metropolitano in 2019 as one of their greats.
Juanfran won seven trophies, including La Liga, and made over 350 appearances for Atleti. He’d spent his entire life and career in Spain but he decided to try something new at the tail-end of his career and joined Brazilian side Sao Paolo.
Selecao icon Rai was the sporting director that brought the experienced defender to the club – turning his head after an offer from MLS club Chicago Fire.
He couldn’t quite end their trophy drought during his two years in Brazil, but he notched up plenty of games before finally hanging up his boots in 2020.
“What journeyman has won what I’ve won? What journeyman has played at the clubs that I’ve played at?”
The Leytonstone-born forward bullishly asked The Guardian that question during an interview conducted whilst he was representing Corinthians.
And fair enough, really. Kazim-Richards has 37 caps for Turkey and has been blessed with an absolutely fascinating career, having played for 18 clubs in seven different countries.
He’s lifted silverware in Turkey, Greece and Scotland but arguably the finest stint of career came with Corinthians.
Having first arrived in Brazil with Coritiba, the forward subsequently joined Corinthians, scored on his debut against local rivals Atletico Paranaense, and won the state Campeonato Paulista and national Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A titles.
The only man to have won the Champions League with three different clubs, Seedorf capped off his glittering career with a wonderfully romantic move to Botafogo.
Known in the UK as something of a perenially loaned-out fringe player at Manchester City and Arsenal, Spanish defender Mari spent a one-year stint between the two Premier League clubs out in Brazil with Flamengo.
It was with Flamengo that the centre-back enjoyed the greatest success of his career, featuring for Jorge Jesus’ side – alongside fellow European football alumni Rafinha, Felipe Luis and Gabriel Barbosa – as they beat River Plate 2-1 in the 2019 Copa Libertadores final.
This one makes quite a lot of sense. Trezeguet was born in France and represented Les Bleus on the international stage, but he grew up in Buenos Aires and had an Argentinian father.
The forward actually started out his club career with Platense before he moved to Europe and made his name with Monaco and Juventus.
When Trezeguet joined Abu Dhabi-based Baniyas in 2011, it looked as though he was seeing out his final years with one last bumper payday.
But he only made one appearance whilst out in the Gulf state and terminated his contract before returning to South America to enjoy a beautiful last dance with River Plate.
The poster boy for Europeans in South America, Serbian midfielder Petkovic represented Red Star Belgrade, Real Madrid and Sevilla in Europe in the 90s – but his career took on a whole new dimension in his latter years.
The former Yugoslavia international signed for Vitoria of Bahia in 1997.
Save for a couple of short stints in Italy, China and Saudi Arabia, Petkovic spent the following 15 years representing a number of clubs in Brazil – Flamengo, Vasco da Gama, Fluminense, Santos and Atletico Mineiro before returning to Flemengo for a legendary second stint in 2009.
He was twice named the Brazilian Serie A’s Player of the Year and retired as something of a legend over there. He even inspired a catchy pop song:
🎶 É o Pet, É o Pet, É o Pet… 🎶
Hoje é aniversário do nosso ídolo Dejan Petkovic, campeão carioca (2000 e 2001), da Copa dos Campeões (2001) e do Brasileirão (2009) com o Manto Sagrado. Foram 198 jogos e 57 gols. Parabéns, craque! Felicidades e muita saúde sempre! SRN! #CRF pic.twitter.com/TsBhrB71wu
— Flamengo (@Flamengo) September 10, 2020
If you’re a regular reader of Planet Football, you’ll be well-versed in the classic journeyman footballer.
A club in a big European league, potentially followed by a stint somewhere like Belgium or Switzerland. The Turkish Super Lig will almost certainly feature, or potentially Greece. The Indian Super League if they were really getting on. Maybe China or somewhere in the Middle East.
South America rarely features in the football globetrotter’s map, but it did for Belgian defender Yourassowsky.
A distinctly unremarkable player that rarely hit double figures at any of his 11 clubs, Yourassowsky started out at Anderlecht, had an unsuccessful trial with Barcelona, and ticked off lots of the classic stops – the Spanish second tier (Pontevedra), Greece (Ethnikos Piraeus), Croatia (Rijeka) and even MLS (Toronto FC).
Sticking out like a sore thumb in his Wikipedia career summary was a one-season stint with Boca Juniors back in 2004.
He made two appearances for the Buenos Aires giants, played alongside a young Willy Caballero, and was coached by the legendary Larry David lookalike Carlos Bianchi.
A proper well-travelled career.