Famous names from European football have lots of options to keep playing when they’re past their prime.
The Turkish Super Lig is the classic. The Saudi Pro League is increasingly viable, and there’s always MLS. Failing big-money paydays further afield, there’s always the lower tiers in Europe’s most famous footballing nations.
Here are eight players you probably had no idea were still turning out in the lower leagues in Spain, Germany, Italy and France last season.
Okay, technically we’re cheating a bit here because veteran Spaniard Callejon has just helped fire Granada to promotion.
But the 36-year-old former Napoli and Real Madrid winger spent last season in the Spanish Segunda Division after leaving Fiorentina a year ago.
Callejon’s quality and class showed in the second tier. He finished as the league’s top assister, setting up nine goals, as Granada went up as champions.
He remains contracted in Catalonia until 2024. We’re looking forward to watching him in La Liga once again next term.
Leeds United’s finest player during their 16-year Premier League exile rolled back the years and hit ridiculous new heights as Marcelo Bielsa’s side achieved promotion in 2019-20.
But he was only on the periphery as they finished ninth in their first season back in the Premier League and waved a tearful goodbye to Elland Road in the summer of 2021.
The former Valencia and Swansea playmaker returned to hometown club Castellon, where he continues playing at the age of 38. He’s also part-owner of the third-tier club, who face a play-off final against Alcorcon in their bid to go up to the Segunda.
Former Planet Football editor Rob Conlon – who penned the piece below – is one of many Leeds fans who have since made the pilgrimage to Castellon to see the club legend one last time.
Ex-Arsenal punchline Mustafi suffered back-to-back relegations after departing the Emirates in 2021.
He left Schalke after their drop but stayed put at Levante, where a muscle injury kept him sidelined for almost the entirety of their 2022-23 bid to bounce straight back.
Mustafi made just three appearances for Levante last term and was an unused substitute as they suffered a 1-0 defeat to Alaves in the play-off final.
Australia stalwart Irvine has enjoyed an eclectic career. His CV includes a Scottish League Cup with Ross County and Burton Albion’s Player of the Year award for 2016-17.
These days the midfielder is turning out for leftie favourites FC St. Pauli in the Bundesliga II. He scored seven goals last term as St. Pauli finished a creditable fifth.
Having reached the end of his contract with Ligue 2 club Valenciennes, 37-year-old Debuchy hung up his boots at the end of the 2022-23 campaign.
But the former Arsenal and Newcastle defender ended on a high. He captained Valenciennes to the narrowest of survivals in the French second tier, staying up on goal difference at Annecy’s expense.
🔙 Retour sur la séquence émotions des adieux de Mathieu Debuchy, à Geoffroy Guichard. 🤧 pic.twitter.com/DLkscZXPsV
— La Mise Au Vert (@LaMiseAuVert) June 15, 2023
Once a highly-rated graduate of Sunderland’s academy, Maja scored 17 goals as a teenager for the Black Cats before making an eye-catching move to Ligue 1 club Bordeaux in 2019.
The forward hasn’t quite kicked on as expected since then. He was out on loan to Stoke City as Bordeaux were relegated in 2021-22 but returned to the Matmut Atlantique to turn out in Ligue 2 last term.
Maja scored 16 goals and finished fourth in Ligue 2’s scoring charts but Bordeaux narrowly missed out on promotion after finishing third.
He’s a free agent this summer and it’ll be worth keeping an eye out for what’s next. A return to England could definitely be on the cards.
A one-time Football Manager wonderkid, Brazilian midfielder Adryan hasn’t quite lived up to his early promise.
He’s perhaps best known for a short and unsuccessful stint with Leeds United, but a well-travelled career has since seen him represent clubs in France, Switzerland, Turkey and Brazil.
In January he joined Serie B fallen giants Brescia, who went down to the third tier after suffering a relegation play-off defeat.
We’re starting to doubt whether he’ll ever live down his incredible dive for the prestigious 2014 Fallon D’Floor award.
Leeds United's last win in London is closer in time to this dive from Adryan against Derby County than it is to today. It really has been that long. Let's have a win tonight. #lufc pic.twitter.com/DuyTPHctMg
— Jonny Cooper (@JRCooper26) March 8, 2021
We’ve not included Serie B’s Gianluigi Buffon and Cesc Fabregas in this list because everyone knows they’re still going at Parma and Como respectively.
But did you know that Como also boast one-time Milan prospect Cutrone?
The one-cap Azzurri wonder spent three years on Wolves’ books but made little impact at Molineux. After loans to Fiorentina, Valencia and Empoli, the striker joined Fabregas at the picturesque Alpine club last summer.
He scored nine goals last term as Como finished an underwhelming 13th.