Soccer Swan Song in the Desert

Can you treat it like an oil well.  When its underground, out of sight? – Pavement

With the news that Figo has decided to head to Saudi Arabia rather than the MLS, it got me thinking about what top soccer players do as their careers come to a close.  I also noticed how a number of teams from Europe, from Manchester United to Inter Milan, are playing friendly matches in the Middle East of late.

The chairman refused to give any details about the one-year contract Figo has signed with his club, Al-Ittihad.  Local Media did say it was “one of the biggest transfers ever carried out in the Middle East”.

In no sport, except golf or maybe race car driving, and sport is a question mark for the later, do their ‘athletes’ play the game late into life – and that’s usually when they’re at the top of their game.

Soccer is no different than all the other sports in this aspect,  as players start to retire around age 34.  Maldini, like Junior Seau in the NFL, are the exceptions in recent professional sports.  Maldini has played for the same club, AC Milan, for 23 years and is retiring this year.

What do they say, playing in an American football game is like being in a car crash? Not sure what they’d say about playing in a ton of Inter versus AC Milan derbies for Maldini.  I’m amazed how Seau is able to keep going, especially as he plays safety.  But sports like golf are an older man’s game. Imagine how good Tiger will be when he has gray hair?  There’s no gray hairs in professional soccer unless you’re Fabrizio Ravanelli, a few bald headed players, one who was at the top of his game, but wasn’t indicative of his age – Zidane being more ageless as he played as if he was playing his own game.

But the new trade route for the world class soccer player entails, or could entail, some time in the Middle Eastern peninsula.  And, then some players like to talk of coming over to the states, as their body begins to tell them it’s harder to get out of bed after a derby.  Let’s hope it’s not true – the MLS pulling players over on the tail end of their careers.

The game in the Middle East is soccer’s way of allowing a player to continue on.  A sort of pre-retirement for the elites, and right now that’s a tour of the Middle East just before they hang up the cleats.  It’s the tail end of the game for these soccer players, but there’s no such thing for American footballers or basketball players, although NBA players probably could make a nice sum if they were to shoot hoops towards the end of the careers in Europe or Asia.  But soccer, the world’s game, is loved but some of the world’s richest, and they’ve carved out a league for princes to watch the greatest play up close and the wages are astronomical.

For the MLS, where many players talk of playing as the wind down their careers, whether that’s Henry or Ronaldo, they talk of the relative anonymity and casual lifestyle in the U.S. But this is the last thing the MLS needs.  Figo, who would have been a great signing, as he’s a true professional and could have bestowed his style and skills on younger players around him.  For a player like Denislon, he wasn’t worth the princely pay he received from Dallas.

I do get some recognition, but not like in Europe. When I’m in America I can be myself, I have no eyes on me. If I want to stop and buy a slice of pizza, pay man and just sit on a bench I can do that. It’s difficult to do that in Europe. – Henry

A quick list of some of the famous soccer players who’ve done the money tour on the Middle Eastern pennisula below.  The mid east teams are teams of a high standard though.  Past winners of the Asian version of the Champions League have come from the Middle East.  But I don’t hear of players been scooped up from these leagues to play in Europe – it’s more of the Arizona or Florida of football, warm sand and cool drinks I’m guessing.

Saudi Arabia

  • Rivelino
  • Stoichkov
  • Denilson
  • Donadoni
  • Bebeto
  • Borgetti

United Arab Emirates

  • Philip Cocu
  • George Weah


  • Marcel Desailly
  • Paulo Wanchope
  • Stefan Effenberg
  • Tony Yeboah
  • Eric Djemba-Djemba
  • Claudio Caniggia
  • Jay-Jay Okocha
  • Christophe Dugarry
  • Fernando Hierro
  • Romário
  • Frank de Boer
  • Ronald de Boer

What do most players do when they retire? It’s hard to be away from the game you love. A number of elite players become coaches, like Rijkaard, Klinsmann, Keane, Mark Hughes and on and on. Then there’s the endorsement deals, perhaps announcing games, becoming a socer pundit for TV, or good will tours, and other business opportunities. But it’s hard to beat the pay offered by the oil rich Mid East I’m guessing, and to just be able to keep playing.

Romário has even done his spin in Qatar, but he didn’t increase his goal tally while doing the tour.  And now another forward, Kluivert, is talking of heading the desert or maybe even the MLS.

His future remains unclear although he is thought to be keen on furthering his career in either the Middle East or the USA.

Hristo Stoichkov and Denilson have played for Al-Nasr, the team based in Saudia Arabia’s capital Riyadh.  Figo’s new team, Al-Ittihad, is a team where Donadoni, Bebeto, Borgetti and the American Hugo Perez once played.