Football remains enduringly popular across the length and breadth of the globe, with the Middle East and Saudi Arabia’s cash rich Saudi Pro League the latest entities to attract talent from a raft of different continents.
Often, of course, such leagues appeal to elite players who are approaching the end of their careers, which in the case of the Saudi Pro League, include N’Golo Kante, Roberto Firmino and 2022 Ballon d’OR winner Karim Benzema.
Personally, we’d rather leverage the welcome bonus for Jack Poker than bet on the next player to join the Pro League revolution, especially with stellar performers like Neymar and Bernardo Silva also being linked with a move to the Middle East.
Historically, it was the Japanese ‘J League’ that offered a lucrative payday for ageing footballers, with a number of stars from the 1980s and early 90s ultimately plying their trade in the Land of the Rising Sun. But who are the league’s most famous imports, and how did they fare in Japan?
Gary Lineker – Nagoya Grampus Eight
We’ll start with the J League’s first significant import, with Gary Lineker having moved to Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan in May 1992.
Previously, he had enjoyed a stellar career that included prolific stints at Leicester City, Everton, Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur, while plundering 48 goals in 80 appearances for England. Overall, he scored 331 goals in 653 games for club and country, while winning the coveted Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Lineker joined Grampus Eight for £2 million and on a huge contract, but his two years in Nagoya were marred by a slew of injuries (including a recurring Achilles tendon problem and broken big toe). As a result, he scored just eight goals in 24 games for his new charges, before retiring as his mobility became more limited in 1994.
#2. Salvatore (Toto) Schillaci – Júbilo Iwata
Salvatore (or ‘Toto’) Schillaci emerged as a prolific striker in the 1988/89 season, when he scored 25 goals in 39 matches for Messina in Serie B. This earned the forward a move to a resurgent Juventus in the summer of 1989, with his first season in the Italian top flight yielding 21 goals in 50 games across all competitions.
Then came Schillachi’s finest moment, as he starred in host nation Italy’s run to the World Cup semi-final at Italia ’90, winning the Golden Boot with six goals during the tournament.
Then came a brief spell at Inter Milan, before Schillaci unexpected signed for J League outfit Júbilo Iwata in the summer of 1994 (and at the age of just 29).
He spent four years here before retiring at a relatively young age, with his tally of 65 goals in just 93 games earmarking him as one of the best imports to ever ply his trade in the Japanese top flight.
#3. Dragan Stojkovic – Nagoya Grampus Eight
In the spring of 1994, the aforementioned Grampus Eight moved to sign the flamboyant attacking midfielder Dragan Stojkovic, who had previously played with distinction for Red Star Belgrade and Marseille (among others) and even won the inaugural Champions League with Marseille in 1993.
While Lineker retired shortly after the arrival of creator-in-chief Stojkovic, the Yugoslavian midfielder quickly emerged as arguably the greatest foreign player ever to grace the J League. To this end, he scored 57 times in 183 games for Grampus Eight, while earning three nominations for the team of the season and winning the coveted ‘MVP’ honour in 1995.
He further reinforced his cult appeal among Grampus Eight fans by returning as manager in 2008, winning the J League Division One in 2010 and the Japanese Super Cup the following year.
He is certainly remembered with fondness by Grampus Eight fans, thanks largely to his flair, skill and the immense leadership that he showed on the field.