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The Best 5 British Footballers to Play Abroad

At the time of writing Harry Kane is edging ever closer to a move to Bayern Munich. Earlier in the summer, Jude Bellingham, by some rankings the fourth most valuable player in the world and highest-ranked Englishman on that list, moved to Real Madrid. In recent seasons it has become more and more common for top players from England, and other parts of the UK, to move abroad.

For a range of reasons, such transfers were less common in the past, although over the years many UK footballers have taken the decision to broaden their footballing horizons with a stint overseas. Here we take a look at the five greatest ever UK players to have played on foreign soil. Note, however, that we are only considering players who have moved to top European leagues as we want to restrict this to footballers who moved in their pomp. As such, legends such as Bobby Moore and George Best, who played for various sides in the USA, are excluded.

Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale Playing for Real Madrid
Image: LevanteMedia, Bigstock Photo

Bale’s time at Real Madrid ended badly to say the least but he spent eight seasons with the Spanish giants. Over 250 appearances brought more than 100 goals and some would class Bale as the greatest British player of all time. The Cardiff lad won three Liga titles, five Champions Leagues and much more besides. At his very best he was almost unstoppable, a combination of pace, power and a lethal left foot bringing him countless world-class goals and delivering moments that will live with fans forever.

He moved to Real for a world record fee of around £80m in September 2013 after a period of dazzling form with Spurs. He took a little while to settle in Spain, suffering injuries initially, but delivered some magical moments for Madrid. His debut season brought 22 goals and 16 assists, with one of those goals sealing Madrid’s 10th Champions League victory against rivals Atletico and another, one of his best ever to win the Spanish Cup against Barcelona. Not bad for someone who preferred golf.

John Charles

John Charles
Image: Geoff Charles and the National Library of Wales, Wikimedia Commons

Welshman two of three on our list, Charles was a much-loved legend with his first two clubs, Leeds United and then Juventus. He returned to Leeds briefly in 1962 and then moved to Roma but it was the first two spells of his football career for which he is remembered. He won three Serie A titles and two Italian Cups with Juve and came third in the Ballon d’Or in 1959. He was also the top scorer in the English and Italian top flights in consecutive seasons (1956/7 and 1957/8).

What makes those goalscoring feats all the more incredible was that Charles, known in Italy as Il Gigante Buono, or the Gentle Giant, spent most of his early career as a centre back. For some time there was a debate at Leeds as to what was his best position. Some have even selected him in both positions in a greatest ever Serie A XI! Juve signed him for a British record fee, and it was money well spent, fans voting him their greatest ever foreign player in 1997 on the club’s centenary.

Kevin Keegan

Keegan scored 21 goals in 63 games for England and whilst he is associated very strongly with Liverpool and Newcastle on these shores, he is much-loved in Germany too. He left the Reds to join Hamburg in 1977, leaving, like every player in our top five, for a British record transfer fee. Keegan cost the Germans £500,000, Hamburg smashing the previous German record fee which had been around half that.

Keegan proved decent value, delivering 40 goals in 111 games over three seasons between 1977 and 1980. He helped the club to the German title in 1979, won the Ballon d’Or in 1978 and 1979, and was named in the Bundesliga Team of the Season in each year he played for Hamburg.

Ian Rush

Turin Skyline

This list is starting to look rather Welsh-centric and in truth Rush is perhaps lucky to make the top five given his spell in Italy only spanned 40 games in a single season. It was not a roaring success either, but still brought 13 goals. It is often said that he described life in Turin as “Like living in a foreign country” but whilst this makes for a good story, Rush claims it is untrue.

Whilst he didn’t thrive outside of the UK like some of the other players on this list, he was very much at his peak when Juve signed him for a fee of over £3m. He had scored 109 league goals for Liverpool in just 182 games and remains the club’s leading goalscorer.

Paul Gascoigne

Fabric Flags of Italy and England

Like Rush, Gazza had issues settling in Italy and did not achieve everything he would have hoped to achieve. He had three seasons with Lazio but made only 47 appearances, netting six times. Signed for a fee of £5.5m he gave the Italian media plenty to write about, with far too many stories even just about his time in Italy, to list here.

Fans liked him and at his best he was mesmerising, but injuries and lifestyle choices took their toll. He lost the yard of pace that had made him so dangerous, bursting through tight gaps, an issue not helped by problems controlling his weight. Gazza may not have sparkled in Rome but we will remember him for the magic he produced at Italia 90, and also with Spurs and Rangers, either side of his Lazio career.

Notable Mentions

There are a number of other great players we could have listed but who either didn’t quite make the grade, didn’t play enough matches abroad to merit inclusion, or weren’t quite at their best by the time of their transfers away from the UK. Nonetheless, we give an honourable mention to:

  • Steve McManaman – a stunning volley to win a Champions League for Real Madrid almost gets Macca onto our top five – but not quite.
  • Jimmy Greaves – England, Chelsea and Spurs legend bagged nine goals in 10 games during a brief stint with Milan in 1961.
  • Graeme Souness – Scottish star made his name at Boro before collecting numerous trophies at Liverpool. Won the Italian Cup with Sampdoria and played in Italy for two seasons.
  • Michael Owen – 40 England goals but just the one season with Real Madrid.
  • Mark Hughes – Sparky (real first name Leslie!), joined Barcelona from Man United, then went to Bayern on loan.
  • David Beckham – Beckham was one of Real Madrid’s many Galacticos and had four fairly successful seasons in La Liga, winning the title. Also played for Milan and PSG.
  • Jude Bellingham – Bellingham’s career is only just beginning but even prior to his move to Madrid, he has set a number of Bundesliga records with Dortmund.
  • Mark Hateley – Hateley scored nine times for England and played for Milan between 1984 and 1987 before a spell in France with Monaco.
  • Paul Ince – Ince’s move from Man United to Inter was a big deal and improved him as a player.
  • Chris Waddle – Waddle may be remembered for that penalty miss but the elegant wideman was a real hit with Marseille and he won three French titles and made the European Cup final with them.
  • Glen Hoddle – Hoddle’s time in France overlapped with Waddle’s and whilst he wasn’t as successful, his experiences there developed him as a player and coach.