Since its inception in February 1992, the Premier League has emerged as one of the most-watched sports leagues in the world, with the general consensus dictating that the top tier of English football is the most unpredictable and exciting manifestation of the domestic game in Europe.
This perceived correspondence makes the English top-flight seem like the biggest attraction to the world’s best football players, especially when one considers the many TV deals and broadcast rights the league boasts as well as the ever-growing spending power it possesses.
However, this is not always the case as some of the most popular names associated with football have never played for an English club before. Having said that, we take a look at five of the best players to have never played in the Premier League:
#1 Zinedine Zidane
Considered one of the greatest footballing artists in the world, Zinedine Zidane played for four clubs in a career that spanned almost two decades but none of them are based in the Premier League.
The Marseille-born man began his career at Cannes before moving to Bordeaux where he established himself as one of the best players in the French Division 1. He spent four seasons at the club- during which he scored 39 goals- before securing a move to Juventus in 1996.
It was with the Old Lady that the midfield maestro made a name for himself, winning two Serie A titles, one Supercoppa Italiana, one UEFA Super Cup, one UEFA Intertoto Cup and one intercontinental cup.
His exploits attracted the interest of a series of European powerhouses and he was ultimately signed by Real Madrid in 2001 for a then world-record fee of £46.2 million. He went on to play 227 games for the Spanish giants, during which he scored 49 goals and won several titles including the La Liga trophy and the Champions League crown.
Internationally, the former Bordeaux man inspired France to the 1998 FIFA World Cup and earned himself the year’s edition of the prestigious Ballon d’Or award. He also helped his national team to the 2000 Euros and won the FIFA World Player of the Year three times.
Zidane elected to end his historic sporting career with Los Blancos at the end of the 2005-06 season and has since made a smooth transition into management, guiding the Madrid giants to three consecutive Champions League titles.
Ronaldinho, who is easily one of the most naturally-gifted players to have graced modern football, played across Europe- in France, Italy and Spain- in the course of his career but never ended up playing for a Premier League.
The Brazilian began his career at Gremio- where he scored 72 goals in 145 games- before making the switch to Paris Saint-Germain in 2001.
He had a two-year stint with the Ligue 1 giants but spent most of his debut season alternating between the bench and the starter’s role.
He was believed to be discontent with the French outfit’s failure to qualify for any European competition and subsequently left the club for Barcelona in 2003, despite heavy interest from Premier League giants Manchester United.
It was at the Nou Camp that the Porto Alegre-born star built his reputation, playing 207 games for the Blaugrana and scoring 94 goals, apart from entertaining the entire world with his mesmerising skills.
He lifted two La Liga titles, two Supercopa de Espana and one Champions League trophy during his five-year stint at the Catalan club and was presented with numerous individual awards including the coveted Ballon d’Or in 2005.
Ronaldinho left the Spanish giants for AC Milan- after rejecting a £25.5 million offer from Premier League outfit Manchester City- and played for the Serie A powerhouse for three seasons before moving on to Flamengo.
He went on to join Atletico Minero, Queretaro and Fluminense in the twilight years of his career and even moved to India to participate in the Premier Futsal League for two seasons before announcing his retirement in 2018.
Internationally, the Selecao icon won the 2002 FIFA World Cup with Brazil as well as the 1999 Copa America. He was also named FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005.
Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, popularly known as Kaka, is one of most loved Brazilian players in the world- for good reason. The Gama-born man began his career at Sao Paolo FC where he led the youth squad to Copa de Juvenil glory.
He made his senior debut in 2001 and tallied 12 goals in 27 appearances while also helping the club to the Torneio Rio-São Paulo championship.
The biggest football powerhouses across Europe soon took notice of his immaculate skills and it wasn’t long before he signed for AC Milan in the 2003-04 season. The playmaker spent six years with the Serie A giants- scoring 95 goals in 270 games- and established himself as a legend at the club.
He lifted the Serie A, the Champions League, the Supercoppa Italiana, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup with the Milan giants and was also awarded the 2007 Ballon d’Or in what is widely considered the peak of his career.
He was the last player to win the prestigious individual award before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s hold on the trophy.
The Brazilian left AC Milan to join Real Madrid in 2009 but his stint at the Santiago Bernabeu was blighted by injuries that hampered his performances. Even then, the midfield genius managed to score 29 goals in 120 appearances for the club and lifted one La Liga title and a Copa del Rey.
After four seasons in the Spanish capital, Kaka moved back to Milan for a year before deciding to join Orlando City in 2015. He had a brief loan spell at Sao Paolo and eventually announced his retirement from professional football in 2017.
Internationally, he won the FIFA World Cup with Brazil in 2002 and the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2009, besides other individual prizes.
Considered the “Real Ronaldo” by a section of football fans, Ronaldo Luis Nazario’s status as one of the greatest football players ever grace is indisputable. He remains the one true advocate of Samba football in the modern era and is arguably the most lethal striker of his generation.
‘El Phenomenon’ made his professional debut for Brazilian outfit Cruzeiro at the age of 16 and scored 44 goals in 47 matches for the club, including a staggering five goals in a match against Bahia, which helped the team to their first Copa Do Brasil in 1993.
He then joined PSV Eindhoven after the 1994 World Cup, where he burst into the limelight playing for Brazil at the age of 17.
His phenomenal exploits with the Dutch outfit, for whom he scored 54 goals in 58 games, caught the attention of Inter Milan and Barcelona, with the latter ultimately succeeding after agreeing to pay a then world-record fee of $19.5 million for his services.
The Brazilian icon netted 47 goals in his only season at the Camp Nou, helping the Catalan outfit lift the Copa del Rey, the Supercopa de Espana and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.
He also won the FIFA World Player of the Year award and was named La Liga top scorer after registering 34 goals in 37 games- a feat that also earned him the European Golden Shoe.
Following contract negotiation troubles with the Barcelona hierarchy, Ronaldo joined Inter Milan in the summer of 1997, breaking the world transfer record twice with a $27-million move.
He finished his debut season with the Italian giants with 25 league goals and a Serie A Player of the Year award. He was also named the FIFA World Player of the Year for a second time and won the prestigious Ballon d’Or.
After five seasons with the Milan giants, he secured a move back to Spain by joining Real Madrid, where he would go on to be named World Player of the Year and European Footballer of the Year in a season that also saw him lift the Ballon d’Or once again. He also won two La Liga titles, an Intercontinental Cup and a Supercopa de Espana during his stint at the Bernabeu.
Ronaldo, however, endured major injury and health issues towards the end of his stint with Los Blancos and soon left the club to play for the likes of AC Milan and Corinthians before retiring in 2011.
Internationally, he won the 1994 and 2002 editions of the World Cup as well as the 1997 and 1999 editions of the Copa America with the Brazil national team.
#5 Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi is the only player on this list who still has an active career on the pitch but the chances of his transfer to the Premier League are incredibly slim.
The diminutive Argentine began his career at his hometown club, Newell’s Old Boys, in 1995 before crossing the Atlantic to join Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy at the age of 13.
The forward gradually progressed through the ranks of the academy and made his first-team debut in a friendly against Porto in the 2003-04 season. He made his first appearance in an official match in the Blaugrana’s derby win against Espanyol in 2004 during which he impressed the hierarchy with a scintillating performance.
His breakthrough campaign arguably came in the 2005-06 season during which he registered 8 goals and 5 assists in 25 appearances, aged just 17. The following campaign saw the Rosario-born player blossom alongside Ronaldinho as the Catalan giants won the Supercopa de España, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, Copa del Rey, La Liga and the UEFA Champions League to claim the first treble in Spanish football history.
The forward played a pivotal role in the Blaugrana’s fourth Champions League victory as he scored a goal against Manchester United in the final at Wembley in 2011. He then went on to help his side lift the Spanish Super Cup, the UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup and the Copa del Rey the following season.
Messi was once again the hero in the 2014-15 season as his 56 goals in all competitions led Barcelona to the second treble in their history, making them the first European team to twice win the domestic double as well as the highest continental tournament.
The Argentine skipper’s otherworldly performances for Barcelona inevitably earned him innumerable individual prizes including a record six Ballon d’Or, the latest of which he won in 2019, six European six times Golden Shoes and six Pichichi trophies.
Internationally, Messi is often criticised for his failure to inspire Argentina to a major international title. He has played in four FIFA World Cups, losing in the final in 2014 in Brazil against Germany, and has also featured in five Copa Americas, losing to Chile in the 2015 and 2016 editions of the tournament.