Only a few players have returned to the top level after competing in low-level competition outside of Europe, such as in Asia.
Returning to Europe and regaining a spot in the top teams after competing outside Europe is never easy. The quality of well-known Asia’s top flights, such as the Saudi Pro League, J-League, or Chinese Super League, remains lower than that of the top European leagues. The players who returned mostly ended up as bench-warmers before moving to leagues outside the top five, such as the Greek Super League, Turkish Süper Lig, or Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League, returning to Asia, or, even worse, hanging up their boots.
Nigeria international Odion Ighalo and former Croatia star Mario Mandžukić are prime examples. They fell short of expectations when they signed for Manchester United and AC Milan in 2020 and 2021, respectively. The latter even went scoreless in 11 games with Rossoneri.
Nevertheless, some players have managed to do so. AS Roma’s Stephan El Shaarawy is one of them. He revived his career by re-joining his former club after leaving Shanghai Shenhua. The former AC Milan man stayed in the Chinese top tier team from 2019 to January 2021.
In his second spell, the 30-year-old versatile winger has helped I Giallorossi clinch the Europa Conference League trophy in 2022 and reach the Europa League final last season. El Shaarawy contributed well with seven goals and an assist in the 2021/22 season, and did even better last season with nine goals and four assists. Under Jose Mourinho, he has featured in 87 games and has played in various positions from attacking midfielder, winger and left wing back.
Last weekend, he opened his account this season with his dramatic late winning goal against Monza from the bench. El Shaarawy proves that he could make the difference even though he does not always get a nod in the starting XI. He even managed to earn another national team call-up since his return. Aside from the half-Egyptian winger, there have been a few other names who have bounced back to the top as he did. Interestingly, two of them are the mainstay in the Belgium national team.
Players who bounced back to the top after leaving Asia
The versatile Belgian winger has moved back and forth to Asia and Europe in his career. He is currently playing for Saudi side, Al-Shabab after leaving Atlético Madrid for the second time last summer. Carrasco rejoined Los Rojiblancos in 2020 after playing two years for Chinese Super League side Dalian Profesional.
It did not take long for him to seal a spot in the starting line up under Diego Simeone due to his flexibility on the pitch as a winger, left wing back, and attacking midfielder. The former Monaco man helped them snatch La Liga title in 2021. Overall, he registered 24 goals and 24 assists in all competitions during his second spell in the Spanish capital.
Another Belgian international was once playing for Chinese Super League team Tianjin Quanjian in the 2017/18 season. His career was thought to be coming to an end. Yet, his stunning form in World Cup 2018 attracted Dortmund to sign him. Witsel stayed with Die Borussen until 2022 with only one silverware in hand, the DFB Pokal in 2021. He then switched sides to Atlético Madrid in summer 2022. Despite having yet won any title for Los Rojiblancos, Axel Witsel is the mainstay in Simeone’s team. The 34-year-old midfielder is mostly deployed as a center back instead of his regular position.
The Congolese international played for Beijing Guoan in the Chinese Super League for four years (2018-2022). He was linked to Barcelona in 2022, but the move did not materialize. Instead, he signed for Marseille and helped the club finish second in 2022 behind PSG. Bakambu bagged four goals in 12 Ligue 1 games.
In the following season, the former Villarreal man joined Olympiakos and was awarded the league top scorer. Unfortunately, such was not enough to help his club to lift the trophy. He is currently playing for Turkish giant Galatasaray.
The Brazilian midfielder was deemed a Premier League flop in Tottenham, resulting in him signing for the Chinese Super League’s Quangzhou Evergrande in 2015. However, he surprisingly plied his trade for Barcelona in 2017 and quickly became Ernesto Valverde’s favorite in the second line.
The current Corinthians man netted nine goals and provided two assists in 49 appearances, helping the Catalan side clinch a domestic double in 2018. His outstanding form in La Liga even led him to be named in the Seleção squad for the 2018 World Cup.