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According to specialists, the best age to learn a language is before 10 or 12 years. Kids absorb grammar structures and vocabulary more naturally. Learn a new language as an adult is possible, too; it only takes more effort, unless you’re a natural. With soccer happens the same thing; ideally, a footballer should start practicing the sport at an early age.
But if it doesn’t, a footballer can start playing the game in their early twenties, which is late for soccer. And not only that, they can be very successful, even if they never participated in the youth’s squads.
We have put together a list of the most salient late starters in soccer.
15 Famous Soccer Players Who Started Playing Late
1. Luca Toni
The Italian international played for several major clubs, including Bayern Munich, Roma, Juventus, and the Italian National Team. Luca had an impressive career, closing it at age 38 as the Italian Capo Cannoniere (Top goalscorer), scoring more goals than Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain that year.
Toni’s first match in the Italian Serie A was in 2005, playing for Fiorentina, at age 28. Before that, the striker played for Modena FC, Empoli, Treviso, Vicenza, Brescia, and Palermo. All of them, in Serie B or C, second and third Italian division.
His best season was 2005/2006 when he scored a total of 31 goals. The accolade gave him the Golden Boot, the award FIFA gives to the season’s top goalscorer of the five major European leagues.
Luca Toni is considered one of the greatest later boomers; he won six championships in his career, including the World Cup in Germany in 2006.
He was the top goalscorer of Italy twice, Bundesliga top goalscorer, and Europa League top goalscorer for Bayern Munich. He won a Golden Boot and was selected in the Best XI in the World Cup of 2006.
Italian footballers are known for taking longer to become mature players than in the rest of the countries. Luca Toni is the living proof of that, and his name is also written next to the better strikers that ever played the sport.
2. Dado Pršo
The Croatian international was a car mechanic and a part-time soccer player at the age of 21. At 23, he played in the French third division for FC Rouen, where he scored one goal.
At 25, he played in French League 1 for Monaco, where he won a national championship. In the 2003/2004 Champions Cup, Pršo was part of the team that lost the final against Mourinho’s Porto FC.
Monaco’s historical participation in the European tournament was also marked by the 8-3 victory over the Spanish Deportivo La Coruña, where Pršo scored four goals. That game set the record for the most goals scored in a single match in the competition’s history.
He finished the 2003/2004 Champions Cup as one of the top goalscorers. He performed so well in the tournament that A.C Milan had a great interest in hiring him.
Pršo played his first match for the Croatian national team at the age of 29, and he scored the goal that classified Croatia to the 2004 Euro played in Portugal.
Even after a late start in his professional career, many people consider that Pršo’s chance in the national team should’ve been before 2003. The explanation for that late participation in the Croatian squad has a name, Davor Suker.
In Portugal, the Euro Cup offered Pršo his first chance to shine in the national team, with Davor Suker out of the picture. But the Croatians didn’t perform very well; they didn’t make it into the quarter-finals. Pršo scored only one goal in the 2-2 tie against France.
3. Ruud Van Nistelrooy
The Dutch forward played for four years in the FC Den Bosch of the Netherlands second division. Initially, he was a full back. His debut in the first team was a tremendous 5-1 defeat; after that, he started playing far from his own box.
He was 22 when PSV Eindhoven signed him. In his first season at the club, he won the Netherlands Super Cup against Ajax and finished the Eredivisie as the top goalscorer.
His good performances took him to England, the Manchester United signed him for $25 million. He won the Premier League, the Community Shield, the FA Cup, and The Football League Cup playing for the red devils. Then he went to Real Madrid for $15 million. He won two Spanish leagues and a Spanish Super Cups playing for the team of the capital.
He played for the German Hamburg SV and closed his career at Málaga of Spain. He scored 384 goals in his career.
4. Miroslav Klose
The German international was born in Opole, Poland, in 1978. He worked as a builder and a brick-layer for many years, even while playing for the FC Homburg, a German 5th division team.
In 1999 he moved to Kaiserlautern, and one year later, he made his Bundesliga debut; Klose was 22. Four years after his debut, he signed for Werder Bremen, where he scored 64 goals in 132 matches. In 2006, Miroslav Klose was the top goalscorer of the Bundesliga and the World Cup and named Germany’s Footballer Of The Year.
In 2007, after such a tremendous success, the gigantic Bayern Munich signed him, and he made a memorable attacking duo with Luca Toni. Klose started with the right foot at the capital’s team. He scored ten goals in the first nine games. (Toni had ten in ten).
Bayern Munich’s fans loved him immediately. Klose won six championships for Bayern Munich, including a Bundesliga. He also played for the Italian Lazio, where he ended his career. But his significant accolades would come playing for the Mannschaft, the German national team.
In 2001, Miroslav Klose wore Germany’s colors for the first time. Germany played against Albania for the 2002 World Cup Qualifiers; Klose scored the winning goal, the result was 2-1 for the Germans.
Korea/Japan 2002 was Klose’s first World Cup. During the tournament, in which Germany ended as runner-up, Klose scored five goals. All of them headers, establishing one of the many records in his career, the first player to score five headers in a World Cup.
He played in the Euro 2004 a few matches, and the 2008 Euro, where he played and lost the final against Spain. In the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Klose finished as top goalscorer. In South Africa, for the 2010 World Cup, Miroslav Klose reached Gerd Muller as the German top goalscorer in World Cups of all time.
In the 2012 Euro, Klose scored in every match he played, although Germany lost in the semi-final against Italy. His last World Cup, Brazil 2014, would be his best.
Germany won the 2014 World Cup, smashing Brazil 7-1 in the semi-finals, and Klose reached 16 goals, surpassing the Brazilian Ronaldo as the World Cup top goalscorer of all time.
A true prodigy, Miroslav Klose broke records in World Cups, the German national team, and even the Italian Serie A.
5. Didier Drogba
The Ivorian striker spent his first years of life coming and going from Ivory Coast, where he lived with his parents, to France, where his uncle, the former footballer Michael Goba took care of him. Living in France with his uncle wasn’t a life choice, but a need since Didier’s parents didn’t have stable jobs.
When he was 12, his parents traveled to France, and he started playing soccer in the humble Levallois FC, a semi-professional team where Drogba scored lots of goals.
After going from one city to another in France, Drogba finally signed a contract with the Ligue 2 club Le Mans, where he scored a few goals but wasn’t performing very well, so he lost his place in the first team.
In the 2001/2002 season, Guingamp signed him for a bit more than $100.000. In his first season, Drogba scored 7 goals, and the team avoided relegation; the Ivorian forward was 23.
The next season at Guingamp was better for him, he scored 17 goals, and his team ended up 7th in the French League 1. His good performances attracted the Olympique de Marseille’s attention, who paid $3.4 million to sign him. And after that, the Ivorian never stopped growing.
Chelsea signed Drogba for $32 million in 2004. In his first season at the London club, he scored 16 goals, reached UCL semi-finals, and won the English Premier League and the Football League Cup. That English Premier League title was the first in 50 years for Chelsea. The next year, Chelsea will win the EPL again, and Drogba scored another 16 goals.
His third season at Chelsea was even better; Drogba won the EPL again, scored 33 goals, and was elected Ivorian and African Player of the year. Outside of the field, however, 2007 was a conflictive year for the player. An investigation was open for several allegations of corruption in some of Chelsea’s signings, Michael Essien, Petr Čech, and Didier Drogba.
Drogba played three World Cups and seven African Cup Of Nations. After Chelsea, he played in Turkey, China, the USA, and Canada.
He won the 2010/2011 UEFA Champions League, 4 English Premier Leagues with Chelsea, 8 English cups, 1 Turkey national league, and two more cups in that country. He scored 370 goals in his career, 66 for the Ivory Coast national team. Now he participates in several charity projects in Africa and Europe.
6. Nilton Santos
The Brazilian was known as “encyclopedia” for his immense knowledge about soccer. The left defender was born and raised in Ilha do Governador, in Rio de Janeiro, near one of the city’s airports.
An Aeronautical Officer saw him playing soccer in the street and convinced him to go to Botafogo; Nilton Santos was 23.
He wore only two shirts in his entire career, Botafogo’s and the Brazilian national team. He spent most of his time with Garrincha, the Brazilian legend. Many years after his retirement, Santos would visit several radio and TV shows telling stories about Garrincha’s adventures and funny moments.
For Botafogo, Nilton Santos won 18 titles, and he was elected as the best-left defender of all time by FIFA. He lived most of his life in Araruama, a small town of Rio de Janeiro, and then he moved to Brasilia, where he wrote for the Correio Brasiliense newspaper and was named an honored citizen.
Nilton Santos shared the team with Brazilian legends like Pelé and Garrincha. He was part of the team that won the 1958 and 1962 World Cups.
In 2009, a statue of him was set at the gates of the João Havelange Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Later that year, the stadium changed its name to Estádio Nilton Santos. He would die 4 years later, a Brazilian national treasure.
7. Javi Varas
The Spanish goalkeeper spent most of his career playing amateur soccer. He played for Sevilla Atlético and Alcalá in the Spanish Second Division.
In 2004, Sevilla FC signed him, but he wouldn’t play for the first team until 2009 when he was 27. He played only 3 league games for Sevilla and a pair in the Copa del Rey.
Javi Varas became Sevilla’s first squad goalkeeper in 2010, he played in the UEFA Champions League, and he won the Copa del Rey beating Atlético de Madrid in the final.
He left Sevilla FC to play for Real Valladolid in 2014, after that he played for Las Palmas, Granada CF and Huesca SC.
One of Varas’ memorable moments of his career was to save a Lionel Messi’s penalty shot. Javi Varas wouldn’t be the first nor the last to save a penalty from the soccer genius, but how the goalkeeper’s play was built is quite impressive.
He studied the Argentinian for weeks and concluded that Messi would hit it’s left if there was a penalty. That meant that the rebound would go to Messi’s right. Then he asked two of his fastest teammates to stay near Messi’s right side to get to the rebound first.
He won the previously mentioned Copa del Rey for Sevilla FC and the 2014 UEFA Europa League.
The Brazilian international played for Joinville EC, a small team from Rio de Janeiro, until 20. He used to make a 12-hour shift in a construction site while playing for the, at that time, third division team.
Cruzeiro signed him in 2007 for $56,000. Ramires turn into one of the team’s best player in little time, scoring the last goal of the 4-2 victory over Atlético Mineiro, Cruzeiro’s rivals, in his first derby.
Ramires’ stamina earned him the nickname of “The blue Kenyan” because of the Cruzeiro’s shirt color. In 2009 Benfica hired him, and the Brazilian had an impressive first season, contributing big time to obtain the Taça da Liga. He was then “The red Kenyan.”
One year later, Chelsea signed him paying $22 million, and Ramires was “The blue Kenyan” again. He won the 2011/2012 UEFA Champions League, beating the superb Barcelona in the semi-finals and Bayern Munich in the finals.
He played in the Chinese Super League for the Jiangsu Suning in 2016 and then for the Brazilian Palmeiras in 2019.
Ramires also played for the Brazilian national team, where he won the 2009 Confederations Cup. He played in two World Cups, South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. Ramires was part of the team that got the bronze medal in the 2008 Pekin Olympics.
9. Edin Džeko
The Bosnian forward played for the FK Zeljeznicar Sarajevo when the team was in the second division. Then he kept playing in Czech Republic second division teams until Vfl Wolfsburg hired him in 2007.
Džeko won the German Bundesliga in his second season playing for Wolfsburg and finished second on the top goalscorer list, with 26 goals. The season after that, the Bosnian scored 32 goals and took the Bundesliga top goalscorer trophy.
In 2009 Džeko’s was one of the 30 nominees for the Balon d’Or.
Manchester City signed him for $37 million. In Bosnia, Džeko’s nickname is “The diamond.” Playing for the Citizens, the Bosnian was vital for the English Premier League title of the 2011/2012 season after 44 years without winning the tournament.
In 2015, Džeko went to Roma ASC. He was part of the team that beat 3-0 and eliminated Messi’s Barcelona in 2018. The Bosnian was a crucial player in that match, scoring one goal.
Džeko started playing for the Bosnian national team in 2007. He was part of the first generation of Bosnians to ever play a World Cup. Bosnia qualified for Brazil 2014, having him as one of the team’s leaders and top goalscorers.
Bosnia played his first match against Argentina in its debut, and they ended up losing in a tight game. The Bosnians played a tremendous second half. They ended up losing 2-1. During that World Cup, many specialists regretted that Bosnia didn’t make it into the knockout stage; they would say that the Bosnians were among the few teams that showed high-quality soccer.
In 2009, Džeko became the first Bosnian soccer player to become a Unicef’s ambassador.
10. Emanuelle Giaccherini
The Italian midfielder signed a contract with Cesena when he was 19, but he played on loan for several third division teams.
In 2008, Giaccherini went back to Cesena, who was also playing in the Italian third division. The team won two promotions in a row, putting Cesena in the Italian Serie A. Giaccherini was one of the best players of the team during those two brilliant years, so Juventus hired him in 2011.
Giaccherini was 26 when he played his first game in Serie A, playing for Juventus. His good performances at the Turin’s team took him to the Italian national team, where he played two Euro tournaments, 2012 and 2016.
He won two Serie A leagues with Juventus and a Copa Italia.
11. Jamie Vardy
Vardy’s story is quite famous. When he was 23, he signed his first professional contract for Halifax Town, where he played until becoming 25. Then he started playing for Leicester and arrived at the English Premier League at the age of 27.
He was part and hero of the historic 2015 English Premier League title playing for Leicester managed by Claudio Ranieri. That same year, he made his debut in the British national team.
Jamie Vardy founded the V9 Academy. In the academy, once a year, the doors are open for at least 60 players to be tested and trained in front of several clubs scouts looking for new talents.
He won the EPL Best Player award, the Best British Player of the year award, and was part of the EPL ideal team in the 2015/2016 season. He also was the top goalscorer of the 2019/2020 season in the EPL.
The British snacks company Walkers a limited edition of chips after him, the “Vardy Salted.”
12. Alberto Márcico
A scout of Ferro Carril Oeste saw Márcico playing in a park in Barracas, a Buenos Aires neighborhood. After talking with the young player, the scout convinced him to participate in one of his club’s trials. Márcico was 20, and he had never played officially in any youth team of any club.
Alberto Márcico played in Ferro from 1980 to 1984, where he won two national leagues, the last two the club will win, now the club alternates between second and third division.
He was a potent striker, big, robust, and with a fantastic technique. Márcico was elected best Argentinian player of 1984; the next year, he played for the French team, Toulouse. In France, he played 227 and scored 67 goals.
In 1992, Márcico went back to Argentina to play for Boca Juniors as a midfielder. The years started making him play a little bit further from the box. Playing for Boca, he won a national league title and two international cups against the Brazilians Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro.
He closed his career at Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata, another Argentinian club, in 1998. He was elected by FIFA as the second-best Argentinian “enganche” (trequartista) of all time, only behind Maradona.
13. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
The “Babyface assassin,” or “super-sub” played for the modest Clausenengen of Norwegian third division for four years before signing a contract with the Molde FC, a Norwegian first division team; Solksjaer was 21 when that happened.
He did it so well playing for Molde FC that Manchester United signed him in 1996. The Norwegian striker was considered a talisman by the fans. He rarely started a match, but he had great performances coming from the bench. That’s why the “super-sub” nickname surged.
He scored the winning goal in the UEFA Champions League final in 1998 against Bayern Munich in minute 93. The British were losing the match until Teddy Sheringham tied the game in minute 91, and coming from the bench, Solksjaer will seal the deal two minutes after.
Solksjaer played for his national team in the 1998 World Cup and the Euro in 2000. He played in the biggest match in Norwegian soccer history, a victory 2-1 over Brazil in the World Cup In France 1998.
He became a soccer manager in 2011, he won a national league with Molde FC and a Norwegian Cup. In 2018, he became Manchester United’s manager.
14. Fabio Grosso
The World Champion Italian defender signed a contract with Palermo when he was 27. He was a vital player of the team, and two years later, the Italian manager Marcelo Lippi took him to the 2006 World Cup.
Grosso scored the first of the two goals to take Italy to the World Cup final against Germany. One week later, in the Final against France, he scored the last penalty of the series, giving Italy its fourth World Cup title.
He played fot Internazionale de Milan, Olympique de Lyon and Juventus. He became manager, he trained the Hellas Verona and Brescia in Italy.
15. Ian Wright
The British forward is second in Arsenal’s top goalscorer of all time with 185 goals, only behind Thierry Henry, who scored 228.
Wright, son of Jamaican immigrants, suffered domestic abuse from his stepfather. Ian’s favorite TV show was Match Of The Day, and every time the show was on the air, his stepfather would force him to stand facing the wall, missing the show, just listening to it.
His stepfather’s cruelty lasted many years. When he was 16, Ian worked as a builder. After getting arrested and spending twelve days in prison for allegedly missing a payment of his car’s insurance, Wright decided to bet all he got to be a soccer player.
Wright started playing for the semi-professional Greenwich Borough from London, making $40 per week. After several good performances, Crystal Palace signed him. He was 22.
After scoring 15 goals for Crystal Palace in the Premiership, Arsenal hired him for $3.3 million, a Crystal Palace’s transfer record at the time.
In his first season as a Gunner forward, Wright scored 22 goals. The British striker was a crucial member of the super successful Arsenal of the 90s who conquered several titles with the mythical Arsene Wegner. Even before the arrival of the French manager, Wright had won three championships with Arsenal.
Wright scored 10 goals to help the Gunners win the 1997/1998 Premier League. The next year, West Ham signed Wright, and then he played for Nottingham Forest, Celtic, and Burnley.
Nowadays, Ian Wright is a soccer commentator for the BBC, where sometimes hosts the TV show Match Of The Day. As a writer said, destiny likes symmetry.