Picking a Starting-XI of the Best Players Who Never Set Foot in Europe's Top 5 Leagues

There are two types of football players in this world. Those lucky enough to play for 'the cream of the crop' a.k.a. the top five European leagues, even though they're sometimes simply not good enough. Those players get the fame, the money, they play against, or with, great players every week. They're, to some extent, the elite of world football. Then there's the others, those who play in the minor leagues, either because they're even worse than the worst of the elite, or simply by choice. As...

Goalkeeper: Igor Akinfeev

Age: 31

Clubs: CSKA Moscow (Russia)


CSKA and Russia's goalkeeper is one of the romantics. 


Raised and trained in the academy of the CSKA, he grew to be a pretty impressive goalkeeper and vowed to never leave his club. 


At one point, he was one of the most valued goalkeepers in the European market, with offers from some big clubs in the top five leagues. But Igor tuck to his word and never parted from CSKA. This kind of love story is cruelly missing from modern football. 

Centre-back: Victor Lindelöf

Age: 22

Clubs: Västerås SK (Sweden), Benfica (Portugal)


At 22, Victor Lindelöf doesn't really have a wealth of football experience and didn't have much time in his career to travel the world yet. Ok. But there's not a lot of world-class defenders who aren't playing in one of the top five European leagues out there, so we had to cheat a little. 


There's no doubt this big guy will get his big European experience in the near future as Lindelöf is indeed one of the most exciting young defenders of the game, and he made the perfect choice in joining Benfica in 2012. Since then, he's won six domestic trophies with Benfica, got a call up from the Swedish national team and even made the squad for the Euro 2016. 

Centre-back: Yaroslav Rakitskiy

Age: 27

Clubs: Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)


Rakitskiy isn't the most famous player in the Shakhtar team, but just like our friend Akinfeev, he's the romantic kind, and just for that, he deserves to be here. 


Born in a little Ukrainian city back when it was still part of USSR, Rakitskiy joined the Shakhtar academy in 2006 and built his career around the sole objective of serving his one club and country. 


He's played 273 games in eight seasons with the Hirnyky (the Miners), making him, not far off, from being the most capped player of the club. He's also made 44 appearances for the Ukrainian national team. 

Center-back: Jetro Willems

Age: 23

Clubs: Sparta Rotterdam (Netherlands), PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)


Like Lindelöf, it's highly probable that we'll see Jetro Willems under the shirt of a big European team in the near future. But until then, he's resisted the siren calls of Europe's biggest sides. 


The left-back, who started his professional career back in 2010 with Sparta Rotterdam in the Jupiler League (Netherlands 2nd tier) when he was only 16, took his time to grow and work his way up into Dutch football. 


He's now a regular with the Oranje (22 caps) and is considered one of Eredivisie's best players, and is still young enough to get a serious break through in one of Europe's top leagues.  

Center-midfield: William Carvalho

Age: 25

Clubs: Sporting CP (Portugal), CD Fátima (Portugal, loan), Cercle Brugge (Belgium, loan)


It's been for a fair few years now that William Carvalho has been familiar amongst the European footballing elite. Yet, the Portuguese holding midfielder never took the leap to join one of Europe's top five league despite some keen interests. 


One of the finest products of the famous Portugal talent factory, William Carvalho is probably one of the best players who's yet to join a side from Europe's big 5. His profile, a very defensive-minded midfielder, is rare and highly appreciated by big clubs. It's probably only a matter of time until we see the Euro 2016 winner turn the transfer market crazy.  

Center-midfield: Axel Witsel

Age: 28

Clubs: Standard Liège (Belgium), Benfica (Portugal), Zenit Saint-Petersburg (Russia), Tianjin Quanjian (China)


Axel Witsel's name has been around for such a long time that it's sometimes hard to believe that the best club he's ever played for is Benfica. The Belgian midfielder has often been considered one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation. A versatile and complete defensive midfielder with glorious hair!


But while Europe's top flight opened their arms to Witsel many times, he's decided to make his career an inexhaustible chase for money. After his experience at Benfica, he first decided to join Russia in a big-money move to Zenit and then, last summer, while Juventus almost had their hand on him to make him Pogba's successor, he gave in to China's £15m-a-year offers. 


He's now 28 and super rich, but for the fans he kind of feels like a huge waste of talent. 

Left-midfield: Bernard Duarte

Age: 24

Clubs: Atlético Mineiro (Brazil), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine)


For quite a long time, Bernard Anício Caldeira Duarte or simply "Bernard" was known as an exciting Brazilian talent, mainly because he is super quick and skillful. The boy does have all the characteristics to become the 'next-Messi' being small, pacey, having more than decent dribbling skills and an eye for a goal. 


But at 24, Bernard's career still hasn't managed to take off. Typical of the good, but not exceptional players, he seems to have found himself in the Ukrainian league and is now playing his fourth season with Shakhtar Donetsk. 


However, he has been regularly called up to Brazil's national team (15 caps) and is still young enough to become a mid-table Premier League team's record transfer/resounding flop. 

Right-midfield: Sacha Kljestan

Age: 31

Clubs: Orange County Blue Star (USA), CD Chivas USA (USA), RSC Anderlecht (Belgium), NY Red Bull (USA)


There were a choice of different players for this position, but we figured it wasn't a bad thing to have an MLS player in this XI, because even though the MLS draws very little media attention, there are some really good players in the league. 


Although most of the world-class players in the MLS are former big European players, Sacha Kljestan is a pure product of transatlantic soccer. Quickly spotted as one of the most exciting talents in the MLS in his early appearances, he waited quite a long time before trying his luck in Europe joining Anderlecht in 2010. Five seasons in the Jupiler Pro League later, he got back home only to confirm he's one of America's finest talents (52 caps with Team USA). 


He easily could have made a decent European top flight player though.

Left-wing: Quincy Promes

Age: 25

Clubs: FC Twente (Netherlands), Go Ahead Eagles Deventer (Netherlands, loan), Spartak Moscow (Russia)


Here's one lad we could see very soon in Europe's top flight teams. But unlike some of the Eredivisie's talents of previous years, Quincy Promes decided to take an intermediary step between the Netherlands and Europe's elite, and well, that's working quite well for him. 


Although that might have looked surprising at the time, the young winger opted for Russia when the time came to leave his native country. After three seasons for Spartak Moscow, the Dutch talent has been a key figure in the club's tenth domestic title, their first since 2001. With 11 goals and 10 assists this season (42 goals and 23 assists in 88 games in all competitions). 


Living proof some players are just better off flourishing in minor leagues. 

Striker: Hulk

Age: 30

Clubs: Esporte Clube Vitória (Brazil), Kawasaki Frontale (Japan), Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo (Japan, loan), Tokyo Verdy (Japan), FC Porto (Portugal), Zenit Saint-Petersburg (Russia), Shanghai SIPG (China)


There's two ways of looking at Hulk's career. First one: he's the BIGGEST waste of talent of the 21st century, a boy who missed out on a great European career to line his own pockets in obscure leagues. Second one: he's had a unique career and travelled all over the world to discover football in it's most singular form. 


Both of those two ways agree on one thing though: Hulk was expected to play for one of Europe's biggest clubs at some point in his career, but he simply didn't. His biggest moments ended up coming when playing at FC Porto, who revealed him to Europe alongside talents James, Falcao and Moutinho. 


From there, each time he was announced in a big transfer, he tricked the odds to sign in the unlikeliest place possible. First in Russia, where he received the highest salary in the league of course, then Shanghai, where he now earns around £17m a year! 

Striker: Adrien Silva

Age: 28

Clubs: Sporting CP (Portugal), Maccabi Haifa (Israel, loan), Académica Coimbra (Portugal, loan)


Another romantic to complete this team. The Portuguese striker is the only one in this team to have ever represented a team in one of the the top-five leagues, as he spent one year in Bordeaux's academy in France. Other than that, he's always belonged to Sporting CP, who loaned him out a couple of times throughout the 10 years he's been a professional there. 


Adrien Silva ended up being a quality striker, establishing himself as one of Liga NOS' best players. He slowly became a regular in his national team, playing most of Portugal's Euro 2016 winning campaign. 

Other players

In summary, the formation is 3-4-3 and consists of: Akinfeev - Lindelöf, Rakitskiy, Willems - Bernard, Carvalho, Witsel, Kljestan - Hulk, Adrien Silva, Promes.


Other players could have made the team, such as Zenit's right-back Igor Smolnikov, who played his whole career in Russia; Sao Paulo and former FC Porto Maicon Pereira Roque; Belgian defender from Montreal Impact Laurent Ciman; FC Porto's Mexican midfielder Hector Herrera; CSKA Moscow's Alan Dzagoev; Dynamo Kyiv's winger Andriy Yarmolenko or River Plate's striker Lucas Alario

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