Alexander Hleb was a classic Arsène Wenger signing. He was relatively unknown in England, technically excellent, yet cursed with a pathological preference for a pass over a punt at goal. When the six-time Belarus player of the year and sometime captain of the national team arrived in 2005, he did not look like a footballer. Hleb was scrawny, too thin for his shirt – which always went untucked – with socks around his ankles. But he could play.
The 12-year-old Johan Vonlanthen was in tears when he was taken away from his hometown of Santa Marta in Colombia in 1998 because he thought it meant he would never see a football pitch again. For a while, it seemed that he need not have worried. There were plenty of pitches in Switzerland, the home country of his mother's new husband. During his teens Vonlanthen did little else but play stunning football on his way to becoming one of the most sought after prospects in Europe.
When Bayern Munich signed Breno Vinícius Borges for €12.3 million (£9.6m) in December 2007, they appeared to have landed a major coup. The 18-year-old central defender had just been voted "Discovery of the Year" by journalists after helping São Paulo FC to become Brazilian champions. Already an Under-20 international, Breno had been nominated captain of Brazil's 2008 Olympic team by national coach Dunga.
When Dundee United manager Jim McLean attempted to exploit the South American transfer market in 1991, his hope of bringing the next Gabriel Batistuta to the banks of the Tay didn't quite work out as planned. In the early nineties, the formidable side United had become over the previous two decades began to falter. With an increased number of foreign players arriving in Scotland along with the recent Souness revolution at Rangers and growing pressure from fans for a big money signing, McLean decided to go international.
So it was in August 1991 that Dundee United announced the signing of ‘flying Argentinian winger' Walter Rojas, a twenty-year old with dark flowing locks and "blistering pace", from Buenos Aires club side San Lorenzo for a reported fee of £200k. United had apparently beaten off a host of clubs including Sampdoria and Foggia for the Argentine under-21 international signature. "El Explosivo", as he had been nicknamed in his home country, was unveiled in a blaze of publicity. Fans were assured his debut would be imminent.
Then it all went very quiet. Weeks passed without any sign of the new long-haired wing wizard. According to the club, he had damaged a thigh muscle in training. However, rumours were circulating that Rojas might not be the player everyone thought he was. Opinion was rife in the city he was a "duffer", apparently being taken to the cleaners by the reserve and youth team players in training. After almost three months, Rojas finally turned out for the reserves against Aberdeen in what proved to be his solitary appearance in a tangerine shirt and was well short of the standard required. One fan later claimed he had only two decent crosses in the game "when he blessed himself coming on and off the park".
Then the conspiracy theories began. One source claimed United had been the victim of mistaken identity and had signed the wrong player. Another alleged that McLean had seen video footage of a prolific striker and was keen to sign him. A deal was negotiated but the player didn't fancy the move so United were offered Rojas and took a chance.
Whatever the truth, United had been done. Rojas had only been a reserve team player at San Lorenzo and had played a mere four times for the first eleven in four years. Despite being inconspicuous by his absence on the park, there was no shortage of sightings of the player off it. ‘Rojas-spotting became a popular pastime with United fans in and around the city. "I used to see him in Buddies (a popular nightclub)" remembers one "he was strangely fond of having his jumper draped over his shoulders". Another spotted him at a wedding in nearby Broughty Ferry.
I also had the thrill of encountering Rojas at the Megabowl Leisure Complex in Dundee. He looked slightly embarrassed and kept diverting my attention to the guy he was with. "Victor…this Victor," he repeated in broken English. I thought nothing of it. He turned out to be Argentinian international Victor Ferreya, signed by United that day. Rojas clearly knew he was something of a fraud and had been embarrassed by all the attention whilst his new team-mate's arrival appeared to have gone un-noticed. Rojas and Ferreya; were also invited to the Glenrothes Arabs player of the year dance. "They turned up in shell-suits, won nearly all the raffle prizes then swiftly fucked off back to Dundee," recalled a witness.
Rojas returned to San Lorenzo then played for another three Argentine clubs before ending his career with Uruguayan side Huracan Buceo in 2000. Despite never playing a first team game, he achieved cult status among Arabs, as United fans are known. His moniker appears in a range of guises as usernames on messageboards and he has become a by-word for a duff foreign signing (and there have been plenty).
Twenty years on, McLean finally broke his silence on the bizarre episode. Rojas apparently only cost United an air fare and a few week's expenses. There was no mistaken identity but having never seen him play, and to get around red tape, the player signed a contract and release form at the same time meaning United kept him if he was any good or could release him if he was a "dumpling". The Explosive One proved to be a damp squib.
From WSC 295 September 2011
An internatioanlly renowned midfielder who failed to live up to the hype but became a cult hero anyway. Damian Hall tells a heart-warming tale
Reputations, it is said, take ages to build but can be destroyed in an instant. This adage, though probably quite apt generally, is not at all true of John Jensen. He earned a reputation very quickly and lost it in a painfully slow, grinding kind of manner.
Now that Shunsuke Nakamura has returned from Europe and Hidetoshi Nakata has retired, Japanese "sakka" is looking for a new leading man. Competing are Borussia Dortmund's new talisman Shinji Kagawa and CSKA Moscow's Keisuke Honda, whose World Cup goals, bleached-blond hair and penchant for expensive fashion make him the favourite. Whoever lands the role will be the latest to replace Japan's first football superstar, Kazuyoshi Miura. Now aged 43 Miura is still playing professionally, seemingly unwilling to relinquish his limelight.
Leon Knight has nearly seen it all. Since making his debut for Chelsea as a youngster ten years ago, he has played for 14 other teams, the latest being Coleraine of the Irish League. But while club fallouts have marred his career, nothing could compare with what happened at Rushden & Diamonds – which brought the 28-year-old to the north coast of Northern Ireland. “Peter Taylor came in at Wycombe. A month in, he was overlooking me and bringing in his own players so we had a few words and I decided to leave. I was on my way to Scotland when the call from Rushden came.”
Owen Amos uncovers the facts surrounding Lee Trundle's mysterious move Welsh Premier League side Neath
When Lee Trundle was released by Bristol City in May, he was expected to stay in the Football League. This, after all, was a forward with 118 league goals in 320 games. Indeed, Trundle was a million-pound striker: three years earlier, he'd moved from Swansea to Bristol for seven figures. But, despite offers from Swindon, Tranmere, Yeovil and Newport, he signed for Neath in the Welsh Premier League, a club with an average gate of 221. Trundle, the showboating star of Soccer AM, probably gets bigger crowds for his book signings (Lee Trundle, More Than Just Tricks – £16.99 in hardback if you're interested).
No saviour arrived for Grimsby last season but Jack Johnson remembers the brief appearance of a goal-scoring international defender a decade ago
Ten years ago Division One strugglers Grimsby Town were in the midst of a defensive crisis. The club's only senior centre-backs – Peter Handyside, Richard Smith and Paul Raven – were all spending more time on the treatment table than the training ground, so Grimsby boss Lennie Lawrence decided to make a few phonecalls. The fans expected a rookie Premier League reserve or two; what they didn’t expect was a Chinese international.
Before the Premier League era, what few foreigners there were in England often arrived after a World Cup. Nico Claesen came to Spurs in 1986, while Ricky Villa and Ossie Ardiles more famously arrived on the back of Argentina’s 1978 triumph. Italia 90 was the last tournament before overseas players became commonplace in the English game, and saw the aforementioned Ardiles, by then managing Swindon Town of the old Division Two, pull off a notable transfer coup in the shape of countryman Néstor Lorenzo.