What if Barcelona never agreed to pay for Lionel Messi's hormone treatments as a young teen? Would he still be plying his trade in Argentina to this day? Would alternate universe Leo be turning out for Newell's Old Boys, laboring to earn his very first cap for the Argentine national team after years in the Argentine first division? Would he still have made it to Europe?
It's mind-boggling to think about the possibilities if Player X signed for Team Y instead of Team Z, or if Player Z never left Team X. There are a number of "what if" stories in the soccer world, but what would an alternate universe look for some of soccer's biggest stories?
For this article, I've tried to imagine what if those possibilites came true. What would happen if Ronaldo took that offer from Rangers instead of joining Inter? What if Arsenal nabbed Ibrahimovic as a youth, as they were reportedly interested? This is a dive into a parallel universe where different decisions were made.
Note: This exercise takes extreme liberty with past events to allow for potential transfer timelines, and each individual transfer story exists in its own universe. They do not impact each other. Please don't overthink this.
Ronaldo signs for Rangers in 1997 instead of Inter Milan
Imagine: In 1997, when presented with the chance to join Inter Milan, Lazio or Glasgow Rangers, buck-toothed Brazilian superstar Ronaldo chooses the Scottish giants, enticed by the prospect of joining up with the legendary Ally McCoist.
Ronaldo scores 39 goals in his first season in Scotland, but quickly becomes discouraged by the Glasgow weather, muddy pitches and the club's repeated attempts to get him to enjoy haggis. After leading Brazil to the World Cup final, Ronaldo's second season at the club is fraught with injury, leading him to orchestrate a move back to Brazil, where he rejoins Cruzeiro. Safe in the comfort of his home country, Ronaldo becomes a hometown legend, playing until the age of 38, but he never wins another World Cup.
Cristiano Ronaldo joins Liverpool in 2003 instead of Man U
Fresh off a dazzling first season with Sporting Lisbon, Cristiano Ronaldo is in talks with Arsenal and Manchester United, but then dramatically announces his intention to join up with Gerard Houllier's Liverpool side in 2003, declaring his love for one of England's most storied clubs.
Ronaldo joins the Reds, scoring 10 goals in his first season as they make the Champions League quarter-finals, but finish as runners-up to Arsenal in the league once again. With Ronaldo's presence in the team however, Liverpool continue to go from strength to strength, making the Champions League semi-finals in back-to-back seasons, before Ronaldo truly comes into his own, finishing as top scorer in the league and helping Liverpool to their first Premier League title in 15 years. After five years with the Reds, Ronaldo leaves for a new challenge with Barcelona, joining up with good friends Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
N'Golo Kante joins Arsenal in 2015 instead of Leicester
Little known French midfielder N'Golo Kante joins up with Arsenal in 2015 after one season with Caen in the top flight, with Arsenal supporters not shy in making their feelings known about yet another cheap unknown coming into the team.
Quickly becoming a fixture in the midfield beside Santi Cazorla, Arsenal's pocket duo dominate midfields in the Premier League, helping steer the Gunners to their first league title in over a decade. They take home the FA Cup for the second year running, but just miss out on the treble with a narrow exit in the Champions League final to none other than Bayern Munich.
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic joins Arsenal in 2000 instead of Ajax
After seeing Zlatan Ibrahimovic's otherworldly talent at the age of 16, Arsene Wenger offers him a contract straightaway, and the big Swedish youth accepts, joining the Gunners in 2000.
Zlatan thrives in the Arsenal reserves, and within a few weeks, he's earned a spot on the first team bench as Thierry Henry's backup. Zlatan performs well as an alternate option for the Frenchman, playing an important part in Arsenal's successes. However, after two years as a backup, Zlatan declares himself to be better than Henry in the press, and the two come to blows in training leading to Henry's hurried departure just before the 03-04 season.
Without him in the team, Ibrahimovic and Bergkamp fail to recreate the striking relationship Henry and the Dutchman shared, and Bergkamp decides his time is up at the club as well. Finally in the spotlight, Zlatan struggles as Arsenal's main striker his first season, scoring just 12 goals as Arsenal scrape fourth in the league.
Demanding better quality around him ahead of the next season, Zlatan faces off with Arsene Wenger in his office, and the Frenchman obliges, bolstering the Gunners' midfield and defense, resulting in a run of three straight league titles and a Champions League final appearance, losing to Henry's Real Madrid.
Luis Suarez and Eden Hazard join Spurs in 2010
Harry Redknapp led Tottenham to fourth in the league and a spot in Champions League in the 2009-10 season, and was gearing up for a title challenge. His three-hour conversation with Eden Hazard in a Paris hotel convinced the Belgian, and his arrival convinced Luis Suarez, then at Ajax, to join as well. With the dynamic duo instantly clicking with Luka Modric feeding them, Spurs finished 2nd in the league. Some shrewd management saw Redknapp move Gareth Bale to right wing, complementing Hazard on the left, and the trio of Hazard, Suarez and Bale fired the Lilywhites to the top of the league for the first time since 1961.
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Ronaldinho joins Manchester United in 2003 instead of Barcelona
Excited by the prospect of replacing David Beckham as the face of Manchester United, PSG's toothy Brazilian joins Sir Alex Ferguson's side in 2003. After some bright early performances though, the rain and cold starts to affect the happy-go-lucky playmaker and his form dips. Caught dancing in a club in the wee hours of the morning after a narrow loss to Arsenal, Ferguson sends Ronaldinho to train with the reserves, and their relationship deteriorates.
Restricted to irregular bench appearances, Ronaldinho is handed a lifeline by Real Madrid, and he joins alongside fellow Brazilians Robinho and Julio Baptista. They form a formidable link with compatriot Ronaldo, winning two Champions League titles in their half decade together at the club.
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Franz Beckenbauer joins 1860 Munich in 1958 instead of Bayern Munich
Franz Beckenbauer opts to ignore the bullying he received at the hands of his 1860 Munich marker during a youth tournament, instead deciding to switch positions and redefine the art of defense. He chooses to sign for 1860 over Bayern Munich, vowing to beat the offending defender to the first team ranks, and convinces his friends to join Munich's biggest club alongside him.
1860 becomes Germany's biggest powerhouse, beginning to attract international talent as well as the best players from around the country, while Bayern yo-yo in between the first and second divisions, struggling in the shadow of their oppressive rivals in sky blue. Eventually, unable to pay their players, Bayern accept a €2 million loan from 1860 to stay afloat, as their rivals go on to win the treble, lifting the Bundesliga, DFB Pokal and Champions League trophies.
Diego Maradona joins Sheffield United in 1978
At the tender age of 17 years old, Diego Armando Maradona is spotted by Sheffield Wednesday boss Harry Haslam, and he immediately falls in love with the tiny attacker. Despite his desire to join Boca Juniors, Maradona is convinced by Wednesday's salary offer, Arter's promises to make him a star in England, and joins for £200,000.
Maradona struggles in his first season at Wednesday as he adjusts to the English culture, style of play and opopnents' attempts to remove his legs at the knees, but helps lead Wednesday to a solid mid-table finish. The next season, he convinces fellow Argentine Osvaldo Ardiles to join him at Wednesday, with the two firing Wednesday to a European spot the very next season.
In his third season at the club, Maradona and Ardiles continue the Argentine revolution, convincing defender Daniel Passarella to join from River Plate. Together, the trio lead Wednesday to their first league title since 1930, instantly becoming club legends.
Zinedine Zidane joins Blackburn in 1995 instead of Juventus
Fresh off their 1995 Premier League win, Blackburn sign a then little-known French midfielder named Zinedine Zidane to be the foil to Tim Sherwood in midfield. The pair dovetail with striker Alan Shearer immediately, with the English striker having decided against a move to Newcastle at the last minute.
With Zidane and Sherwood supplying him, Shearer finishes as top scorer yet again, with Zidane proving the bulk of his assists. The trio continue to grow in stature together, making a deep run into Europe, making it to the Champions League final in 1997, only to lose in penalties to Italian side Juventus.
Action Images / ReutersClaudio Papi
Rivaldo joins Bolton in 2004 instead of Olimpiacos
At the height of Bolton's powers, Brazilian legend Rivaldo joins the Trotters in 2004, with Sam Allardyce famously relaxing his demands and allowing the lanky attacker to live in Manchester.
With Rivaldo alongside Youri Djorkaeff, Jay Jay Okocha and Fernando Hierro, Wanderers finish four in the league, making Champions League for the first time in their history. Building on that success the next season, Bolton finish third in the league, but an ageing Rivaldo and ebullient Okocha help drag them to the Champions League knockout rounds where they go out on penalties. Rivaldo then leaves for his swan song in Qatar a Bolton hero, and the club use the funds from their Champions League run to sign young attacking midfielder John Obi Mikel, highly recommended by Okocha.
Robert Lewandowski joins Blackburn in 2010 instead of Dortmund
In the spring of 2010, with the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull, Robert Lewandowski cancels his trip to Blackburn's Ewood Park, but is convinced to move over the phone by a passionate Sam Allardyce. He joins up with Blackburn, scoring a reasonable 11 goals in his first season in the English top flight, but is plagued by inconsistency.
His second season in England is a completely different story however, and the young Polish striker explodes, hitting 27 goals and leading Blackburn to fifth place in the league, just edging Tottenham out of a European place.
With Blackburn in financial difficulty, the club are forced to sell Lewandowski and, convinced by his two years in the Premier League, Arsene Wenger opens up the purse strings to sign him for £15 million as competition for Robin Van Persie. Instead, he ends up forming a lethal partnership with the Dutchman, with van Persie the Bergkamp to his Henry. The pair score 50 goals between the two of them and lead Arsenal to their first title since the 2003-04 Invicibles season.
Edinson Cavani and Radamel Falcao join Aston Villa in 2009
It's 2009, and Aston Villa boss Martin O'Neill is in desperate need of firepower. Wigan's Emile Heskey's at the top of his list, but at the last moment, Heskey opts against the move. Despite his preference for players who know the Premier League, O'Neill is convinced to make a double swoop, splashing the cash on Falcao for £5 million from River Plate, and taking Edinson Cavani from Palermo on loan with an option to buy.
O'Neill pairs the two South Americans up front, and the result is absolutely devastating. The pair net 50 goals between them, pushing Villa to the brink of a Champions League spot. The next season, Falcao convinces his countryman James Rodriguez to join Villa over Porto, and the trio fire Villa to fourth place and their first Champions League qualification in decades. Fast forward to 2017, and Villa are a solid European challenger once again, and Birmingham has a contender once more.
Paul Gascoigne to Manchester United in 1988 instead of Tottenham
Despite the alleged promise of a house for his family, Gazza keeps his word to Sir Alex Ferguson, signing for Manchester United in the summer of '88. He and Ferguson both regret the decision early on in their tenure together, with Ferguson leaving him out of the side multiple times in his first season for excessive partying.
Despite the rocky start, Ferguson and Gascoigne build a tenuous working relationship, but injury and inconsistency plague his second and third seasons at the club, with fans clamoring for his ouster. SAF keeps faith though, and in his fourth season, Gascoigne is injury free, drama free, and has his best year on record. He forms a telepathic link with Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes, and United go on to win the league, sparking their eventual domination of England. Gascoigne retires in a United shirt, becoming a club ambassador and youth coach after his retirement.
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Pele signs with Real Madrid, 1966
Will Pele play in Europe?
The question had been asked for years, and after the disappointment of the '66 World Cup, Pele shocked the world by announcing his decision to join Real Madrid.
Fully in his prime at the age of 26, Pele is a menace to the Spanish league immediately, finishing as top scorer in La Liga with 36 goals, with no less than 14 of them laid on by his new partner in crime, Pizzi. Pele leads Real Madrid to European Cup in his first season with the club, and stuns the world by powering in 49 goals in the league, and adding 15 more in the European Cup as Real Madrid repeat as treble winners.
Stating his intention to seek a new challenge in Europe, Pele moves to Juventus. He finds the same success as he did at Real Madrid, finishing as Capocannoniere in his first season with the Bianconeri, edging out Gigi Riva with 25 goals to his 22. Juventus narrowly win the league, and in his next season, Pele improves his tally to 31, helping Juventus to the European Cup semi finals. His third year at Juve, in the 1970-71 season, he three-peats as capocannoniere, knocking in 30 goals in the league, and finally leads Juventus to a European Cup, scoring a late header against Real Madrid to seal the final.
After winning the Cup with Juventus, Pele again states his desire for a new challenge, and promptly seals a deal to move to Manchester United. He starts the season on a rampage, but tails off dramatically as the winter rolls around. Despite forming a solid partnership with George Best, Pele struggles in the harsh winter, and fails to win the league in his first ever season in Europe as United finish third.
Pele returns to Brazil after his first season in England where he stays until 1974, making the move to the United States. He leaves Europe as one of the best ever in his short tenure.