12 of the biggest footballers to come out of retirement

Robben playing for Groningen.

Football is a short but sweet career in every sense of the phrase.

Of course, the reality of being a professional footballer is more difficult than it appears to be, especially for those not making the big bucks in the top leagues, but it is the career we all wanted to fall into as fans growing up.

Very few are fortunate enough to make it to the professional game, so when it’s time to hang up the boots, it’s an endlessly difficult decision to make.

You’re a long time retired – that’s what they say, anyway – and that phrase couldn’t ring any truer in football, with players very rarely lacing them up beyond their mid-to-late thirties.

It’s always sad watching our favourites slowly lose the powers that make them great. There’s no going back when the legs have gone, either. That’s why we see so many wind it down in their later years, or even retire with a little still left in the tank, taking their earnings and running to preserve their health long-term.

However, sometimes it just isn’t that easy. Think about it. You’re paid very handsomely to play football every day and then again on weekends, while travelling the world. Sure, it’s a commitment. But it’s the dream one at that. Going from such a schedule to painting the fences white in the back garden must prove hellish.

Petr Cech in action in the Premier League 2 in 2020
KINGSTON UPON THAMES, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 14: Petr Cech of Chelsea in action during the Premier League 2 match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Kingsmeadow on December 14, 2020 in Kingston upon Thames, England. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

It certainly did for the following players, anyway, who make up a small minority of elite names that decided to get the boots down from the loft and return to the pitch for one last hurrah.

There are some seriously shocking names in this list. And by shocking, we mean big. So be sure to read on and find out more about the following 12 stars who came out of retirement.

12. Petr Cech

Following an illustrious career that saw Cech become one of the greatest goalkeepers of the 21st Century from 1999 to 2019, the veteran stopper took up an advisory role with former club Chelsea.

Strangely, it emerged that Cech had been included in Chelsea’s 25-man Premier League squad for 2020/21, which the club confirmed was on an emergency, non-contract basis. Cech was back in the training kit and out on the pitch, making his comeback with the under-23s that season before retiring again.

11. Roger Milla

At an age most footballers are more than ready to be putting their feet up and binning their boots, Milla was making the biggest wave of his career.

Aged 38, the Cameroonian forward came out of international retirement for the 1990 World Cup, having initially moved away from the national team in 1988. That was at the request of the Cameroon President Paul Biya. Milla headed to the World Cup and bagged four goals to help his nation reach the quarter-final, with his iconic corner flag celebration setting the tone for creative celebrations moving forward.

Milla walks the ball into the goal at the 1990 World Cup
NAPLES, ITALY – JUNE 23: Cameroon striker Roger Milla walks the ball into the empty net to score the winning goal after dispossesing Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita (l) of the ball mid pitch during the Second phase match between Cameroon and Colombia on June 23, in Naples, Italy. (Photo by Allsport/Getty Images)

10. Robbie Rogers

American winger Rogers retired aged 25 following a spell with Leeds in 2013 and heroically came out as gay, making him the first professional male player in Britain to come out since Justin Fashanu in 1990.

However, later that year in May, he returned and signed for the LA Galaxy and became the first openly gay male athlete to win a major professional team sports honour in the United States the following year, when they lifted the MLS Cup in 2014. He retired again in 2017 following a lengthy struggle with injuries.

9. Jurgen Klinsmann

Known best for his two spells with Tottenham, Klinsmann looked to be done with his playing career following his loan return to Spurs from Sampdoria in 1998, retiring at the end of the season.

He reversed that decision in strange fashion some five years later, though, coming out of retirement to play for amateur United States outfit Orange County Blue Star. He was on the touchline coaching a year later.

Klinsmann's return didn't come at a high level
LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 08: Jürgen Klinsmann looks on during the UEFA Europa League group J match between Tottenham Hotspur FC and NK Maribor at White Hart Lane on November 8, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

8. Landon Donovan

Quite possibly the greatest North American footballer ever, Donovan called time on an already legendary career in 2012, having left behind a solid legacy in the United States and Europe.

It wasn’t enough, though, and an injury crisis at former club LA Galaxy tempted him into a 2016 return, moving away from his role as an analyst. That brief return resulted in Donovan getting the itch; he returned from retirement again in 2018 to play for Liga MX side Club Leon, and would also play indoor soccer in 2019 with the San Diego Shockers, ripping it up in his debut season.

7. Zico

One of the greatest players of all time, Zico simply couldn’t shake the itch despite swapping football for politics following his 1989 retirement, and paused his new career to make a return – in Japan.

Zico dug the boots out of the loft and took them over to Kashima to join second tier outfit Sumitomo Metals – now Kashima Antlers. He remained there until 1994 and left a legend due to the professionalism and commitment he showed during his time in Japan, becoming a Japanese footballing icon and helping to put Kashima on the football map.

Zico at the AFC Champions League final in 2018, which Kashima Antlers played in
KASHIMA, JAPAN – NOVEMBER 03: Zico sets the trophy of AFC Champions League prior to the AFC Champions League final first leg match between Kashima Antlers and Persepolis at Kashima Soccer Stadium on November 3, 2018 in Kashima, Ibaraki, Japan. (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images)

6. Denilson

Denilson was officially the world’s most expensive player in 1998 when he made a £21.5m move to Real Betis, but failed to live up to the record breaking moniker.

His career as a journeyman winger came to an end in 2010 with Greek side Kavala. That was until he announced a shock return to the professional game in 2022 – twelve years on from his initial retirement – signing for Brazilian side Ibis at the age of 44. No, really. A seriously bizarre reality.

5. Jens Lehmann

Lehmann had already been an incredible servant to Arsenal for his role in their ‘Invincibles’ season of 2003/04, and eventually retired in 2010 after a spell with VfB Stuttgart.

However, after a year with his feet up, the iconic German stopper was pulling on the Arsenal shirt once again out of the blue, coming out of retirement to steer the Gunners away from a goalkeeper crisis in 2011. Signed again as a backup to Manuel Almunia, Lehman would end up playing Premier League football that April as the Spaniard was injured in the warmup against Blackpool. Lehmann won on his 200th and final appearance for the club. Efficient.

Lehmann in action on his Premier League return for Arsenal
BLACKPOOL, ENGLAND – APRIL 10: Jens Lehman of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Blackpool and Arsenal at Bloomfield Road on April 10, 2011 in Blackpool, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

4. Carlos Roa

Argentina’s heroic goalkeeper at the 1998 World Cup, Roa announced himself on the international stage by not conceding a goal throughout the group stages, and then saving a decisive penalty against England in the last 16.

He became more commonly known, though, when it emerged that Roa was to retire from football in 1999, aged 30, to take a religious retreat as he was convinced the world was going to end in 2000. Seriously. He then returned to football after realising the world was not ending, by which point his top class form had gone. A seriously bizarre story.

3. Arjen Robben

It was a sad day in 2019 when Robben hung up his boots, and football lost the man that had made a career out of cutting inside and sending defenders to the shops for fun.

That’s what made a sudden, 2020 comeback all the more emphatic, when the legendary Dutchman reversed his decision of a year earlier and signed with Eredivisie outfit Groningen. A seven-month injury layoff ruined his return season, but he notched two assists on his return to the XI in May 2021, before retiring again. We can only wonder what Robben would be doing now if such a big injury didn’t ruin his return.

Robben in action in the Eredivisie
GRONINGEN, NETHERLANDS – SEPTEMBER 13: Arjen Robben of Football Club Groningen in action during the Dutch Eredivisie match between FC Groningen and PSV Eindhoven at Hitachi Capital Mobility Stadion on September 13, 2020 in Groningen, Netherlands. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

2. Johan Cruyff

The greatest, most influential footballer ever in the eyes of many, it’s astounding to learn that Cruyff felt he had to come out of retirement for financial reasons in 1978.

A series of poor investments following his initial retirement saw him return to the game, signing for the Los Angeles Aztecs and pocketing a significant sum of money in the process, which he confessed swayed his reasoning. It wasn’t a one and done, though, as the iconic Dutchman stuck around until 1984, which included a second spell with Ajax. A peculiar twist to the tale of a marvellous player.

1. Paul Scholes

Absolutely nobody saw this one coming in 2012; not even Manchester United‘s first team squad knew of Scholes’ desire and intention to return, which was kept a big secret. The legendary midfielder hung up the boots in 2011, but stuck around at Carrington, keeping himself in top shape with the reserve team.

Scholes had developed an itch to play again and, with an injury crisis to United’s midfield on the turn of the New Year, he officially came out of retirement, donning the number 22 shirt. In his return game, Scholes – wearing a pair of £35 football boots having not told sponsors Nike about the secret return – absolutely bossed it off the bench in a 3-2 derby win over Manchester City.

He capped off the season by signing an extension through to the summer of 2013, and retired again at the end of the following campaign, having lifted his 11th Premier League title.

Paul Scholes comes off the bench and out of retirement against Manchester City
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – JANUARY 08: Paul Scholes of Manchester United comes on as a substitute during the FA Cup Third Round match between Manchester City and Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium on January 8, 2012 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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