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5 greatest rags-to-riches stories in football history

Pele (left) and Diego Maradona are two of the most endearing rags-to-riches stories in football.
Pele (left) and Diego Maradona are two of the most endearing rags-to-riches stories in football.
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They say football is a beautiful game, but not all world-class footballers have privileged and beautiful beginnings.

The beautiful game is replete with several classic rags-to-riches stories, especially of players with humble beginnings going on to thrive at some of the biggest leagues and competitions in the game.

Over the years, football has been the gateway to a better life for many such players, some of them going on to etch their names in the history of the sport. On that note, here's a look at five such players in no particular order:


#5 Alphonso Davies

Alphonso Davies has impressed at Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich.
Alphonso Davies has impressed at Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich.

Alphonso Davies is a classic rags-to-riches story. Born to Liberian parents in a refugee camp in Canada, Davies impressed in the MLS and was soon spotted by European giants Bayern Munich.

But the Bavarian giants had to stave off competition from Manchester United, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain to land the precocious teenager in 2019. Bayern's sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic said after signing Davies:

"Alphonso Davies is a very big talent, and has huge potential at just 17. Alphonso already possesses great ability, which is why a lot of top clubs were keen on him, and I'm delighted he has chosen FC Bayern."

Davies made just six appearances in 2019-20 before announcing himself the next season. The left-back, who was one of the standout performers in Bayern's treble-winning campaign that season, excelled at both ends of the field

Alphonso Davies wishes to captain Bayern Munich and also emulate his idol Lionel Messi and win the Ballon d'Or award, saying:

"To be Bayern captain would be unbelievable, but I have a lot still to learn, I have to play consistently to a top level. I've learned a lot already in terms of being a leader, but there's still more - I'm working on it. I'd also like to be a Ballon d'Or contender."

#4 Jamie Vardy

Jamie Vardy has been a prolific scorer in the Premier League.
Jamie Vardy has been a prolific scorer in the Premier League.

Leicester City scripted one of the most improbable league triumphs in the game's history when they won the 2015-16 Premier League title. The Foxes' triumph, after they struggled to escape relegation the previous season, was scripted by an unlikely protagonist, Jamie Vardy, who scored 24 league goals.

Vardy, who was rejected by Sheffield United as a 16-year-old, used to work at a carbon fibre factory during the day and play non-league football with Halifax Town at night, to make ends meet. The 34-year-old once said about those days:

“I worked as a carbon fibre technician. My work included the workers who made supporting tools for people with fractures. We worked hard and continued to lift items hundreds of times a day. The job really damaged my back. During the day I worked for hours then played football at night.”

He moved on to Fleetwood, where his goalscoring exploits caught the attention of then-Championship side Leicester City. The Foxes dished out £1 million - a record for a non-league player - in 2012 to land Vardy. Suffice to say, Vardy hasn't looked back after that.

After helping Leicester City win the 2013-14 Championship and gain promotion to the top tier, Vardy landed a bigger prize two years later when he became a Premier League champion.

The 34-year-old Vardy, who won the FA Cup this year, has scored an impressive 148 times for Leicester City, winning the Premier League Golden Boot in 2019-20.

#3 Ronaldo Nazario

Ronaldo Nazario won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002.
Ronaldo Nazario won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002.

Ronaldo Nazario is one of the finest strikers to have graced the game. During his heyday, Ronaldo was virtually unstoppable, beating opposition defences with his blistering pace and trickery and scoring goals galore.

The 2002 FIFA World Cup and two-time Ballon d'Or winner was born to a poor family in Rio de Janeiro, and had to drop out of school at the age of 11 after his parents separated.

Ronaldo, who mostly played street football in those days, impressed at Brazilian club Cruzeiro, where PSV Eindhoven spotted him, and there was no looking back. He would go on to play for the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan in a hugely successful yet injury-riddled career.

The Brazilian held the record for most goals (15) at the FIFA World Cup before Miroslav Klose overtook him at the 2014 edition of the competition which Germany won.


#2 Diego Maradona

Diego Maradona is often regarded as the GOAT.
Diego Maradona is often regarded as the GOAT.

Diego Maradona is regarded as one of the most naturally-gifted players to have played the beautiful game. Although he was hardly a role model off the field, there is no denying Maradona's ability on the ball, especially when he was using his magical left foot.

The 1986 FIFA World Cup winner became infamous because of his extravagant lifestyle and bigger-than-life persona, but like the others on this list, Maradona had humble beginnings.

Born to a poor Argentinian family in Buenos Aires, Maradona started playing football at the age of three and began to impress with his wizardry on the ball. After his move to Boca Juniors in 1981, the diminutive Maradona didn't have to look back.

The late Maradona scored one of the goals of the tournament against England at the 1986 FIFA World Cup, which Argentina won. He enjoyed his most successful spell at Napoli, where he helped the Southern Italian club win the only two Serie A titles in their history.

Maradona took Argentina to another FIFA World Cup final in 1990, which they lost to West Germany, before his career ended in shame after he was ousted from the 1994 World Cup following a failed drugs test.

After he passed away at the age of 60 last year, Napoli renamed their stadium the Estadio Diego Armando Maradona.


#1 Pele

Pele's name is always spoken in the same breath as Maradona with some rating him even higher.
Pele's name is always spoken in the same breath as Maradona with some rating him even higher.

Pele is widely regarded as one of the best players to have played the game. During an illustrious playing career for club and country, the Brazilian scored over 1200 goals.

The 81-year-old is the only player to win three FIFA World Cup titles and is the youngest player to score in a World Cup final; Pele was 17 when he netted twice in Brazil's 5-2 win over hosts Sweden in the 1958 title match.

But much before he became famous around the globe because of his footballing prowess, a young Pele struggled to make ends meet after he was born to a poor Brazilian family in the early 1940s. Pele apparently had to polish boots to support his family, but destiny had other plans in store for him.

After a sceptical Santos provided the precocious teenager his first break, Pele scored on his club debut barely days after turning 16 and never looked back. A few months later, he would score six times, including twice in the final, as Brazil won the first of their five FIFA World Cup titles.

Despite his diminutive stature, Pele was strong in the air and was able to outsmart taller, physically imposing defenders. Pele would later say:

"Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do."
Edited by S Chowdhury
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