With arguably the two biggest clubs in the world, Barcelona and Real Madrid vying for supremancy, it’s no wonder many foreign stars have been keen to play in Spain. Although you can find tens of thousands of English people scattered throughout Spain, you will be hard-pressed to find too many English footballers playing in La Liga. In fact, only 20 players have featured in the Spanish top flight since it was formed over 90 years ago. So which players left Blighty behind and headed across the Channel to see what was possible in the Iberian Peninsula? Let’s have a look at the best English players in La Liga history.
Best English players in La Liga
Laurie Cunningham (Real Madrid, Sporting Gijon)
An unheralded trendsetter for much of his career, Laurie Cunningham remains one of the forgotten legends of English football. The London-born winger rose to success with Leyton Orient and West Brom in the 1970s before Real Madrid signed him in 1979 becoming the first English player to play for Los Galacticos. During his four-year spell with Real, Cunningham scored 20 goals in 66 games and was part of the 1979/80 La Liga winning team as well as winning two Copa Del Rey titles in 1980 and 1982.
After a brief return to England with Manchester United in 1983, Cunningham returned immediately back to Spain joining Sporting Gijon for the 83/84 season before leaving for Marseille one year later. Sadly, it would be in Spain where Cunningham’s career and life would be tragically cut short where he was killed in a car crash in 1989 aged 33 whilst playing for Rayo Vallecano. An iconic player who broke barriers well before his time.
Gary Lineker (Barcelona)
Before MOTD and Walkers crisps, Gary Lineker was one of the best strikers in world football and set records throughout the 1980s. No wonder then that Barcelona came calling in 1986 after Lineker became a standout performer during the ’86 World Cup signing him from Everton ahead of the upcoming season.
It was to be the start of a bumper year for the Englishman where he scored 20 goals during the 1986/87 La Liga helping him to become runner up in the 1986 Ballon D’Or. Trophies would soon follow in 1988 where helped Barca to the 1988 Copa Del Rey title and the 1989 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup trophy. Injuries did hamper his time in Spain but Lineker still managed to score 42 goals in 107 games before moving to Tottenham. Undoubtedly one of the best English players to play in La Liga.
Vinny Samways (Las Palmas, Sevilla)
The name might not be a familiar one but Vinny Samways was a 2x FA Cup winner with Spurs and Everton when he made an unparalleled move to Las Palmas from Everton in 1996. The veteran midfielder was by far the biggest name in a Las Palmas side eager for success and the Englishman was a leader to his teammates despite the difference in background.
Samways was made captain of Las Palmas a couple of seasons after the move to the Canaries and led the side to promotion in 2000 – their first spell in La Liga for over a decade. They staved off relegation for two seasons before dropping down to Liga Adelante in 2002 where Samways also left – this time for Sevilla. His time with Sevilla was brief only appearing 10 times before leaving for Walsall a year later. Not a bad story to tell!
Steve McManaman (Real Madrid)
It was a big surprise to many when Steve McManaman left Anfield in 1999 to join the footballing powerhouse of Real Madrid in Spain. At a time when very few Englishman played overseas, the winger took it upon himself to show that success could be enjoyed on the continent. He did just that winning two La Liga titles and 2 Champions League titles with Real during his 4 years at the Bernabeu.
McManaman wasn’t a bit part player though as he regularly started for Real starring in a team that featured some of the best of all time such as Raul, Luis Figo, and Zinedine Zidane. He ended up scoring 8 goals in 94 appearances for Real and enjoyed a greater trophy haul than most English player have overseas, let alone in La Liga.
Kieran Trippier (Atletico Madrid)
Having enjoyed breakthrough success at the 2018 World Cup, Kieran Trippier was attracting plenty of interest from overseas so it wasn’t too surprising to see him leave Spurs for Atletico Madrid in 2019. The quick right-back filled a gap in an aging Atletico side needing to reinvest to remain one of the top sides in La Liga.
Trippier has grown his game tremendously in Spain becoming an excellent defender and has refined his passing ability over the past two seasons. Also capable of whipping in deadly set-pieces, Trippier has found himself a comfortable spot to excel in Spain and prove himself to be one of Europe’s best right-backs today.
David Beckham (Real Madrid)
Did you think we forgot about Becks!? David Beckham’s high-profile move to Real Madrid from Manchester United in 2003 dominated the headlines that summer and crushed Barcelona hearts as he became a new superstar in Spain. Trading the famous no.7 for no.23, Beckham featured prominently at the Bernabeu and was usually first-choice for right-side corners underlining his prowess from dead-ball situations.
His most celebrated achievement probably came in 2004/05 where he was named Real’s Player of the Season and the ESPY for Best Male Soccer Player for that season. Ironically, the only trophy Becks lifted with Real was the 2006/07 La Liga title which was a fitting end for his time in Spain before moving to the MLS and LA Galaxy.