Manchester United has seen its fair share of foreign players show up at Carrington and become some of the most talented stars in world football.
The Theatre of Dreams, Old Trafford, has been a historic stadium for some of the world’s finest talents, some of whom have ventured far from their native lands.
So how do we distill this treasure trove of numerous talents into a list of just 10? How do we decide the most electrifying foreign-born players to ever don the Manchester United Jersey? Well, this is part science, part art, and mostly debatable.
When weighing these incredible careers, we’ve based much of our judgments on three key factors. These are:
- The amount of time they spent at the club
- The memories they left behind
- The sheer magnificence that set them apart from their peers.
You might disagree with the list, especially because of how subjective football can be, and that’s fine. Personal biases will come in, especially when looking at different eras and styles of playing the beautiful game, and we absolutely get that.
So, as much as possible, we’ll try to provide a balance between rational analysis and the cherished memories that turned many general enthusiasts into die-hard United fans. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the top 10 best foreigners to have played for Manchester United.
10. David de Gea – Spanish Goalkeeper
De Gea was an enigmatic Spanish shot-stopper whose career at Manchester United was filled with brilliance. It was also marred by occasional lapses.
When he ended his time at Old Trafford this summer, you couldn’t help but think: “What happened to him!” But let’s zoom out for a minute his legacy is far more than just a shaky final season.
12-years! That’s how long he stood guard between the sticks at the Theatre of Dreams. He saved Manchester United from trouble over and over, racking up 190 clean sheets (this is a club record, by the way).
He won the Premier League under Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, racked up 545 appearances for the club, and won the Player of the Year award four times.
Two Golden Gloves, with the second coming in his last season, tells you just how impressive he was for the Red Devils. But all things come to an end as the club let him leave on a free transfer in 2023. We don’t blame them, because he had some really shaky moments.
9. Patrice Evra – French Defender
In 2006, a young French defender named Patrice Evra arrived at the Theatre of Dreams. The Red Devils paid just £5.5 million pounds, and after a disastrous debut against Manchester City – where he got subbed off at half-time – no one had any serious expectations.
Then, his luck would change as Gabriel Heinze’s unfortunate ligament injury gave Evra the chance to shine on the left flank. Evra took the left-back mantle and solidified his presence in the club with his performance, becoming such a fan favorite over the years.
The French defender became an on-pitch general, and at the peak of his prowess, he was arguably the Premier League’s best left-back.
He helped Manchester United to 10 major trophies including five Premier League titles and a Champions League win in 2008. His love for the club was often clear to the fans, and he left in 2014 as a true legend.
8. Edwin van der Sar – Dutch Goalkeeper
This Manchester United great showed up when the Red Devils were in search of a worthy heir to shot-stopper legend Peter Schmeichel.
United kept picking up new keepers, as they signed players like Fabian Barthez and Tim Howard. However, they didn’t truly find their perfect man between the sticks until Edwin van der Sar came their way (costing just a mere £2 million – a steal),
Where do we begin with Edwin van der Sar? Many (older) Manchester United fans will remember that very particular Champions League final against Chelsea in 2008.
He made a gracious save, beating away Nicolas Anelka’s effort in the penalty shootout, and secured United’s last Champions League trophy.
His records are also world-class. The United legend made real waves when he astonished the world with 11 consecutive clean sheets.
He also played a genuinely shocking 1311 minutes without conceding a single goal. Edwin van der Sar was a true custodian of Old Trafford. He was arguably one of the greatest foreign goalkeepers to ever play for Manchester United.
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7. Ruud van Nistelrooy – Dutch Striker
One of the greatest strikers to ever grace Manchester United, Ruud van Nistelrooy’s predatory instincts were pure in the box.
It might have seemed like a crazy fee at the time when the Red Devils opened their checkbooks to shell out an impressive £19 million to sign the Dutch maestro. However, his records speak for themselves.
He might have spent just five years playing under Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, which might have seemed weird, especially because of the fee. But he was such a goal machine!
We don’t think we can easily find another player who racked up 150 goals in just 219 appearances. Admittedly, the last decade has been filled with the works of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, so these numbers might seem small. But believe us, they are not.
How many other players can score six hat-tricks in five years at the English top-flight?
Ruud van Nistelrooy was an artist in his own right, painting a masterpiece in the final third every time he played. It wasn’t just the goals that stunned the opposition defenders and fans.
It was everything. His ability on the ball, his powerful headers, and the trophies he won. Everything. It all soured eventually as he left the club in 2006 after falling out with Sir Alex Ferguson, but he was Manchester United’s biggest star at the time.
6. Dimitar Berbatov – Bulgarian Striker
Maybe aside from Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United have not seen another connoisseur of football since Dimitar Berbatov.
His poetic style of play did seem different when he joined the club at first, and he looked “lazier” than what was expected at Old Trafford as he somewhat struggled to match the league’s physicality. That concern, however, did not last long at all.
Sure, he didn’t match up to other strikers at the club like Wayne Rooney, who was the Red Devils’ out-and-out goalscorer for years.
But Berbatov was highly effective in ensuring the flow of the ball, playing in such an elegant way, that it was just easy to watch him play.
In the 2010/11 season, however, the Bulgarian forward became a deadly force for Manchester United and cemented his name as one of the best foreign players at the club.
He scored hat-tricks, provided goals, and displayed remarkable performances throughout that season, leading the Red Devils to win the Premier League title in style.
He barely spent half a decade at the club, but he was brilliant when he needed to be, bagging the Premier League Golden Boot that season.
5. Nemanja Vidic – Serbian Defender
You cannot overstate just how much of an impact Nemanja Vidic had on Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, spending nearly a decade at the club.
While the Red Devils were games, thanks to their goalscoring qualities and abilities in the final third, their impenetrable defense ensured they could secure trophies as well. Vidic was a vital cog in that defense.
His ferocity at the back made him such a threat to the opponent’s attackers, and his ability to provide ruthlessness when needed kept Manchester United safe more times than not.
However, it wasn’t just these skills that made him one of the best ever defenders to grace Old Trafford. It was his leadership attitude and his iconic central defensive partnership with Rio Ferdinand.
The duo formed the best defensive unit in Europe, alongside another mention on this list – Edwin van der Sar. Certainly, the goalkeeper’s abilities between the sticks helped to provide that world-record 1,311 minutes without conceding a goal.
But he needed the best central defensive pairing in the club’s history to make that happen. Vidic won 10 trophies in his 9 years at the club while snagging the Premier League’s Player of the Year award twice.
4. Peter Schmeichel – Danish Goalkeeper
Remember how Manchester United got Edwin van der Sar as Schmeichel’s replacement? It was this particular Schmeichel, who was (if we’re being honest) very irreplaceable.
The Dane is arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the history of the sport, and even rival fans will admit this. The Red Devils have not had a more well-rounded goalkeeper since Schmeichel.
He did everything for the club, providing leadership, showcasing an impressive shot-stopping ability, and showering the dressing room with his positive attitude.
While he was their custodian between the sticks, he commanded his defenders with so much efficiency, he could be singlehandedly picked as the direct reason United won the Treble in 1999.
His technical qualities made him a legend in the eyes of the fans, but it was his calmness under pressure that set him apart.
He was thoroughly consistent throughout the 1990s, winning an eye-watering 15 trophies at Old Trafford.
Everything culminated in the Treble in 1999, after which he left Manchester United, making him one of the best players to have ever played at the club. Fans may still be pissed that he moved to Manchester City later in his career, but he’ll always be a legend.
3. Eric Cantona – French Attacker
This list would not be exhaustive if we did not mention the legend himself. While Schmeichel was commanding the backline and holding down the fort, it was Eric Cantona leading the line upfront during some of Manchester United’s glorious years.
Signed from Leeds United for £1.2 million in 1992, there were no guarantees that he would turn everything he touched into gold. But he did. And in the most chaotic ways.
King Eric was full of flair, versatility, and a remarkable ability to change the pitch from nearly any position in the middle and final third. He was dedicated in every way, helping the team in defense almost as much as he did in attack.
While his on-field performances were beyond impressive, his controversies were just as fun, as he was notoriously volatile and quick to anger. He brought the drama in so many ways, and it certainly played a part in getting Manchester United to the top of football.
There’s a chance that, in another universe, Eric Cantona might have played in the era of social media.
If platforms like YouTube existed in the early 90s when he ruled Old Trafford, clips of him would’ve arguably been the most viewed on the internet. For Manchester United fans, though, he remains the King.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo – Portuguese Attacker
Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo should have topped this list, and we immediately apologize if this pisses you off! But we had to put his second stint at Manchester United into consideration too. His first stint, however, was glorious!
The lanky teenager from Portugal started off as a sly winger on the flanks for the Red Devils, before transforming into one of the greatest legends the game has ever seen.
He adapted under Sir Alex Ferguson, becoming a ruthless powerhouse alongside Wayne Rooney at Old Trafford, and he didn’t just score goals. No, he scored some of the most breathtaking efforts you’ll ever see.
The result was a Balon d’Or that came in 2008 after he scored a stunning 42 goals in just 49 appearances across all competitions for the club.
He won the Premier League, Champions League, and FIFA Club World Cup that year, which understandably put him on Real Madrid’s radar. Sadly for United fans, he went on to become an even bigger legend at the Santiago Bernabeu.
His second stint at the club ended on a torrid note, as Manchester United terminated his contract after a Piers Morgan-tell-all interview. It might have tarnished his image, but it won’t entirely remove his legendary status at the club.
1. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – Norwegian forward
He flourished as a player and came back to lead the team as manager, and this feat puts Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the top foreigner to have ever played for Manchester United.
Coming into the team to be a substitute for Eric Cantona, Solskjaer joined up with his new teammates and soon became the player who scored clutch goals.
The Treble of 1999 culminated in Solskjaer’s goal, as he guided the club to secure a miracle win in their Champions League final. That wasn’t his only heroic effort though.
12 seasons saw him score an abundance of late goals to win the game for the Red Devils when they needed it. And there were those games, like the one against Nottingham Forest where he scored four goals as a substitute! Legend.
He returned to the Theater of Dreams a decade later, taking up the helm in the dugout. He might not have been the best manager, as he ended up getting the sack in 2021, but he guided them to an impressive 2nd place finish the season earlier.