Paco Alcacer, Raul, Xabi Alonso, Paul Lambert and Kevin Keegan (l.-r.) have all left an indelible mark on the Bundesliga. - © getty images
Paco Alcacer, Raul, Xabi Alonso, Paul Lambert and Kevin Keegan (l.-r.) have all left an indelible mark on the Bundesliga. - © getty images
bundesliga

From Paco Alcacer to Xabi Alonso and Kevin Keegan: the top 5 shock Bundesliga transfers that paid off

Barcelona’s unexpected move for former Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng got tongues wagging about some of the most successful surprise transfers in history. bundesliga.com looks back on some left-field signings who left a big impression in Germany.

1) Kevin Keegan to Hamburg

Having just won the European Cup with Liverpool, Kevin Keegan set himself a new challenge in 1977 after six years and 100 goals at the club. The talented attacker certainly got that when he decided to move to West Germany, adapting to a new country as well as new expectations as one of the most expensive players in Bundesliga history.

The England international made a slow start at the holders of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, who were struggling to adapt to life under new management and with the presence of a bona fide superstar in their side. Both Hamburg and Keegan’s form were indifferent early on, with the new arrival even receiving a ban for fighting during a mid-season friendly.

The then 26-year-old would soon turn things around, however, and though his team finished 10th the Bundesliga in his first year, Keegan would still win the Ballon d’Or award in 1978. Branko Zebec was appointed manager ahead of his second season in Germany, and Keegan started to thrive after being paired with Horst Hrubesch in attack.

Kevin Keegan blazed a trail for Brits in the Bundesliga. - gettyimages

The little-and-large pairing scored 30 goals between them in the 1978/79 season, with Keegan getting 17 as the Red Shorts clinched their first Bundesliga title in 19 years. More comfortable with his surroundings, he even released his own single – Head Over Heels in Love – before again being named as European Footballer of the Year.

In his final year at the club, the man nicknamed ‘Mighty Mouse’ was again inspirational as part of an attacking side that beat Real Madrid 5-1 in the second leg of the European Cup semi-final. The season would end in disappointment, though. HSV fell to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in the decider, and also lost the league by two points to Bayern Munich before Keegan departed for Southampton.

2) Paul Lambert to Dortmund

Paul Lambert had made a name for himself in his homeland as a 17-year-old by helping unfancied St. Mirren win the Scottish Cup in 1987. The midfielder’s move to Germany nine years later raised plenty of eyebrows, though, since he was still playing for Motherwell before he landed in Dortmund.

Perhaps the German side’s only previous experience with a Scottish player helped Lambert’s chances. Former Celtic favourite Murdo MacLeod, after all, had helped end a 24-year wait for silverware by helping Borussia Dortmund win the 1989 DFB Cup.

In September 1994, however, Lambert had caught the eye when Motherwell lost two hard-fought games in the UEFA Cup against his future employers. Out of contract in the summer of 1996, he went on trial at Dortmund and was offered a contract.

“I completely immersed myself in German football culture,” Lambert told the Daily Record in 2017. “I forced my way into the Borussia Dortmund team on the opening day of the Bundesliga season and I was never out of the side.”

The 1996/97 season turned out to be a good year to be a Dortmund player. BVB’s side was packed with talent at the time, featuring the likes of Germany internationals Jürgen Kohler, Andreas Möller and Karl-Heinz Riedle.

A 27-year-old Glaswegian was excelling under Ottmar Hitzfeld too, playing a starring role in the UEFA Champions League semi-final win over Manchester United. Dortmund won the final 3-1 against Juventus, and Lambert - playing in a holding role alongside Paulo Sousa - impressed once again to help curb a certain Zinedine Zidane’s influence.

Paul Lambert (r.) got the better of Zinedine Zidane (l.) as Dortmund beat Juventus in the 1997 UEFA Champions League final. - imago sportfotodienst

Playing such a key role in Dortmund’s only Champions League triumph meant that Lambert got a rousing send-off before he left for Celtic in November 1997. A surprise move had paid off handsomely for both parties.

“I grew up quickly in Germany and I became mega professional,” the former Scotland international told the Daily Record years later.

“I learned more in my stint with Dortmund than I did in my whole 20 years of playing football.”

3) Raul to Schalke 

Spanish striker Raul’s switch to Germany was a surprise for several reasons. Firstly because he was a Real Madrid icon - the club’s top goalscorer had won a glut of top trophies during 16 years as a first-team player at the Bernabeu.

Then there was the fact that he was not short on offers, with many people feeling the talismanic number seven – who was capped 102 times by his country – might head for the Middle East or the United States if indeed he was to move on.

Thirdly, there was the fact that there had been no great tradition of Spanish players plying their trade in the Bundesliga. Only a handful had done so before Raul, lining out for lesser lights like Arminia Bielefeld, Bochum, Hannover and Unterhaching.

Raul enjoyed a storied career with Real Madrid, before joining Schalke. - 2007 AFP

To Raul, though, it felt like Schalke wanted him the most, and in the 2010/11 season they allowed him to prolong his love after with the Champions League. At that time, Raul was the leading all-time goalscorer in the competition, and he continued doing what he did best once he arrived in Gelsenkirchen in July 2010.

Then 33, he helped the Royal Blues enjoy a fairytale run in Europe during his first year in Germany, scoring in the knockout stage against Valencia and Inter Milan before they fell in the semi-finals. He also helped his new team to win the DFB Cup, scoring the only goal in the last four against Bayern Munich before starting the 5-0 thrashing of second-tier Duisburg in the final.

The Real Madrid legend became a Schalke one, ending his two-year stay with a record of 40 goals in 98 games.

Watch: Raul's top 5 Schalke goals

“I don’t think it’s very common for a player to hold two clubs so deep in his heart as I do with Real and Schalke,” he would later tell the club website.

“It was a much briefer time with Schalke, but at the same it was so incredibly powerful.”

Raul also blazed a trail for Spanish players in the Bundesliga, with fellow internationals Xabi Alonso, Javi Martinez and Thiago among a clutch of compatriots who emulated him soon after his departure.

4) Xabi Alonso to Bayern

Speaking of which... Alonso was 32 when he made the move to Bayern, and had already conquered the football world - quite literally - having won league, cup and Champions League titles with Liverpool and Real Madrid, and lifted the FIFA World Cup and two UEFA European Championship crowns with Spain.

The midfield great could have conceivably headed for warmer climes or opted for one last bumper pay day in the Far East, but he instead sought one final challenge with Germany's record champions.

Unsurprisingly, the title-winning trend only continued.

Xabi Alonso made 79 Bundesliga appearances during his three-year stint with Bayern. - AFP/Getty Images

Fuelled by an inextinguishable champion spirit, Alonso won three Bundesliga titles, a DFB Cup and and DFL Supercup in a glittering three-year stay in Bavaria, before bowing out of the game - alongside captain Phillip Lahm - at the end of 2016/17.

"Both the Bundesliga and Bayern exceeded my expectations," he said after playing his final heat-seeking pass in May 2016. "We all have an image of what the clubs are like but until you live it you cannot fully appreciate it. It'll stay with me forever."

5) Paco Alcacer to Dortmund

Dortmund are specialists in unearthing unheralded talents or potential stars and developing them into first-team mainstays. Think back to their most recent league-winning sides in 2011 and 2012 and the names of Paraguayan striker Lucas Barrios, prolific Pole Robert Lewandowski and skilful Japanese attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa spring to mind.

Barrios and Lewandowski had good goalscoring records for Colo-Colo and Lech Poznan before moving to the Bundesliga, though, so the fact that big European clubs were interested in them could hardly be seen a surprise. Kagawa’s arrival – and immediate success under Jürgen Klopp – perhaps came more out of the blue.

More recently, hugely exciting English winger Jadon Sancho’s move to Germany from Manchester City was seen as somewhat unusual. The 18-year-old clearly had potential, though, and Dortmund were patient with him before his real breakthrough this season.

The success of Paco Alcacer, on the other hand, has been more unexpected. There was no doubting he had ability, of course, but the Spaniard had started relatively few matches over the previous two years at Barcelona. He was surely going to be rusty, and it would undoubtedly take time to adapt after his first move abroad brought him to a country with a tougher climate and a more physical league.

Watch: Paco Alcacer's roots

How wrong we were. The former Valencia frontman was an instant hit, and smashed a 55-year-old Bundesliga record by scoring his eighth league goal in just 218 minutes on the field. The previous best was achieved in 519 minutes, and Alcacer did it in style too – netting in a dramatic 3-2 win over Dortmund’s title rivals Munich.

He went on to break the single-season scoring record for a substitute in the Bundesliga – with 10 of his 12 goals before the winter break coming from the bench.

Not surprisingly the 25-year-old has earned a recall with Spain as a result of his exploits, while Dortmund acted swiftly in November 2018 to make his loan move a permanent one.

“It’s almost like a modern-day fairy tale,” Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc said. “Nobody would have expected Paco to work out so well, so soon.”

Paco Alcacer hit the ground running after swapping Barcelona for Dortmund. - Getty Images / PATRIK STOLLARZ

Honorable mentions

Andrea Barzagli: Not many Italians have excelled in the Bundesliga, and Barzagli had never played abroad before joining Wolfsburg from Palermo in 2008. Part of Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning squad, the rugged defender enjoyed another unforgettable experience on his return, in Germany. He played every minute of the Wolves' incredible title triumph in the 2008/09 season before moving to Juventus in 2011.

Theofanis Gekas: Bochum were newly promoted in 2006, and needed something special if they were to survive in the top flight. That they plumped for a player like Gekas, a striker with a good goalscoring record and Champions League experience with Panathinaikos, is no shock. What the loan signing did next, however, certainly was. The Greece international not only helped his new team soar to eighth in the standings, but he also topped the Bundesliga scoring charts for the 2006/07 season with 20 league goals. Gekas later played for Bayer Leverkusen, Hertha Berlin and Frankfurt during some fruitful years in Germany.