Hernán Crespo, Fabio Cannavaro and Robert Pirès in West Bengal; Muttiah Muralitharan and Sanath Jayasuriya across the Padma river; Jean Alesi and Heinz-Harald Frentzen on circuits across Asia; Roberto Carlos and Nicolas Anelka in Russia and China and...er...Lou Vincent in Zimbabwe.

Across the globe, across sports, players are coming out of retirement—or extending their careers. Not on the seniors circuit, or in some novelty variant of the sport, but often with significant commercial interests at stake.

Journeyman: Argentine legend Hernán Crespo. By Damien Meyer/AFP

The unveiling of Premier League Soccer is only the latest sign of India’s growing significance in sports other than cricket—especially football. So far, the procession of top footballing stars to Kolkata and elsewhere has been largely for exhibition games; now, it is for a proper tournament.

Yet, even India’s clout pales in comparison to the new money in Russia and China. Russia’s fabulously wealthy oligarchs, apparently tired of investing in or buying up famous football clubs, have been investing in the lesser-known clubs back home. Russian businessman Suleiman Kerimov’s wealth is a few billion dollars behind his more famous compatriot Roman Abramovich but his writ runs fairly unchallenged in Dagestan. Anzhi, based in the Dagestani capital Makhachkala, have signed up Roberto Carlos; Rubin Kazan, in Tatarstan, is now home to Nigerian Obafemi Martins; FC Terek Grozny, in the trouble-torn Chechnya, was briefly home to Ruud Gullit. They are expected to lay the bedrock for the World Cup six years hence, bringing the world to Russia and vice versa.

Globalization is a two-way process of another kind as well. The players get the money and ride out into a fairly golden sunset but also spread the message and share their skills. It’s not restricted to “new" footballing cultures; the English Premier League, it can fairly be said, was revolutionized by two Frenchmen, Arsène Wenger and Eric Cantona. They brought in ideas and practices alien to the fairly stodgy English game that were nonetheless so internalized and perfected by impressionable young minds that they now appear as second nature. Now the two clubs (Arsenal and Manchester United) have brought back, for limited spells, two of their legends; Thierry Henry will bring to a young Arsenal dressing-room the forgotten nous of winning trophies, while Paul Scholes will lend experience and a highly educated right leg to a sorely depleted squad.

The Indian Premier League (IPL) has been much vilified for various sins of omission and commission but a generation of Indian cricketers will have learnt best practices from the highly professional Antipodean and South African imports. Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist have, for example, shown a penchant for leadership and mentoring lacking in many of their Indian peers.

It isn’t always about money. Why else, for example, would Chris Gayle play alongside Lou Vincent—and Shaun Tait and Dirk Nannes—in Zimbabwe, where he would earn a fraction of his standard playing fees? Part of the reason is explained by Gayle’s signature laidback attitude: “It might be nice to go on a safari and see a bit of the wild side." Behind that, though, is a deeper cause: “I wanted to go to a country that was developing in cricket so I can help them improve... I thought it would be a nice opportunity to share my experience."

Now Gayle is off to Bangladesh, where he joins a motley crew of current stars—Shahid Afridi leading the pack—and pensioners, including Jayasuriya and Muralitharan, in the three-week Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) in February. The BPL—only the second Twenty20 league, after the IPL, to have an auction for its players—will test cricket’s popularity in Bangladesh, so vividly displayed during the ICC Cricket World Cup 12 months ago.

The bright lights of Shanghai are metaphorically a world away from Dhaka and Harare but the rationale behind Shanghai Shenhua forking out more than $250,000 (around 1.24 crore) a week for Anelka is roughly the same. Football is the subject of a state-sponsored drive to raise it from its current abysmal state, and out of basketball’s shadow; as with Russia, there’s now plenty of private money to be thrown at the sport and the hope is that Anelka and the others likely to follow him from Europe will raise the profile and bring in professionalism. It’s a relatively low-risk gamble with potentially rich rewards. The world will be watching closely as the stars trek to China, the world’s biggest market and football’s final frontier.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.

Write to Jayaditya at extratime@livemint.com

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