The Superstars of ‘Stokelona’: Where Are They Now?

Picture the scene: you’re playing some late-night FM or FIFA Manager Mode, you ignored your friends’ texts, the rotting dishes in the sink and you will surely regret this in the morning. You’re a few seasons deep in the game and then suddenly, whilst looking at the lineups before your Champions League game, you spot it, Hoffenheim have signed Erling Haaland.


You slowly take a picture to send it to your mates, you close the game and head off to bed head shaking in disbelief, remembering that you also forgot to take the trash out. If this sounds familiar, yet a tad far-fetched, you have to realize that Premier League fans in the mid-2010s experienced something quite similar when seeing Stoke City’s squad.


After seven years of Pulisball and the Britannia being basically a benchmark for scorched earth football, Stoke fans, like many others of mid-table Premier League sides, believed they could do better. Pulis was fired and Mark Hughes was appointed in 2013 to bring in a new vibe of continental football.



Hughes had played for Barcelona and managed the early days of the Emirati revolution at Manchester City so he was a sort of exotic Brit who didn’t want two seven-foot centre backs hoofing it up the pitch and the Stoke fans got their wish. Signings from Barcelona, PSG and Bayern meant that five former Champions League winners would play for them and in the following list let us take a look at the most famous of them and how their careers unfolded.


The Stokelona revolution kicked off with Marc Muniesa who only made two senior appearances for Barcelona from 2009 to 2013. The former La Masia graduate, who had been pursued by Chelsea at one point, made his debut for Stoke in a League Cup clash against Walsall and one month later scored two goals once again in a League Cup win against Sunderland.


Mark Hughes kept the faith in him and he was a mainstay during the Welshman’s tenure at the Britannia stadium, signing a new contract in 2015 and missing a penalty in the shootout against Liverpool which saw Stoke lose the 2016 League Cup semi final. Around that time he began to suffer some serious injuries and he would never regain his favour with Hughes.


In 2017 he joined Girona and helped them to a tenth-place finish before departing two years later with the Catalan club relegated. From there a trip to Qatar with Al Arabi for a friendly turned into a four-year stint before joining Danish top-tier side Lingby last year. As his family had already settled in Qatar he interrupted his two-year contract to sign with Al Shahaniya in the Qatari second tier in February of this year.



As the 2013 summer deadline day approached Hughes made a move for everyone’s favourite Serbian nationalist (who doesn’t even play for Serbia) Marko Arnautovic. The Austrian international was just coming off a rather unproductive spell at Werder Bremen, where he scored 14 goals in 72 games, yet Hughes maintained he was a great talent describing the signing as a coup, seeing as he was at one point close to a permanent move to Inter.


His first two seasons only brought about six goals in 70 appearances but in the 2015-16 season, he finally looked to prove his manager right, scoring against Chelsea in a 1-0 win and putting two past City in a 2-0 win. He would also provide the equalizer against Liverpool in the League cup semi final, ending the season as the club’s top scorer with 12.


Another decent season followed and Arnautovic felt he was ready for a step up submitting a transfer request in 2017 before moving to West Ham. Despite making a somewhat rocky start, David Moyes stated that Arnautovic needed to improve his work ethic and moved him from the wing to a more central position.


This earned him 11 goals and a Hammer of the year award at the end of the season and in the winter of 2019 he was set for a move to Shanghai Port, who were ready to offer £35 million for his services according to his brother and agent. Despite signing a new contract that January, Shanghai finally got their man in the summer of 2019, paying £22.4 million.



For that, the Chinese club received 19 goals in two years and after the Chinese Superleague was starting to sink, Arnautovic made the move to Bologna in 2021. Whilst still being contracted to them at the beginning of this season, Inter Milan made a surprise move for the player they had on loan in 2010, bringing him in once again on loan to fill the void left by Edin Dzeko’s move to Fenerbahce.


Arnautovic reportedly chose the number 8 shirt in honor of Zlatan Ibrahimovic but only has scored two goals so far for the Nerazzuri so far, both in the Champions League, setting a new record for the longest time between goals, having scored his last Champions League goal for Werder nearly 13 years ago.


At the end of the 2013-14 season, Stoke finished a very respectable ninth and the big-name signings continued. Seeing as Messi wasn’t quite prepared to prove himself on a rainy night in Stoke, Mark Hughes went for the next best thing, namely one of the many players cruelly touted as the next Messi. And not just any of those players, arguably the one who was supposed to be Messi’s true heir.


Bojan Krkić came through the ranks of La Masia, was the same height as Messi, played in roughly the same position and even had a similar “I practice with my indie band after work haircut”. It also looked like he was the real deal and was set to star alongside the Argentinian for many years to come, even finding out in 2011 through genealogical research that he was the fourth cousin of Messi.


In his La Masia days, he reportedly broke Lionel Messi’s scoring record and once he made his debut for the first team at just 17 he broke another one, also assigned to Messi. Despite his promising first season, the quality Barcelona possessed at that time meant a starting place in the lineup was hard to find so a move to Roma was settled, with Roma later loaning him to AC Milan.



At the same time Marc Muniesa was signing for Stoke Barcelona had just re-signed Bojan due to their buyback clause and sent him out on loan to Ajax. Once his loan in the Dutch capital ended in the summer of 2014 Hughes paid €1.8 million and brought the “next Messi” to the Britannia. It is highly unlikely that all the ‘rainy night in Stoke’ memes had any influence on this move, but I like to think they did.


Still just 24 and looking to revive his career, Bojan actually looked more than decent once he got used to his new surroundings, finishing the season on 5 goals. However an injury and bad form towards the end of the next season meant that by the time he entered his third season in England he had fallen out of favour with Hughes.


A loan to Mainz was agreed in January 2017, who were embroiled in a relegation battle. His only goal for the team would come in a two-all draw against Bayern, a goal which meant that Bojan was only the seventh player at the time to score in all of Europe’s top four leagues. Having departed Mainz after helping them retain their Bundesliga status a new loan, this time to Alaves, didn’t do much for Bojan’s career and in 2018 he was back at Stoke, this time in the Championship.


Even though he was a fan favourite, Gary Rowett and later Nathan Jones didn’t offer him much game time and he left the club in the summer of 2019 heading to Montreal Impact, where former Barcelona teammate Thierry Henry had just been appointed manager. Just as Henry left in 2021 Bojan would also depart for Japan, joining another one of his former teammates, Andres Iniesta at Vissel Kobe.



He scored just once in 20 appearances for the Japanese club and in the summer of last year he announced his retirement at the Camp Nou at just 32 years old. After retiring, Bojan shared his experiences in a documentary produced for Rakuten TV and wrote a book detailing how anxiety had negatively impacted his career.


Right before signing for Stoke, as he was heading to meet the team for the first time, he had a massive panic attack forcing the plane he was on to break off their takeoff preparations and the anxiety caused by being thrust into the limelight as the next big thing at just 17 would dog him throughout his later career.


Those who had seen him play in his youth know that there was real talent there, maybe not on Messi’s levels, but definitely close. Sadly, his career did not pan out the way many hoped for and Bojan is now back at Barca working in the youth department and if the myth that unfulfilled footballers make great managers is even remotely true he might have a very bright future ahead of him.


After a second consecutive 9th place finish the transfers really ramped up and Stoke brought in players worth more than €50m, the most expensive among them proving a huge flop, namely Giannelli Imbula. The DR Congo international cost a reported €24m and after a promising start quickly fell out of favour at the Britannia Stadium.



The huge fee paid for him was baffling to say the least, as Stoke basically handed Porto a get-out-of-jail-free card enabling Porto to make a profit on an expensive gamble that didn’t fit in in Portugal. Imbula stayed for just one year in England heading out on loan to Toulouse, Rayo Vallecano and Lecce before signing for PFC Sochi in 2020.


His stay in Russia lasted two Liz Trusses and he headed back to France to train with Guingamp, who did not offer him a contract. Primeira Liga side Portimonense took a chance on him in March of 2021 and he was on the move once again in the winter transfer season of 2023, joining Turkish second-tier side Tuzlaspor.


Last summer, Super Lig side Istanbulspor signed him on, where he has only played a total of 120 minutes so far. The next big money addition to the squad was none other than the Swiss forward Xherdan Shaqiri signed from Inter for €17m. A Champions League winner with Bayern in 2013, Stoke had expressed interest in signing him already in January 2015 when he joined Inter and just six months later, Stoke would get their man.


In his three-year stay at the Britannia Stadium, Shaqiri scored 15 goals, with a penchant for long-range belters and in 2018, with the club in a free-fall Liverpool activated his release clause. His three years on Merseyside were successful in terms of trophies, picking up another Champions League, but Shaqiri was never a starter and was deemed surplus to requirements, moving to Lyon in 2021.



He cut his time in France short, just shy of the six-month mark to head to the US with Chicago Fire, where he is still contracted. If any of you thought Shaqiri had a whirlwind career the next inclusion will probably redefine that term. Former Real Madrid academy graduate Joselu couldn’t make good on his promising talent and was playing for Hannover 96 at the time.


His time in England wouldn’t be any brighter, staying only one season at Stoke before joining Newcastle after a season-long loan at Deportivo La Coruna. Despite being in the dubious company of fellow strikers Ayoze Perez, Salomon Rondon and Yoshinori Muto, Joselu struggled for game time and in 2019 he headed back to Spain with Alaves where he restarted his career scoring 36 goals in 110 games.


Just as his career looked to be petering out, he made a move to Espanyol on a free in 2022 where he scored 16 goals in 34 games ending the season as La Liga’s third highest goalscorer behind Robert Lewandowski and Karim Benzema. Many eyebrows were raised when in the summer of last year Real Madrid, his old club, decided to take a punt on him bringing him in on loan, but as far as I’m concerned 8 goals so far in 31 games for Los Blancos is not bad at all.


The last exotic addition that season was another wonderkid looking to revive his career, Bojan’s former teammate Ibrahim Afellay. Similarily to Bojan, the pressure of joining Barcelona early in his career proved too much for him and after unsuccessful loans at Schalke and Olympiacos, Mark Hughes’ house for struggling wonderkids seemed like a good place for a restart.



Sadly for the ex Barcelona man, he only played 49 times for Stoke in 5 years and in 2019 his contract was terminated by mutual consent. One last hurrah back at his boyhood club PSV did not materialize and he retired after making only 4 appearances for the club. Nowadays, Dutch TV audiences can see him work as a pundit.


With all these new additions Stoke once again finished, you guessed it, ninth. But they did reach the League Cup semi final that year and next season Hughes pursued a more domestic transfer strategy signing Joe Allen from Liverpool and Saido Berahino from West Brom, but he couldn’t help himself when Bruno Martins Indi became available bringing him in on a season-long loan.


The defender looked like a million bucks playing in an unfancied Netherlands side led by Louis van Gaal that reached the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup but couldn’t continue that form at Porto. That season-long loan turned into a five-year stay, remaining at the club even after Stoke’s relegation. In 2021 he joined AZ Alkmaar where he is still going strong today.


At the end of that season the first signs of a drop-off were beginning to show, with Stoke finishing 13th so at the beginning of the 2017-18 season the cash was splashed again, namely another 50 million. The three players signed for a fee that season were Kevin Wimmer from Tottenham, Badou Ndiaye from Galatasaray and Moritz Bauer from Rubin Kazan.



All of them were unmitigated flops who went out on multiple loans and currently play for Slovan Bratislava in Slovakia, Pendikspor in Turkey and Servette in Switzerland respectively. The two players I am interested in and will be covered here joined for no fees but before we get to them a few honorable mentions are in order:


-Peter Crouch, who played for Stoke throughout this time (from 2011 to 2019) and finished as the club’s top scorer during that time and now works as a pundit continuing to be one of the most un-hateable people on the planet, Erik Pieters who is still playing in England for West Brom nowadays, former Manchester United youngster Mame Biram Diouf, who spent 6 years at Stoke before journeying across the Turkish league and is playing at Goztepe, then Chelsea loanee and current West Ham defender Kurt Zouma and finally former Swansea hidden gem Wilfried Bony, who only spent one season on loan at the club and is currently playing in Bolivia for Club Always Ready.


The final two inclusions on this list are proof that knowing your worth, keeping your head down, constantly working on improving yourself and being always available for whatever your manager asks of you can turn a mediocre career into a truly stellar one.


Of course, the opposite is true as you have probably guessed that the two I’m talking about are Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Jese. Choupo-Moting was a Hamburg youth product, who played for Nurnberg, Mainz and Schalke, never finding a true home for himself before joining Stoke on a free in 2017.



The Cameroon international would score 5 goals that season as the Potters went down and in one of the most baffling transfers of all time he joined PSG at the end of the season before moving to Bayern in 2020 after PSG lost the Champions League Final against the Bavarians.


Undoubtedly a quality player, Choupo-Moting blossomed in his later career into the ultimate backup striker and is still contracted to the Bavarian club. On the other hand, Jese was a Real Madrid academy product and made a promising start in the first team and forced a move to PSG due to his lack of game time.


Such was the hype around him in the early and mid-2010s that his PSG contract included an anti-Barcelona clause. However, once he reached the French capital a lack of form and injuries caused him to be loaned out to Las Palmas, Stoke, Real Betis and Sporting CP. In 2021 his PSG contract was terminated and he embarked on the classic failed superstar journeyman career playing for Las Palmas, Ankaragücü, Sampdoria and is currently with Coritiba in Brazil.



Often viewed as one of the biggest clowns in football he gained this reputation due to his off-the-pitch life, with incidents such as learning that he was a father on Instagram, a public and acrimonious breakup with his wife and breaking lockdown protocols whilst at PSG to attend a party in the Canary islands where he was involved in a sex scandal.


Counterbalancing that is his music career with his reggaeton band called Big Flow, and I know having a reggaeton band arguably makes you an even bigger clown, but Jese donated all the proceeds from his La Prueba single to congenital hyperinsulinism research.


The mastermind behind the Stokelona era Mark Hughes departed at the end of the 2018 season with Stoke heading for the Championship and is currently unemployed after unsuccessful spells with Southampton and Bradford City.


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Nigel French – PA Images