Unless you've been living under a rock, you know the biggest celebrity arguably in the history of world sport is about to take his act to the U.S. When David Beckham takes the field at the Home Depot Center on July 21, it will mark the moment Major League Soccer officially lands in the mainstream sporting consciousness of America. But Becks (and his Spice Girl wife) isn't the first foreign megastar to arrive on these shores amid enormous hype. Keep reading for the biggest overseas sensations in the history of American sports.
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Long before Becks, there was Pelé: ''Soccer genius signs with the New York Cosmos,'' declared NBC's Evening News on June 10, 1975. That was the day 34-year-old Edson Arantes do Nascimento signed a three-year, $4.5 million deal with the Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. His arrival immediately changed the perception of soccer in the U.S. He played his last game on Oct. 1, 1977 -- ultimately, it marked the beginning of the end for both the Cosmos and the NASL, which folded in 1985.
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Not to be outdone, the Cosmos' West Coast counterpart brought in the Beckham of his era in 1976. Best, a legend with Manchester United, was known almost as much for his boozing, womanizing and socializing as he was his amazing abilities to dazzle defenders. The Northern Irishman scored 29 goals in 61 games during three seasons with the Aztecs before alcoholism derailed his storied career.
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Two years after scoring a coup with Pelé, the Cosmos brought another world-class footballer to Giants Stadium: ''Der Kaiser.'' The thee-time German World Cup veteran is still regarded as one of the best defenders to play the game, and his elegance and skill -- and reputation for seemingly never breaking a sweat -- helped the star-laden Cosmos win three league titles.
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For some, this classy Dutchman -- not Pelé -- is considered the greatest of all time. And the Cosmos tried to coax the three-time European Player of the Year out of retirement in 1979 with a $4 million offer. But Cruyff didn't want the bright lights and overexposure of Pelé, so he reunited with former Dutch national-team coach Rinus Michels in L.A. He was an immediate hit in his one year with the team, winning the league MVP before moving on to the Washington Diplomats.
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The head of a group of eight Soviet players who were allowed to join the NHL in '89-90, Fetisov's arrival landed him on the Oct. 9, 1989 cover of <i>Sports Illustrated</i> and led the way for future Russians to play in America. Said Fetisov: ''I won the biggest fight away from hockey. That was the fight against communism, the fight for freedom of choices.'' He played 10 NHL seasons and was elected into the Hall of Fame in 2001.
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After winning the Formula 1 championship in 1992, the England-native bolted for America's IndyCar CART series over a contract dispute with the Williams racing team. In his first season in CART racing in 1993 -- including his first ever race on an oval track at the Indianapolis 500 -- Mansell won the CART championship, making him the only driver in history to hold the F1 and Cart titles at the same time. Mansell left the United States after just one more season after some brash behavior caused an unwelcome atmosphere on the CART circuit.
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He arrived in Chicago in '93 with a big nickname (the Croatian Sensation) and an even bigger charter: help the Bulls win in the post-Michael Jordan era. The Bulls drafted Kukoc in 1990 and nabbed the three-time European Player of the Year three years later. He never achieved the same impact he had in Europe, but developed into a quality sixth man when Jordan came back from retirement in '95.
9 of 19John Iacono/SI
He was billed as the Japanese Nolan Ryan when he arrived in New York in '97 -- his contract was initially purchased by the Padres but he declared he would only play for the Yankees. Alas, despite playing on two World Series teams, Irabu was a bust in the Big Apple. So bad was his performance that George Steinbrenner labeled him a ''fat pussy toad.'' He eventually returned to Japan before retiring in '03.
10 of 19Chuck Solomon/SI
Like his half-brother Liván, ''El Duque'' was one of Cuba's great pitchers. And like his <i>hermano</i>, he followed the same route to America by defecting in '95 -- he and seven others boarded a small boat and sailed toward the Caribbean island of Anguilla Cay. Declared a free agent after he established residency in Costa Rica, Hernández signed a four-year deal with the Yankees and became one of baseball's best postseason performers. He has won four World Series titles and is currently a starter with the Mets.
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Frustrated by a contract dispute with his Japanese employer, Nomo took his "tornado" windup and swept across the Atlantic Ocean, taking advantage of a loophole that allowed him to sign a contract with a U.S. team if he "retired" from baseball in Japan. In his first season in 1995, Nomo started the All-Star game and won the NL's Rookie of the Year, and one year later he used his trademark forkball to no-hit the Colorado Rockies -- in the Mile High City.
12 of 19Maureen Boyce/AFP/Getty Images
European star, former captain of his national team, World Cup veteran: Let's hope Becks doesn't follow the script of Matthäus, another megastar who was supposed to be the patron saint of Major League Soccer. The German icon came to New York in 2000 in the twilight of his career and was supposed to be a shot in the arm for the fledgling league. He was anything but, making close to no impact in 16 games before heading back to Germany.
13 of 19Greg Nelson/SI
The German 7-footer made his name on the international scene when as an 18-year-old he dunked over Charles Barkley in a 1997 game between a group of touring NBA stars and Germany's national youth team. A year later, the Dallas Mavericks made Nowitzki the ninth pick in the NBA Draft. He emerged as a star during his second full season in the league, and in 2007 became the first European-born player to win the Most Valuable Player award.
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The one word-icon arrived in Seattle in 2000 as the first major-league position player from Japan. Ichiro's initial visit to Safeco Field drew 110 members of the press, a record for the facility at the time. He has more than lived up to the hype, a career .333 hitter and appearances on the All-Star team in each of his seven seasons, winning MVP honors in the most recent Midsummer Classic with a remarkable inside-the-park home run.
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The No. 1 pick in the '02 draft arrived with two agents, a marketing director, an accountant, an attorney, a financial planner, 10 graduate students at the University of Chicago, a handful of operatives in the People's Republic of China and one set of parents. Yao's enormous impact has prompted the NBA to open an office in Beijing and the league has agreements with regional and national television outlets in China.
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When the Yanks officially introduced Godzilla in '03, he was greeted by 350 media members, the most ever for a Yankee rookie. His debut was even more memorable: The three-time Japan League MVP became the first Bronx Bomber to hit a grand slam in his first game at Yankee Stadium. He's a career .294 hitter with 89 home runs in five seasons with New York.
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Considered the best player outside the NHL when he was drafted by Pittsburgh with the No. 2 pick in the '04 draft, Malkin walked away from his Russian team last summer and hid for three days until he received a travel visa to the U.S. The wait was worth it for Penguins fans: Malkin became the first player to score at least one goal in each of his first six games and won the Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie.
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Juan Pablo Montoya
A major star on the Formula One circuit and a winner of the Indianapolis 500, Montoya is the public face for NASCAR's international expansion. The Colombian arrived earlier this year to great fanfare. In June in Sonoma, Calif., he became the first Hispanic to win a Nextel Cup event. NASCAR believes Montoya's presence will help draw more Hispanic fans to the sport.
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Already a legend in his native Japan, Dice-K and his much-discussed gyroball touched down in Boston after the Sox won a bidding war for the highly touted pitcher this past offseason. Though Matsuzaka has been inconsistent on the mound, Boston's suddenly strong Japanese fan contingent has packed Fenway in droves -- though most are still waiting for the gyroball to make its first appearance.<br><br>Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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