The vehicles were stolen in neighbouring counties but discovered in shipping containers due to be transported to Dubai from London Gateway Port in Thurrock, Essex Police’s stolen vehicle intelligence unit (SVIU) said.
In total, 517 vehicles or parts were recovered, with police saying thieves could have been hoping to be paid two or three times more than the UK value, once they sent were overseas.
One of the footballers came to the team’s base to be reunited with his car, with Pc Phil Pentelow, of SVIU, adding: “He was genuinely thankful and taken aback by the lengths we had gone to.
“His car was clearly very dear to him, and he was very impressed with the service he’d had from the police.
“Even though he plays for one of my team’s biggest rivals, he was a nice guy and down to earth. It was good to help him.”
SVIU said car thieves may also look to quickly sell on stolen vehicles – even for significantly under the market value – strip it for parts, or ship either the whole vehicle or parts to the Middle East and Africa.
Thieves or handlers of stolen vehicles may also use false or cloned identities to sell them on to unsuspecting members of the public in the UK. They can also be passed on to other criminals.
This summer, gangs behind such thefts were targeted in Operation Ignition, involving the SVIU, roads policing and investigators.
Everything from family saloons to supercars have been returned to hundreds of victims, police said.
Pc Paul Gerrish said: “Every stolen car is important to us and we work as hard as we can to get them back to their owners.
“When you phone someone up and tell them we’ve got their car with their kids’ car seats and the pushchair in the back, or other personal items, it’s hugely satisfying.
“We are creating a hostile environment for car thieves. We know what to look for and we know how and where they operate.”
Manufacturers including Jaguar Land Rover, Ford, BMW and Mercedes have also provided the unit with help on how to improve vehicle security.
Pc Pentelow urged drivers to double lock and check their vehicles because he said people are still creating risks by leaving their cars unlocked.
The police also recommend using a steering-wheel lock and looking at videos online to learn about the vulnerabilities of their make and model. The Secured by Design website also recommends safety devices.