A look back on football’s most expensive player transfers of all time

A look back on football’s most expensive player transfers of all time

December 23, 2023

It’s the season of transfers!

Across the footballsphere, big-money, big-name moves create a lot of buzz and are often used as a stick fans measure their club’s might with. However, not all of these humongous deals pay off. We look at the top 10 most expensive transfers in the history of football, and how they have fared.

Note: the ranking, the transfer fees, and the player stats have all been sourced from Transfermarkt. Content updated as of December 2023.

10. Declan Rice

Moved from West Ham United FC to Arsenal FC in July 2023 for €116.6 million (deal reportedly worth £100 million as per UK outlets, with potential to rise by £5 million via add-ons)

It’s very hard to justify three-figure transfer figures even now as they come a dime a dozen, though in Declan Rice’s case we may be excused. Lifting the UEFA Europa Conference League trophy as captain of his boyhood side some six years after making his senior debut for them is as good an ending Rice could have asked for for his West Ham chapter as he moved boroughs in the summer of 2023 to join Arsenal. And, from what we have seen so far, the England international seems like an investment well made.

Rice broke into the West Ham senior squad as a centre-back before moving further up the pitch. As the years rolled by, Rice graduated into a well-rounded midfielder with not only sound defensive skills but also a keen attacking mind. This multifaceted aspect of his game, combined with the maturity he shows that belies his age, made Rice a very sumptuous prospect on paper for Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal — something that has translated onto the pitch very nicely. Be it carrying the ball forward into the final third, making darting runs into the opposition box, or sitting deep in midfield — Rice has proved adept in doing it all so far. With his seamless integration into the side, Arsenal look mightier than they did last season as they almost beat Man City to the league title. This time, they might just go all the way.

Unless an unforeseen injury hampers Rice, it is unlikely Arsenal regret the money they spent on him when they look at this move years down the line.

9. Cristiano Ronaldo

Moved from CF Real Madrid to Juventus FC in July 2018 for €117 million

Yes, you read that right. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2009 move from Manchester United to Real Madrid no longer makes this list, and given the fact that he not only went on to have nine scintillating years in Spain, he also managed — even at 33 — to bring Real more in transfer money than what they originally paid, obvious inflation acknowledged, shows not only his incredible longevity but, at the same time, the same financial acumen that would sink Juve a fair few miles below the surface in a few years’ time.

But how is this move regarded as five-and-a-half years down the line? It depends on what factors you take into consideration. When it comes to the brand values of both Juventus and the Serie A, they reached new heights once the Portuguese showed up. After all, wherever Cristiano goes, the eyes of the world follow. In that regard, this move turned out to be a resounding success.

The on-pitch affair, though, is a tricky matter. While his individual numbers were nothing short of outstanding — 101 goals and 22 assists in 134 appearances in all competitions — the non-goalscoring part of his game and Juve’s inability to rebuild the squad, further worsened by the amount of money committed to keep Ronaldo at the club, saw the Bianconeri regress worse than anticipated. Ronaldo, you see, was bought hoping that he was the only thing Juve were missing in their quest for winning the Champions League. As it turned out, they were missing a lot more.

After three seasons, both Ronaldo and Juve realised that they could do without each other. What followed can be summarised as such: Ronaldo, in search of a Champions League-playing side, sensationally returned to Manchester United. After one season, where his individual brilliance (24 goals and three assists from 39 appearances) contrasted spectacularly with the decaying Red Devils, Cristiano decided he had seen enough. It took him some time and a Piers Morgan interview, but he finally got his wish and got a move away from Manchester as he joined Al Nassr ahead of the Saudi Pro League’s big revamp, for whom, at the time of writing, he has produced 34 goals and 12 assists from 41 appearances thus far.

At the end of the day, since he did not win the Champions League with Juventus, Ronaldo’s Italian chapter will always be marred with a sense of disappointment.

8. Jack Grealish

Moved from Aston Villa FC to Manchester City FC in August 2021 for €117.5 million (deal reportedly worth £100 million as per UK outlets)

Many would argue that Jack Grealish’s long-anticipated big-money move away from Aston Villa came rather belatedly. When it did arrive, however, it took him straight to the top, breaking a fair few records on the way.

Man City broke their transfer record by a margin of well over £30 million when they made Grealish the first-ever £100m English footballer two years ago. While it’s easy to say that their financial strength allows them to make moves like these frequently, that this is still the only time City have gone to three figures in transfer fee spent for a player shows not only how judiciously they use their player acquisition budget but also how much they rated Grealish and his prospects under Pep Guardiola.

While he initially struggled to transition from being the go-to guy for his boyhood side to just a cog in a very intricately-run wheel, Grealish grew in stature as the months went by, truly coming into his own in his second season at City and playing a crucial rule in their historic treble-winning campaign. Now in his third year with the Cityzens, Grealish has found starts hard to come by this season, with newcomer Jérémy Doku in red-hot form ever since his arrival. There are even talks of Grealish potentially being moved on, though warming benches while being at Man City despite being a world-class talent is something quite a few players have had to do over the years — because they’re all just that good. That has not stopped those players from playing key roles in different parts of a season before, so one should not lose hope for Grealish just yet.

Whether he stays at City for years to come or moves on to pastures anew, Grealish’s move to City shall remain a memorable one not just for the records it broke, but also the unprecedented heights the team reached with him part of the group.

7. Antoine Griezmann

Moved from Atlético de Madrid to FC Barcelona in July 2019 for €120 million

Griezmann had wanted to leave Atléti long before he finally managed to. His was yet another superfluous signing the Blaugrana made after losing Neymar. The signings — and subsequent disappointment — of Ousmane Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho did little to make them take a step back and rethink their plan of unnecessarily breaking the bank time and again.

It wasn’t just the price tag; it was also the kind of player Griezmann is. There was no clear room in the Barça dressing room to accommodate neither his celebrity nor his on-pitch repertoire, so after already arriving under pressure of a huge price tag the Frenchman found it hard to adjust to his new surroundings. It also didn’t help that his first season — albeit his presence being a contributory factor itself — coincided with Barça’s long-imminent implosion that concluded with their 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in August 2020 and former president Josep Bartomeu’s resignation and subsequent incarceration. In another universe, one without COVID, Griezmann might as well have moved on to different pastures, perhaps in a swap deal for Neymar.

Despite all that, Griezmann found his second season much more comfortable. Playing under Ronald Koeman on the left side of the pitch, he became more conducive to his side’s on-pitch successes, not only improving his relationship with the team’s de facto leader, Leo Messi, but also proving vital himself in many matches, especially en route to Barça’s Copa del Rey triumph in the 2020/21 season. After just 15 goals and 4 assists in 48 games in the 2019/20 season, Griezmann contributed 20 goals and 13 assists in 51 performances in the 2020/21 season.

It wasn’t to last, however. Barça, forever in need to trim their wage bill at the start of every season, decided to ship Griezmann out, and so he was loaned back to Atlético Madrid. The Frenchman took little time to become an integral part of Diego Simeone’s plans, ultimately re-signing for the Colchoneros on the back of a €20m move.

Since his Atléti return was made permanent, Griezmann’s stock has skyrocketed. Having become more of a box-to-box midfield operator these days, the 32-year-old is currently one of the most exciting players to watch. He’s had to wait quite a while to get his time in the spotlight, but Griezmann has finally got it, and he’s making the most of it.

6. Enzo Fernández

Moved from SL Benfica to Chelsea FC in January 2023 for €121 million (deal reportedly worth £106.8 million as per UK outlets)

Enzo Fernández was at Benfica’s books for not even six months before Chelsea came calling for his signature. Despite him shining in Argentina’s World Cup-winning run in the middle of the season, the Lisbon club would have wanted to keep him for at least a couple seasons and not anticipated anyone to agree to their “meet the release clause or no deal” stance this early. That, however, is exactly what Chelsea did.

If there’s one thing we can say about this new-age Chelsea is that they love spending a surprising amount of money to bring in a surprising amount of players over a surprisingly short amount of time. And so Fernández became one of the many, many players that would arrive at Stamford Bridge in 2023, months after arriving in Europe and weeks after lifting the World Cup, the Blues having broken their transfer record to land him.

Initially used as a deep-lying midfielder, Fernández has seen himself deployed further up the pitch this season, and even though the current tempest at Chelsea makes it hard to commend any player’s performance, Fernández’ potential has been evident all the same. The price tag will inevitably weigh heavy on him, as it does on them all, but regardless of how things turn out for him at Chelsea, Fernández has created enough waves in his nascent career to be considered a prospect worthy of looking out for in years to come.

5. João Félix

Moved from SL Benfica to Atlético de Madrid in July 2019 for €127.2 million

Atlético Madrid raised a lot of eyebrows when they chose to activate the then 19-year-old Félix’s release clause to get him out of Benfica. Albeit bolstered by the sale of Antoine Griezmann to Barça, this was neither a very Atléti way of signing someone, nor was Félix a typical Diego Simeone player. But the idea purported at the time was that “El Cholo” was looking to change his team’s style of play, and Félix was chosen to be the one to spearhead this bold new dawn.

That dawn never quite arrived, however. Aside from fleeting moments of brilliance, Félix never felt at home in Madrid and was frequently reported being at odds with his manager. Things only festered as the years went by, so much so that, by January 2023, both Atléti and Félix were happy to part ways, though the former’s obstinate stance of not selling the latter for anything less than a fee comparable to the one they paid for him made it hard for clubs to make a transfer happen. Chelsea did manage to snap him up for a six-month loan, but didn’t see enough in his performances to make the move permanent. As he returned to Madrid for the 2023/24 season, Félix found himself unwelcomed at the club and started publicly stating his desire to move away. Ultimately, a season-long loan move to Barça was finalised, but not before Félix was made to extend his contract with Atléti until 2029, which was primarily done to reduce his annual salary so Barça could afford to pay his wages for the season.

The Barça loan move has turned out well so far for Félix. Playing in a system more suited to his abilities, he has been one of the standout players for the Blaugrana this season. Contracted to a club he doesn’t want to return to and playing good football for a side that can barely afford to keep him for a season, keeping tabs on Félix right now is interesting in more ways than one.

4. Ousmane Dembélé

Moved from Borussia Dortmund to FC Barcelona in August 2017 for €135 million

Ousmane was the first player Barça turned to after losing Neymar to PSG. After just one season with Borussia Dortmund, the then 20-year-old was poached away by the Blaugrana.

However, despite his obvious talent, the Frenchman never quite managed to establish himself as a regular at Barcelona in the six years he spent there. His recurring injuries—mostly muscular ones—saw him sidelined for 784 days (141 matches) for club and country during his time in Spain, further affected by occasional lackadaisical attitude on his part.

Despite his struggles, Dembélé had enough moments of brilliance in a Barça shirt for the club to be able to recoup some of the €135m they shelled out for him as PSG picked him up for €50 million in the summer of 2023. Still only 26, and having looked promising for Les Parisiens so far, maybe there’s just enough time for Dembélé to reach the heights he was expected to reach in his younger days.

3. Philippe Coutinho

Moved from Liverpool FC to FC Barcelona in January 2018 for €135 million (deal reportedly worth £105 million at the time as per UK outlets)

Yet another expensive signing Barça turned to in an attempt to fill that Neymar-shaped hole. Arriving mid-season from Liverpool, Coutinho was one of the most exciting prospects in the world at the time, but for the Blaugrana he never reached the same heights he did for the Merseyside Reds.

Coutinho arrived in Spain with a thigh injury, and that set the tone for his time at the club. In 106 appearances, he produced 25 goals and 14 assists for Barça, constantly finding himself out of favour with fans, players and managers alike.

To his credit, though, Coutinho did manage to win the Champions League while being on Barça’s books — when he spent the 2019/20 season on loan at Bayern Munich, even scoring a brace against his parent club in their 8-2 drubbing. Bayern chose not to get him in on a permanent deal, and after an out-of-favour season under Ronald Koeman, Coutinho spent six months the season after at Aston Villa, impressing just enough for the Villains to shell out £17 million to get to him Birmingham on a permanent deal. This, too, turned out to be a bad move, and one sub-par campaign was enough for Villa to deem Coutinho surplus to requirements. He’s still on their books, at the time of writing, though he’s currently on a season-long loan to Qatari side Al-Duhail.

Coutinho’s move in January 2018 not only set Barça on their downward spiral, it also provided the funds Liverpool would go on to use to invest in Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker — two players who have played a crucial role in resuscitating their reputation as a bonafide European elite in recent years.

2. Kylian Mbappé

Moved from AS Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain FC in August 2017 for €180 million

Kylian Mbappé arrived in PSG in 2017 on a loan deal that was to precipitate into an obligatory permanent move. PSG didn’t need to do this because of a lack of capital, but Financial Fair Play rules meant they couldn’t have both Neymar and Mbappé being bought in the same transfer window.

Unlike Neymar, the money paid for Mbappé has always felt justified and then some. The Frenchman quickly took over the mantle as the next big superstar in world football, with both Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi accelerating towards late 30s. At 25, he’s already PSG’s all-time top goal scorer.

A Real Madrid fan since childhood, Mbappé has enjoyed public flirtations with Los Blancos ever since arriving onto the scene. It has always felt like his move to the Spanish capital is a matter of when, not if. Even now, a year and half after he soured a fair few mouths by choosing to sign a contract extension with PSG, Mbappé remains forever linked to a move to LaLiga.

One thing’s for certain, though — looking back, the €180 million PSG spent on Mbappé feel like money well spent.

1. Neymar Júnior

Moved from FC Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain FC in August 2017 for €222 million

This is the one that effectively broke the transfer market. Back in the summer of 2017, few believed the reports that claimed that PSG were ready to activate Neymar’s €222m release clause to get him out of Barça. After all, the record transfer fee at the time was €105 million (paid by Man Utd to Juventus for Paul Pogba a year before), and this release clause was merely a matter of asset protection.

As it turned out, this asset could not be protected from the commercial might PSG were going to enforce over European football that would create ripple effects for years to come. Neymar’s move to PSG exponentially revamped the way transfers were being conducted. Release clauses went unrealistically high just to make sure they worked. €100m+ transfers became the norm for any decent player with a meaty contract.

Make no mistake — this was a stunt purchase. PSG wanted to make a statement and Neymar wanted to be the main man of European powerhouse after spending four years under Leo Messi’s shadow. When this shadow did join him in Paris four more years down the line, however, it found Neymar in a very different predicament than the one he had envisaged for himself. French wonderkid Kylian Mbappé, arriving at the club at the same time Neymar did, took little time to outshine him. Injuries did not help the Brazilian either, neither did the vacuity of the environment PSG afforded him. Therefore, for all the success he enjoyed in his six-year spell with Les Parisiens, there is always a hint of disappointment in most narratives that try to chronicle his time in France.

In fact, the consensus narrative considers Neymar’s career as a whole a bit of a tragedy. Such is his talent that, despite all he’s won, people cannot help but lament over how much more it all could have been. Now 31 and plying his trade in Saudi Arabia, Neymar’s best days are almost certainly behind him, though he may have left a few more tricks in his locker to fill a fair few YouTube skills compilation videos.

Anshuman Joshi

Anshuman Joshi is a senior writer at SportsKhabri with special focus towards all things football. His other interests include languages, world history and some good fiction.

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