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.
Moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid in September 2013 for €100m (then £86m).
This is one of the most divisive entries on this list. Bale moved to Real Madrid in 2013 after months of speculation. Having run riot against the Premier League teams in his last two seasons at Tottenham, the Welshman was destined for greatness at the Bernabéu.
However, the general opinion on Bale’s time in Spain is heavily predicated on his last few seasons at the club as he struggled with injuries, match fitness and a relationship with then manager Zinedine Zidane that continued to strain right up until the moment he was completely ostracised from the playing setup and eventually loaned out. Bale had almost left for China two seasons ago, only for Real to pull the plug at the last moment. He spent the last season back at Spurs to regain some match fitness and form ahead of the ongoing Euros. As he returns to Madrid with one year left on his contract, he has a chance to rekindle his marriage with the club, albeit momentarily, now that Carlo Ancelotti has been brought back, with whom Bale had a great relationship.
Understandably, Real won’t be too happy with the number of games – or lack thereof – Bale has played in the eight years he has spent on their books. But when he has played, his numbers haven’t not been impressive – 105 goals and 68 assists in 251 games, averaging a goal/assist every 103.62 minutes – not to forget his performances in the 2014 Copa del Rey final and the 2018 Champions League final – not too bad for a guy who never really managed to settle in Madrid.
Moved from Real Madrid to Juventus in July 2018 for €100m (then £88m).
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 those 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.
But how is this move regarded as three years down the line? It depends on what factors you take into consideration. When it comes to the brand values of both Juventus and Serie A, they have never been higher. Wherever Cristiano goes, the eyes of the world follow, and in that regard this move has been a resounding success.
The on-pitch affair, though, is a tricky matter. While his individual numbers have been nothing short of outstanding – 101 goals and 22 assists in 133 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 – have seen the Bianconeri regress worse than anticipated. The Portuguese 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 two questionable one-year stints of Maurizio Sarri and Andrea Pirlo and having brought Max Allegri back, Juve are looking to go back to their old winning ways. They won’t be averse to hearing offers for Cristiano, but the 36-year-old knows that he won’t be offered a Є31m-a-year contract anywhere else, and given Juve retain their Champion League status, he’s likely to see out the final year of his contract, unless something astonishing happens. All in all, unless he wins the Champions League with Juventus, Ronaldo’s Italian chapter will always be marred with a sense of disappointment.
Moved from Chelsea to Real Madrid in June 2019 for €100m (then £89m).
Hazard’s first two years at Real have been nothing short of a footballing tragedy. After a seven-year dominance in the Premier League with Chelsea, many felt that this move came a bit too late for the Belgian. They have not been proved wrong thus far.
An abundance of injuries and a severe lack of fitness have seen Hazard spend 360 days on the sidelines, having played a mere 43 matches (2,441 minutes) and contributed 5 goals and 8 assists. The lack of fitness has taken both a physical and psychological toll on him, as he barely looks a shadow of the player he was no more than two summers ago.
If reports are to be believed, Real would already be happy to consider offloading the player they made their most expensive signing two seasons ago. With Hazard already 30, neither party have an abundance of time and patience. Los Blancos’ recent big-money moves have been very disappointing, and given COVID and the money they have already committed to the refurbishment of their stadium, they need to free up some funds to put themselves in a position to make more acquisitions again.
With three years left on his contract and other clubs unlikely to take a huge interest in him, Hazard might yet get some opportunities to have a few memorable moments in a Real Madrid shirt. But all thing considered, it’s not harsh to say that this transfer – so far – has been an absolute disaster.
Moved from Juventus to Manchester United in August 2016 for €105m (then £89m).
Manchester United broke the then transfer record to buy Pogba back from Juventus, having let him go there for free in the summer of 2012. Pogba left Manchester surplus to Sir Alex Ferguson’s plans, but returned with the reputation of one of the most exciting young prospects in Europe who dominated Serie A with Juventus during their peak years.
How has Pogba fared since his return? Well, it depends on who you ask, naturally, but the added exposure of the Premier League and the mammoth price tag have surely gone a long way to affect the general opinion on Pogba’s second innings at the club. When it comes to goals and assists, Pogba’s contribution to Manchester United in five years has been comparable to that of his four years at Juventus (a goal/assist for United in every 198.81 minutes compared to 190.11 minutes at Juve), which given the fact that he has had to play a lot in systems not complementary to his style of play at Man Utd is saying something.
Pogba’s advancing years and the lack of silverware over last four years will be contribute significantly in him deciding whether he wishes to extend his stay at the club. For United, this is probably the final summer they can get a big fee for him. What isn’t debatable, though, is the fact that the Frenchman has a lot of admirers should he ever wish to want away, none more so than the Old Lady herself.
Moved from Borussia Dortmund to FC Barcelona in August 2017 for €105m (then £97m).
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 has not yet managed to establish himself as a regular at Barcelona even after being there for four seasons. His recurring injuries – mostly muscular ones – has seen him miss a total of 536 days and 86 matches during his time in Spain, further affected by occasional lackadaisical attitude on his part.
With the upcoming season, Dembélé goes into the last year of his Barça contract, having 30 goals and 21 assists in 118 matches for them so far. This will be his last season to string some performances worthy of his talent over a prolonged period of time to convince his club to keep him, who will otherwise not shy away from reducing their wage bill.
Moved from Atlético Madrid to FC Barcelona in July 2019 for €120m (then £107m).
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 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 Antoine 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 a contributory factor itself – coincided with Barça’s long-imminent implosion that concluded with Barça’s 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.
However, despite all that, Greizmann found his second season much more comfortable. Playing under Ronald Koeman on the left side of the pitch, the 30-year-old 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 last season. After just 15 goals and 4 assists in 48 games in the 2019-20 season, Griezmann contributed 20 goals and 12 assists in 51 performances in the 2020-21 season.
Albeit a move borne out of profligacy, Greizmann does seem to have found some stable footing at Camp Nou. While his transfer fees and his wage package (worth approximately €46m per year) will always bear an air of silliness, the Frenchman is at least an integral part of the squad now.
Moved from SL Benfica to Atlético Madrid in July 2019 for €126m (then £114.1m).
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 Griezmann to Barça, this was neither a very Atléti way of signing someone, neither was Félix your 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.
In all honesty, Félix’s first two seasons at the club have seen only a few instances of the talent he is rightly believed to possess. 19 goals and 9 assists in 76 appearances indicate that he requires a little more patience. This has further been accentuated by the limited game time he has had, which can be credited to Simeone who, after seeing his side’s performances declining in Félix’s first season at the club – having attempted to change the style of play – tried to bring back a bit of solidity from the previous years, which resulted in Atléti’s modus operandi inclining a lot more towards the way they’re known to play compared to the new, attacking system they were going for.
Not that they’d be complaining much, though. Atlético did manage to take advantage of the weakened Barça and Real Madrid to win LaLiga last season – an astonishing achievement any year. And with five years still left on his contract, João Félix will get ample of opportunities to grow.
Moved from Liverpool to FC Barcelona in January 2018 for €145m (then £105m).
Yet another expensive signing Barça turned to in an attempt to fill that Neymar-shaped hole. Arriving mid-season from Liverpool, the Brazilian was one of the most exciting prospects in the world at the time. But for the Blaugrana, Coutinho never reached the same heights he did for the Merseyside Reds. He arrived in Spain with a thigh injury, and that set the tone for his time at the club. In 90 appearances, Coutinho only has 23 goals and 14 assists for Barça and has found himself consistently 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 finds himself with two years left on his Barça contract and no resolution in sight. Neither side looks too intent to carry on with this, and given Barça’s recent wage-bill-reducing shenanigans it wouldn’t be too surprising if they decided to cut their losses and let him go for peanuts, as they have done with many other players over the past season.
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 bona fide European elite in recent years.
Moved from AS Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain in August 2017 for €180m (then £163m).
Kylian arrived in PSG in 2017 in a loan deal that was to precipitate in an obligatory permanent move. PSG didn’t need to do this because of a lack of capital, but Financial Fair Play 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. Still only 22, the Frenchman has seamlessly taken over the mantle as the next big superstar in world football, now that both Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi are accelerating towards late 30s. With 122 goals, he’s already third in PSG’s all-time top scorers list, 68 behind Edinson Cavani who sits at No. 1.
Mbappé’s current contract with Les Parisiens expires at the end of next season. If he chooses to extend his stay, he’ll most likely break Neymar’s transfer record by some distance whenever he leaves the club. If he doesn’t extend his contract, then he’ll be set to become one of the best-paid athletes next season onwards, if not the best.
Moved from FC Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in August 2017 for €222m (then £198m).
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 price paid at the time was €105m (by Man Utd for 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.
But how has Neymar fared for Les Parisiens after this move?
Well, his numbers have been scintillating, with him averaging a goal/assist for PSG in every 70.19 minutes compared to 84.76 minutes at Barça. But he has suffered from more injuries in Paris than he did back in Barcelona, mostly around crucial games, resulting in him having played 5,585 minutes less for PSG than he did for Barça in the same time (four seasons). Given that he arrived in a team that were already dominating France, Neymar’s time at PSG thus far has provided little more than significant global brand growth for the league and the club and some slick moves to go into a cheesy YouTube compilation. PSG’s owners, the QSI Group, might not feel too harshly regarding the money spent, but for the measures they took to make this deal happen they would surely have anticipated more results, especially in Europe.
That said, Neymar does seem to have become a bit of a leader over the past two years as he led his side to a UCL final and semi-final in consecutive seasons. Now that he has secured his stay in Paris for at least another four years, we might yet see the Neymar who left Barça four years ago to stand tall in his own right and become a champion of champions.
Transfer fees – Wikipedia
Playing stats – Transfermarkt