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Top 10 free transfers in football history

Paul Pogba is one of the greatest free transfers in football history.
Paul Pogba is one of the greatest free transfers in football history.
Modified 01 Jul 2020, 14:44 IST

Player transfers are one of the best aspects in the game of football. They add the much-needed drama and spice to the 'beautiful game'. Who doesn't like it when a big player joins their favourite club? What about when a player joins a fierce rival? What makes the feeling even better or worse is when a player signs for free. Sometimes, these 'free' signings go on to become some of the most important players of a football club.

Football clubs often have to shell out astronomical fees to sign the players they want. While using one's financial muscle is one way to sign top players, some shrewd planning and thinking can also get the deal done. Besides, it's always nice for the fans and the club to sign great players for free.

The Bosman Ruling states that when a player's contract with his current football club has less than six months remaining, the player can join any other club for free, that is without any money flow happening between the two clubs.

Jean-Marc Bosman's contract at RFC Liege was coming to an end in 1990, and Dunkirk wanted to sign him. However, the deal wasn't being allowed to go through, leading to a five-year legal battle at the European Court of Justice.

Before the Bosman ruling, a player could not leave their football club at the end of their contract unless that club agreed to let him go for free, or that club received an agreed fee from a buying club.

Clubs like Juventus and Bayern Munich have signed several top players for free who went on to have tremendous impact during their stints at their new clubs. Other notable clubs who have signed fabulous players for free include Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester United and Barcelona among others.

Without any further ado, here are my top 10ten free transfers in the history of football.

Top ten free transfers in football

# 10: Esteban Cambiasso - Real Madrid to Inter Milan, Inter Milan to Leicester City, Leicester City to Olympiacos

Bayern Muenchen v Inter Milan - UEFA Champions League Final
Bayern Muenchen v Inter Milan - UEFA Champions League Final

The legendary Argentine midfielder is one of two football players on this list to have been snapped up by three different clubs for free. Cambiasso was bought for free by Inter Milan from Real Madrid in 2004.

The decision was not a surprise at the time as Real Madrid had big football players like David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Guti in their ranks. Perhaps this decision was in the interest of both parties as Real Madrid obviously did not have a place for Cambiasso who deserved regular first-team football. Cambiasso went on to have a fabulous career at Inter Milan.

Cambiasso was a versatile midfielder capable of both joining the attack and bolstering the defence. He went to win five consecutive Scudetti with Inter Milan and of course the Champions League title with Jose Mourihno in 2010. In fact, Inter won the treble that season.

After spending a glorious decade at the San Siro, the Argentine moved to Leicester City. Cambiasso had a huge part to play in Leicester avoiding relegation. In 2015, Cambiasso turned down a new contract offer from the English football club and moved to Olympiacos on a free transfer.

Cambiasso is well known for finishing a goal that had a mesmerising build-up in Argentina's 2006 World Cup clash against Serbia. The Argentine retired from football in September 2017.

#9: James Milner - Manchester City to Liverpool

James Milner is a complete package.
James Milner is a complete package.

James Milner is perhaps not the name that comes to mind when one thinks of the best players in Europe. Milner, however, is a very fine football player.

This man personifies the word 'versatile'. Milner can play as a winger, defensive midfielder, attacking midfielder, or full back. Milner, a player any manager would love to have, is perhaps not the most glamorous or appealing football player in the world. But he surely is capable of getting the job done. 

It's no surprise that Jurgen Klopp wanted this player at Liverpool Football Club. Milner has been a key member of Liverpool's Champions League and Premier League-winning squads. He also has two Premier League medals (2012 and 2014) from his time at Manchester City.

On 26 December 2002, at 16 years and 356 days, Milner became the youngest player to score in the Premier League when he scored in a 2–1 win against Sunderland. By doing so, he broke Wayne Rooney's two-month old record.

#8 Henrik Larsson - Celtic to Barcelona

Celtic v Ireland XI
Celtic v Ireland XI

Even though Henrik Larsson spent only two seasons at the Nou Camp, he had a massive impact at the Spansh football club and is remembered fondly by the Barcelona faithful.

Larsson's transfer to Barcelona came as a shock to many as he had found the net an unbelievable 242 times in 315 games over seven years for Scottish giants Celtic. The Swede signed a one-year deal with Barcelona.

Injuries had wrecked the football player quite a few times, and his time at Barcelona wasn't any differernt in this regard. Larsson suffered a left knee injury and played just 16 matches in all competitions, scoring just four goals. Although Barcelona won the La Liga that season, Larsson obviously was not a key player in that triumph.

Barcelona renewed his deal for another year and Larrson repaid their faith in style. Although he scored only 10 goals, no Barcelona fan can forget the 2006 Champions League final. Larsson came on as a substitute and had a hand in both Barcelona goals as his team beat Arsenal 2-1.

Larrson also enjoyed a very short, but noteworthy stint at English football club Manchester United. It was January 2007 and United were short of attacking options. Larsson was contracted to Helsingborg, a Swedish club at that time. As it was Allsvenskan's off-season, it was an ideal time to sign him for a three-month period.

The then 35-year-old Swede scored three goals in 13 games for United. He missed out on a Premier League medal as he had to go back to Allsvenskan and his family.

# 7: Steve McManaman - Liverpool to Real Madrid

Steve McManaman joined Real Madrid on a free transfer.
Steve McManaman joined Real Madrid on a free transfer.

Steve Manaman is one of the most decorated English football players in history. English players have largely dominated the Premier League since its inception but very few of them have made a name for themselves in other football leagues.

McManaman began his football career with Liverpool in 1990. He was a key member of the Liverpool side of the 90s and was also a member of the infamous 'Spice Boys Club due to his activities and controversies off the football pitch.

McManaman was about to move to Barcelona in a £ 10 million deal in 1997, but the deal did not go through. His contract was about to run out in 1999. With five months left on his contract, he signed a pre-contract agreement with Spanish football giants Real Madrid, much to the dismay of Liverpool fans.

In 2000, McManaman became the first English player to win the Champions League with a non-English club, and two years later became the first English player to win the blue riband European club football competition twice.

He played 158 games for Real Madrid, scoing 14 goals and providing 20 assists, and also won the La Liga twice with the Los Blancos. .

# 6: Gary McAllister - Coventry to Liverpool

Gary McAllister will always be remembered by the Liverpool faithful.
Gary McAllister will always be remembered by the Liverpool faithful.

Here's another football player who was signed by a big club in the twilight years of his career and who surprised one and all with his performances.

The then 35-year-old midfielder Gary McAllister was signed by Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier from Coventry for free. Many Liverpool fans questioned the manager's decision and wondered if he was the player the Merseyside needed. McAllister had already built up quite a reputation for himself at Leeds United and Coventry City, but who knew he was saving the best for Liverpool Football Club.

Despite spending only two years at the Merseyside club, McAllister etched his name into club folklore. He was instrumental in the Liverpool's wins in the 2001 UEFA Cup Final and the 2001 FA Cup Final. The Scot scored the winning goal for Liverpool against Barcelona at Anfield in the second leg of the 2001 UEFA Cup semifinal

The next season, McAllister scored the winner in Liverpool's 2-1 victory over one of their biggest domestic football rivals, Manchester United, in the Charity Shield. He also scored a fabulous 40-yard free-kick in the fourth minute of extra time against Liverpool's local rivals, Everton.

Gary McAllister is now Steven Gerrard's assistant at Glasgow Rangers.

#5 Paul Pogba - Manchester United to Juventus

They don
They don't call him Pogboom for nothing.

Paul Pogba has already established himself as one of the greatest midfielders in the history of football. Pogba was signed by Manchester United from AC Le Havre, a French football club, in 2009. Two years later, he was promoted to the senior side and made his debut in a League Cup match against Leeds United.

However, Pogba was frustrated due to a lack of first-team action. In August 2012, Paul Pogba joined Italian football club Juventus for free. He spent four successful years with the Italian giants, winning four Serie A titles, two Italian Cup trophies, and two Italian Super Cup trophies.

Pogba played 178 games for Juventus, scoring 34 times and setting up a goal on 40 occasions. He featured for Juventus in the 2015 Champions League final which the Bianconeri lost 3-1 to Barcelona.

The talismanic French midfielder was a great 'investment' for Juventus in more ways than one as he was sold back to Manchester United for a whopping € 105 million. Talk about getting the most out of your signings!

# 4: Michael Ballack - Bayern Munich to Chelsea

Michael Ballack arrived at Chelsea Football Club on a free transfer.
Michael Ballack arrived at Chelsea Football Club on a free transfer.

To say that Michael Ballack was a midfield genius would be an understatement. Michael Ballack was one of the greatest midfielders of his generation and a player that the German and Chelsea football fans will not easily forget.

Ballack enjoyed a fabulous 4-year trophy-laden spell at Bayern Munich where the playmaker won three Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal doubles and scored 44 goals in 107 Bundesliga games. Ballack then set his sights on the English Premier League and joined Chelsea Football Club for free.

At London too, Ballack's prowess was on full display. He won the Premier League once, the FA Cup thrice and the English League Cup once.

It is worth noting that Ballack could have had a bigger trophy cabinet if he didn't lose out on winning more silverware on multiple occasions. In 2002, Bayer Leverkusen lost to Real Madrid in the Champions League final, finished second to Dortmund in the Bundesliga, and lost the German Cup final to Schalke.

In the 2002 Football World Cup, Ballack had a huge role to play as Germany ended the surprise run of hosts South Korea in the semifinals. Ballack was suspended for the final and had to watch from the sidelines as Brazil beat Germany 2-0.

#3: Sol Campbell - Tottenham Hotspur to Arsenal

A traitor or an ambtitious enforcer?
A traitor or an ambtitious enforcer?

This is one of the most controversial transfers of all time and left a sour taste in the mouths of Tottenham Hotspur fans. For Spurs fans, it was the ultimate betrayal as Sol Campbell made the move across North London to Arsenal.

Sol Campbell was a fabulous defender, regarded by many as one of the greatest defenders in England at the time.

In 2001, Campbell became a Gunner, leaving the entire English football arena stunned. This transfer deserves the number three spot due to the controversial nature of the transfer and the fact that Campbell was one of the most important members of Arsenal's Invincibles.

During the 2003-04 season, Arsenal Football Club did not lose a single Premier League game, winning 26 games and drawing 12. In 2002, Arsenal won 14 consecutive games - a record that still stands.

Sol Campbell left Arsenal in 2006, only to rejoin the club four years later after brief stints at Portsmouth and Notts County.

# 2: Andrea Pirlo - AC Milan to Juventus

A midfield genius
A midfield genius

How does one begin to describe this football player? Juventus fans couldn't believe it when Andrea Pirlo joined their club from AC Milan for free.

He had twice won the Champions League and Serie A with AC Milan and was a World Cup winner, having won the quadrennial football tournament for Italy in 2006. Pirlo's vision and passing abilities were unmatched, and his free-kicks were a thing of beauty.

For the most part of his Juventus career, Pirlo formed a great partnership with Arturo Vidal and fellow Italian, Caludio Marchisio. With Juventus, Pirlo would go on to do what he did best.

He won four consecutive Serie A titles, two Italian Super Cups, and a Italian Cup. Pirlo was nominated for the Ballon d'Or and won the Serie A player of the year in 2012. He was also instrumental in Juventus reaching the 2015 Champions League final, which the Bianconeri lost 1-3 to Barcelona.

The midfield maestro appeared in 164 games in all competitions for Juventus, scoring 19 goals and providing 38 assists. At the end of the 2014-15 season, Pirlo moved to the MLS to play for New York City FC before retiring from football in January 2018.

# 1: Robert Lewandowski - Borrusia Dortmund to Bayern Munich

The Polish goal machine
The Polish goal machine

There is a running joke in football circles that Borussia Dortmund are Bayern Munich's 'feeder club', a statement that is quite true.

Dortmund have, over the years, lost a lot of their key players to Bayern Munich, but the one they regret the most is the man who unsurprisingly bags the number one spot in this list - Robert Lewandowski.

Lewandowski, an absolute goal machine, has freakish numbers. One can only imagine the Dortmund fans' grief when Lewandowski joined Bayern Munich fo free. Losing a talent like Lewandowski is one thing, losing him to a direct rival for free is a bigger blow.

When he made the move from Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich in 2014, Lewandowski had 103 goals and 42 assists across 187 games for BVB. Since then, he has only gotten better. Till date, he has a staggering 240 goals and 53 assists across 284 games for Bayern Munich.

He just helped Bayern Munich win their eighth consecutive Bundesliga title, with the second of which coming the very season Lewandowski moved to Bayern Munich. And who can forget that game against VfB Wolfsburg where he scored five goals in under nine minutes, scoring a hat-trick in under four minutes in the process to set a Bundesliga record!

Published 01 Jul 2020, 14:44 IST
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