Disclaimer: This is not a list of the most important football transfers in history, it is merely ten that each had an impact on the game in their own way and I thought were worth talking about (particularly the transfer of Jean-Marc Bosman, who is often only remembered as a surname attached to a court case)
Alfredo Di Stefano – Millionarios to Real Madrid – 1953
The first great footballer of the post war era, Alfredo Di Stefano not only helped Real Madrid to a still-record five consecutive European Cups, but his transfer from Colombian side Millianarios also helped to spark one of the fiercest rivalries in football. Confusion over whether it was Millianarios or River Plate who actually owned Di Stefano, combined with his signing of contracts with both Madrid and Barcelona meant that the Spanish FA had to step in and offer a co-ownership deal where he would play two seasons with one side and then two with the other. Barcelona rejected the offer, and to this day what Madrid achieved with the “Blond Arrow” still rankles with Los Cules.
Johan Cruyff – Ajax to Barcelona – 1973
Never has one player done so much to define a club. Giving Barcelona their first league title in 14 years in the season after his arrival at the Nou Camp following his ousting as Ajax captain by a team vote may have been enough for most people, but not Johan Cruyff. Not only did he become the embodiment of the club that is more than a club, even turning out for Catalonia, he also laid out the way of playing football that has stuck with the team for almost 40 years, work that he continued during a spell as manager when he won four league titles and a European Cup and that now expresses itself in one of the greatest teams ever to play the game.
Ricky Villa/Ossie Ardiles – Racing Club/Huracan to Tottenham – 1978
Although there had been South American players in the English league before the Argentinean pair arrived on the back of their World Cup success, none had managed to permeate English football’s identity. Simply, none had been as good or as likeable, and none did more to pave the way for the mass of foreign talent plying its trade in today’s Premier League. Ardiles formed a very creative central midfield partnership with future England manager Glenn Hoddle, and while Villa had to spend a lot of time on the bench as second fiddle to Hoddle his second goal in the 1981 FA Cup Final Replay alone ensured he will be remembered long after many more recent imports.
Diego Maradona – Barcelona to Napoli – 1984
One of the greatest players ever was never better than when he had an entire team built around his immense talent. After suffering through a torrid couple of seasons at Barcelona, where he had his leg broken by Athletic Bilbao defender Andoni Goikoetxea, and by the time Napoli, then a relatively average Serie A team, he was all too ready to move on. Napoli broke the world transfer record with a £5 million bid (Barcelona had also broken the record in buying Maradona from Boca Juniors). Maradona was taken into Neapolitan hearts like no other player before or since, although it no doubt helped that with him the club won their only two Scudetti to date, as well as the 88-89 UEFA cup.
Ruud Gullit/Marco van Basten/Frank Rijkaard – PSV/Ajax/Sporting CP to AC Milan -1987/88
Although the main credit for Milan’s extraordinary successes in the late 80s and early 90s must go to their revolutionary coach Arrigo Sacchi, and after him Fabio Capello, there was no doubt that the signing of this Dutch trio helped. Before their arrival Milan had nothing to show for their previous twenty years but two League titles and a single Cup Winners’ Cup. By the time they had left in 1993, the Rossoneri had won three further league titles and back to back European Cups, the three Dutchmen all scoring in one or other of the finals. However, more important was the manner of these victories, Sacchi’s innovative style of co-ordinated pressing and movement of the players within the framework of the team produced an intoxicating brand of football that few teams can claim to have matched, let alone surpassed.
Jean-Marc Bosman – RFC Liege to Dunkirk – 1990
The early 90’s was very much a time of transition for football. The European Cup was rebranded and the Premier League established. But perhaps the most important development was the transfer of a little known Belgian footballer. Bosman’s contract with Liege had run out, and Dunkirk had agreed a fee to buy him. However, Liege then raised their demands, at which point Dunkirk pulled out of the deal, and as he was at the end of his contract, Bosman was put onto reduced wages and demoted to the reserve team. He appealed his case to the European Court of Justice, and in 1995 finally won the right for all EU nationality players to a free transfer after the expiration of their contracts. This lead to a rapid inflation of players’ wages to previously unimaginable levels, a gravy train that Bosman never got to ride.
Eric Cantona – Leeds to Manchester United – 1992
Love them or loathe them (and most people do one or the other), Manchester United have been the dominant team in English football over the last two decades. And it was “King Eric” who kickstarted it all, and who symbolised their growing influence over the game. The Frenchman famously signed after Alex Ferguson heard United chairman Martin Edwards on the phone to his Leeds counterpart and hastily scribbled “ask him about Cantona”. As well known for controversy, including spitting at a Leeds fan on his return to Elland Road and that kung fu kick, as he was for his majestic and game-changing performances, Cantona might not have been the greatest United player ever, but he was certainly the most interesting.
Lionel Messi – Newell’s Old Boys to Barcelona – 2000
Undoubtedly the best player in the world right now, it is almost impossible to think what could have happened had Barcelona not stepped in and offered to pay for Messi’s hormone treatment (he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency aged 11) after River Plate, who had been interested, decided they could not afford the £500 a month. Undoubtedly Messi would still be a very good player, but could he have developed into one of the finest players the world has ever seen without the years spent in Barcelona’s youth teams? As it was, Messi and his parents moved to Catalonia and Messi started training at the club’s La Masia academy. And, as they say, the rest is history.
Luis Figo – Barcelona to Real Madrid – 2000
Of all the transfers between these two great rivals, Figo’s is probably the one that sparks the most anger. Having spent five successful seasons with Barcelona, winning two league titles and endearing himself to fans with his displays of tremendous attacking wing play, his world record transfer of £37 million to become the first of Madrid’s Galacticos ensured that his name will forever be spoken with bitterness in the Catalan capital. And his place in Clasico history was cemented in the goalless draw between the two clubs in November 2002, when a pig’s head was thrown at the Portuguese winger during a game that was suspended by the referee for sixteen minutes due to fears surrounding players’ safety.
Damien Duff – Blackburn Rovers to Chelsea – 2003
With the backing of Roman Abramovich Chelsea have bought better and more expensive players than the Irish winger, but it was Duff’s signing from Blackburn for £17 million that really served notice of the West London club’s intent to challenge a decade of domestic dominance by the reds of Manchester United and Arsenal. Blackburn had renewed Duff’s contract after the 2002 World Cup, and while he had insisted on a minimum fee release clause, Rovers set it at £17 million, at the time an unthinkable amount of money for an English club to spend on a player unproven at the top level of football. But then along came Abramovich, as the first billionaire owner of an English team, and changed the face of English football.