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Biggest free transfers in football history

Tue 26 October 2021 | 5:30

Want to know more about football's best free transfers? Which superstars made the headlines for switching clubs for free? Read on as we take a look at the history of these done deals.

Football has almost always been about the money for many clubs and players alike. We have seen European clubs splash the cash and spend literally hundreds of millions of Euros to bring in world-class players. We saw Neymar depart from Barcelona and join Paris Saint-Germain for an eye-watering fee of €222 million.

But while European teams have had to pay whopping amounts of money to sign some of their superstars, there have been rare cases in which they have acquired their players for free. Even younger fans of football know what a free transfer is thanks to Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos, who both left their Spanish teams to join PSG over the summer of 2021.

Surely the French side’s ridiculously amazing transfer window has had all of us wondering to see who is on the list of 

biggest free transfers in football history

and that is exactly why we are here. If you too are eager to find out who else is on the list of the best free transfers, then follow us below as we provide detailed information about some the most memorable transfers in football history.

10 of the best free transfers

From Robert Lewandowski completely overhauling Bayern Munich’s status as one of the footballing goliaths of the 2010s to Lionel Messi sending the world crazy with his historic move to Paris Saint-Germain, we have seen some unforgettable moves throughout the years. Here are some of the biggest free transfers in football history.

Raul

  • Real Madrid – Schalke

There are few players in the history of football that can represent

Real Madrid

as proudly as Raul, who spent more than 16 years at the Spanish capital and earned himself a place in the footballing halls of fame. Raul’s legacy at Real Madrid is so remarkable that many of the younger supporters of the club might not even know that the Spaniard actually spent a couple of seasons playing for another top-tier club in Europe.

Raul joined

Schalke 04

for free in 2010 and aptly earned himself a place amongst the

biggest free transfers in football history

thanks to this move. Having graduated from Real Madrid’s youth academy way back in 1994, Raul was already a legend when he switched clubs a decade ago.

But that didn’t stop the immensely versatile forward from slowing down after joining the German side. He actually upped his game even more as he went on to score an incredible 40 goals and provide 21 assists in a total of 98 appearances, which helped Schalke win the German Cup and the German Super Cup.

The former Real Madrid captain is certainly amongst 10 of the best free transfers in football history and there is no denying it. Even though Raul never got to win the World Cup, he went on to collect numerous trophies throughout his illustrious career, winning the Champions League on three occasions. He made a total of 916 appearances at club level and managed to score a whopping 384 goals and provide 136 assists in the process.

Sergio Ramos

  • Real Madrid – PSG

It seems that Real Madrid have a habit of letting go of their legends before they can say goodbye or even get a chance to retire at the club they adore so much. From Iker Casillas to Raul, there are many Real Madrid legends that were treated the same way by the Spanish giants and Sergio Ramos is certainly one of them. Who would have thought we would one day see the ferocious Sergio Ramos shed a tear in front of a crowd?

Well, that is exactly what we got to see when Los Blancos announced that their captain was bound to leave and there was not going to be any farewell ceremony at the Santiago Bernabeu. Despite his injuries in the past few months, the 35-year-old is still considered by many to be one of the greatest defenders in the world, which is why no one criticized

Paris Saint-Germain

when they quickly acted to sign the 2010 world champion for free over the summer.

Ramos’ move to the Parisian side put his name amongst

football's best free transfers

since everyone is aware of the quality that the Spaniard can add to PSG’s squad. He is yet to make an appearance for Les Rogue et Bleu, but his overall stats is more than enough to put him amongst the best of the best in football history. Throughout his career, Sergio Ramos has made a total of 716 appearances at club level, scoring 104 goals and providing 40 assists in the process, which puts him amongst one of the highest-scoring center-backs in history.

Michael Ballack

  • Bayern Munich – Chelsea

There was a time in history when Germany’s midfield was presented by none other than Michael Ballack, the genious who not only knew how to make the team work like clockwork, but also knew how to score brilliant goals. Ballack is considered to be one of the highest-scoring footballers in Germany national team history since he scored 42 goals in a total of 98 appearances during his trophy-laden career.

Bayern Munich had one of the greatest midfielders of the time at their disposal and they went on to win several back-to-back trophies thanks to the impressive performances of Ballack. The now 45-year-old made a total of 157 appearances for the Bavarians and managed to score 62 goals and provide 40 assists in the process, which is why many are still questioning why Bayern Munich let go of such a talent so easily.

Michael Ballack put pen to paper in 2006 and joined

Chelsea

for free, making one of the biggest free transfers in football history happen in a flash. The former FC Bayern man joined the Blues with a market value of €35 million and went on to become a club legend by cementing his position in Chelsea’s hall of fame. He made 167 appearances for the London-based club, but did not manage to repeat his former goals-scoring feats as he only scored 25 goals and provided 24 assists in the process.

However, as one of the

10 of the best free transfers

in football history, Ballack was still quite a vital part of Chelsea as he helped the Premier League side win the league title, three FA Cups, two Community Shields and the League Cup.

Paul Pogba

  • Manchester United – Juventus

We all know about

Manchester United

’s disastrous transfer policy, which has cost them hundreds of millions of Euros over the years. But not everything the Red Devils have done can be as unsuccessful and yet hilarious as what they did with Paul Pogba. Imagine letting go of one of your most exciting prospects only to sign him back for millions. That is exactly what United did as they let go of Paul Pogba for free back in 2012.

The Frenchman joined Juventus for free as he was still considered to be a Manchester United flop. But he quickly turned the tides in his favor as he became one of the best midfielders of his generation in a heartbeat. It did not take United long to realize what a big mistake it was to let go of such a great talent for free.

Paul Pogba immortalized his name amongst football's best free transfers with a stellar performance at Juventus as he helped the Serie A side push further in the race to become a powerhouse in the Champions League once again.

The 2018 World Cup winner made a total of 178 appearances for Juventus and managed to score 34 brilliant goals and provide 40 assists in the process to convince everyone that he deserves to be on the

list of the best free transfers

. Pogba later impressed Manchester United with his incredible performances so much that the Premier League side paid a whopping €105 million to bring him back into their squad.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

  • PSG – Manchester United

  • LA Galaxy – AC Milan

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is still rocking it as one of the best strikers in the world at the age of 40 and is the main reason behind

AC Milan

’s recent success in both the Italian top-flight and the Champions League. After all, he helped Milan qualify for the UCL after many years of not being able to achieve that dream. If it were for Zlatan himself, all the names on the list of biggest free transfers in football history would be his name. But sadly for the Lion, he can only take up one space on this list of elites.

The Swedish center-forward is without a doubt an absolute goal machine and has spent his entire illustrious career playing for world-class clubs such as Inter, Juventus,

Ajax

, Barcelona, PSG, LA Galaxy and AC Milan. However, only three clubs have managed to get their hands on the lethal striker for free. In a move that put him on the list of the best free transfers, Ibrahimovic joined Manchester United in 2016 after spending four years at PSG and managed to single-handedly turn the tides in United’s favor and put them on the radar once again.

He went on to make a total of 53 appearances for the Red Devils, scoring 29 goals and providing 10 assists in the process. These stats were more than enough to turn the Sweden international’s move to United into one of the biggest free transfers in football history.

James Milner

  • Manchester City – Liverpool

Imagine being so versatile that you get to play and brilliantly perform in almost any position your manager deploys you in. That is exactly what James Milner has done throughout his career so far as the Englishman is basically like a Swiss knife at Liverpool.

Manchester City

made a similar mistake with James Milner just like what their city rivals Manchester United did with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Even though Milner was a vital part of City’s squad in the early 2010s, they decided that it was time the then 30-year-old midfielder left the club after spending 5 years at the Etihad Stadium. That is when the former Aston Villa man joined Liverpool on a free transfer deal and signed off on one of the biggest free transfers in football history. Milner was a hit from the moment he set foot onto Anfield as he became a fan-favorite thanks to his incredible performance in his first season.

Ranking the 5 greatest free transfers in football history, Milner’s move to Liverpool could make it to the list as his arrival completely overhauled the English club’s strategy and gameplay as he helped Liverpool win the Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup.

Aside from these achievements, he also helped his club finally become champions of England’s top-flight as they won their first-ever Premier League in 2020. The 35-year-old has made more than 250 appearances for

Liverpool

since joining the club in 2015 and has scored 26 goals and provided 43 assists in the process as well.

Henrik Larsson

  • Celtic - Barcelona

Ranking the 5 greatest free transfers in football history

, Henrik Larsson should definitely get a shout-out as he is by far one of the greatest strikers of all time. Before Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Larsson was the main man for Sweden and the center-forward was truly something to watch. With an enjoyable play style and an immense versatility, Larsson made football fans fall in love with his technique and lethality in front of goal everywhere he went.

The current Barcelona assistant manager rose to prominence as a great striker during his time at Celtic, where he scored goals left and right and won several domestic trophies, including four Scottish championships, the Scottish Cup and two League cups. After rejecting offers from other world-class clubs for several years during his spell at Celtic, Larsson finally gave in to the idea of playing elsewhere and opted to join Barcelona in 2004, which turned his move into one of the biggest free transfers in football history.

The center-forward enjoyed a trophy-laden career at the Catalan club, with whom he managed to win the Champions League, the Supercopa de Espana and two La Liga titles. Larsson went on to make a total of 59 appearances for the Blaugrana, during which he managed to score 19 goals and provide 6 assists.

Robert Lewandowski

  • Borussia Dortmund – Bayern Munich

From the man who scored basically became the first footballer to put a whopping four goals past Real Madrid in Champions League history, to the man who is now competing with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or, Robert Lewandowski certainly deserves to be both on the list of greatest strikers of all time and when ranking the 5 greatest free transfers in football history.

The Poland international is without a doubt a sensational striker who knows how to go through the opposition defense and put the ball into the back of the net with sheer class and technique. After his heroics for

Borussia Dortmund

in the Champions League, which helped the German club reach the final only to lose against Bayern Munich, Lewandowski decided it was time he left Dortmund for a much stronger and financially well-endowed club, which is why he opted to let his contract expire so that he could join any club he desired.

Lewan-“goal”-ski joined Bayern Munich on a free transfer deal in 2014 and has since helped the Bundesliga side win several trophies, including the historic sextuple in the 2019-20 season. The 33-year-old center-forward is a beast of a goal scorer as he has managed to score an incredible total of 307 goals in 339 appearances for the Bavarians. Adding the 66 assists that he has provided so far at Bayern Munich, one can clearly see that the Poland international has had a hand in at least one goal in every match that he has played for the German giants.

There is no denying that Lewandowski put pen on paper and took part in one of the biggest free transfers in football history as his move from Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich paved the way for a new footballing golden age in Germany.

Andrea Pirlo

  • Milan – Juventus

There are only a handful of footballers people think of when they talk about Italian football. These few players represent the sheer class and beauty of football in Italy as they themselves are sophisticated and elegant both on and off the pitch. One fine example of sophisticated Italian footballers is Andrea Pirlo, who graced the pitch for both of the Milan clubs and Juventus after gaining prominence as a youngster at Brescia.

The now 42-year-old midfielder is considered to be one of the greatest-ever midfielders as he led his nation to World Cup victory in 2006 against Zinedine Zidane’s France. Pirlo’s achievements will echo through history as he will be remembered for generations to come.

That is exactly why AC Milan will be regretting the decision to let him go for free back in 2011 for ever. Everyone knew that Pirlo would be aging like fine wine as he proved Milan he still had the quality of a world-class midfielder after he joined Juventus on a free transfer deal in the same year.

The man who was once an AC Milan legend, turned into a fan-favorite superstar at Juventus, where he helped the club win four league titles, the Coppa Italia and two Supercoppa Italiana trophies. The 2006 world champion went on to make a total of 164 appearances for the Bianconeri, scoring 19 goals and providing 38 assists in the process.

Lionel Messi

  • Barcelona – PSG

Who would have thought that we would one day get to see Lionel Messi don the shirt of a club other than Barcelona? The universe works in mysterious ways and it seems that destiny was not so kind on one of, if not the greatest footballer of all time either. Currently, there are only two players over whom people debate over to see which one actually is the greatest footballer of all time. One is Cristiano Ronaldo and the other is Lionel Messi.

The Argentinian is without a doubt a Barcelona legend as he played the main role in the club’s golden age of trophies and conquests. It is both sad and quite hilarious to see how Barca handled Lionel Messi’s contract and how they opted to sign several other players without even thinking about the wage limit regulations put in effect by La Liga.

Having signed the likes of Sergio Aguero and Memphis Depay, Barcelona’s board of directors somehow expected Messi to play for the club for free even though the Argentina international was already willing to take a 50% wage cut. With such a terrible transfer policy, the Blaugrana were forced to let one of the greatest footballers of all time go for free as his contract had already expired in the summer of 2021.

That is when Paris Saint-Germain swooped in to sign the forward and complete the top item on the list of biggest free transfers in football history. The 34-year-old is yet to make a huge impact at PSG as he has scored only a single goal in five appearances for the Parisians.

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