Roberto Baggio (Milan to Bologna, 1997)
The Divine Ponytail’s powers seemed to be on the wane when he left Milan in 1997, so much that Parma boss Carlo Ancelotti passed up the chance to sign him for nothing that summer.
Bologna duly stepped in and were rewarded with some stunning showings the following season: Baggio scored 22 goals and provided six assists as the so-called relegation candidates secured an eighth-place finish. The playmaker’s performances earned him a spot in Italy’s World Cup ‘98 squad, and a transfer to boyhood club Inter.
Steve McManaman (Liverpool to Real Madrid, 1999)
McManaman was heavily criticised for signing a pre-contact agreement with los Blancos midway through the 1998/99 campaign, but his decision to swap Merseyside for Madrid was soon justified. Not that he was joining a particularly happy camp, however: Raul warned that the club’s dressing room was a “cesspit of lies, treachery and whispers” and suggested that McManaman had made a mistake in choosing Madrid as his next destination.
The England international didn’t take long to prove his worth at the Bernabeu, though, helping the club claim two La Liga crowns and two Champions Leagues within the space of four seasons.
Gary McAllister (Coventry to Liverpool, 2000)
Eyebrows were raised when the Reds added a 35-year-old freebie to their number in 2000, but McAllister proved he wasn’t over the hill by starring in midfield as Gerard Houllier’s charges won a unique FA Cup-League Cup-UEFA Cup treble in his first season at Anfield.
- ONE-ON-ONE Gary McAllister: "The editor of a local fanzine said that if I played more than 10 matches, he’d show his bare arse in Woolworths"
Sol Campbell (Tottenham to Arsenal, 2001)
A free transfer that provoked wildly different reactions on each side of the north London divide: Tottenham academy product and captain Campbell stunned the Premier League when he pitched up at Arsenal in 2001.
The anger of Spurs supporters has never truly subsided – over the years Campbell was subjected to taunts and vitriol that went way beyond the line – but the England centre-back ensured he had no regrets over the move by winning two league titles and three FA Cups during his five years with the Gunners. He also scored the opening goal in the 2006 Champions League Final, before Barcelona came from behind to lift the trophy in Paris.
- ONE-ON-ONE Sol Campbell: "Football-wise, the crowd got me wired... but on an emotional level, it was disgusting"
Jay-Jay Okocha (PSG to Bolton, 2002)
Sam Allardyce assembled quite a team at the Reebok Stadium in the mid-2000s, but Okocha – ahead of Fernando Hierro, Ivan Campo and Youri Djorkaeff – is the foreign signing that Bolton fans remember most fondly.
“I arranged to meet him at Charles de Gaulle airport,” Allardyce recalled in his 2015 autobiography. “Jay-Jay pulled up outside the terminal building all alone… there wasn’t an agent with him, but he knew what he was worth. ‘I know I want to come to Bolton,’ he said.
“I thought it was going to take weeks to sort it out, but we did a deal at the airport… and he promised to follow [me home] the next day to complete the paperwork. Would he really turn up? If he did I thought he would fly, but not Jay-Jay. He drove all the way from Paris to Bolton, parked up, got straight out of his car, marched into the Reebok and signed. Quality.”
The Nigerian was a natural-born entertainer who supplied an abundance of tricks and flicks on English soil – although any suggestion that he was a mere show-pony can be dismissed with reference to the tangible creative influence he had on a side that regularly finished in the top half of the Premier League and reached the knockout stage of the UEFA Cup in 2005/06.
Esteban Cambiasso (Real Madrid to Inter, 2004)
Cambiasso inspired Leicester to Premier League survival after joining the Foxes on a free in 2014, but his Bosman move to Inter a decade previously represented even better value.
After starting only nine league games for Real Madrid in 2003/04, the Argentina international instantly became an integral part of Roberto Mancini’s team at San Siro, where he won the Coppa Italia in his debut campaign.
Nine more trophies followed, including five Scudetti and the Champions League under Jose Mourinho, before the midfielder headed to the East Midlands for a new adventure in 2014.
Raul (Real Madrid to Schalke, 2010)
Raul fell out of favour in the Spanish capital in 2009/10, the Real Madrid legend starting only eight games in La Liga as Cristiano Ronaldo established himself as the club’s new figurehead.
Schalke were only too happy to provide the striker with a new home when it became clear he wouldn’t be renewing his contract at the Bernabeu – and Raul duly repaid their faith by spearheading the German side’s run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2011, and third-place finish in the Bundesliga a year later.
Andrea Pirlo (Milan to Juventus, 2011)
Juventus’s appointment of Antonio Conte in 2011 marked the start of the Bianconeri’s recent monopolisation of Serie A glory, but the acquisition of Pirlo from Milan that same summer was arguably more representative of the power shift in Italian football.
Deemed surplus to requirements at San Siro after 10 years of service, the string-puller supreme was free to join the Rossoneri’s domestic rivals for nothing. It proved to be a significant error of judgement from Milan, who were forced to watch Pirlo and Juve scoop four successive championships before the playmaker’s move to New York City FC in 2015.
“When Andrea told me that he was joining us, the first thing I thought was: ‘God exists’,” Gigi Buffon later remarked.
Miroslav Klose (Bayern Munich to Lazio, 2011)
Anyone who’s watched a World Cup in the last 17 years will be aware of Klose’s scoring prowess, but Lazio supporters could have been forgiven for thinking the German goal machine was past his best when he rocked up in Rome on the day of his 33rd birthday.
Any doubters were soon silenced, though: the striker had a hand in five of the six goals Lazio netted on his debut, with the Poland-born hitman going on to strike an injury-time winner against Roma that October. Klose ended his career in 2016 as the club’s joint-highest all-time non-Italian scorer.
Paul Pogba (Manchester United to Juventus, 2012)
On a purely financial level, this must rank as one of the greatest free transfers of all time: after signing Pogba for zilch in 2012, Juventus sold him back to Manchester United for a world-record fee of £89m four years later.
The fact that the Frenchman also offered so much on the pitch, developing into one of the world’s finest midfielders and playing a huge part in four trophy-laden seasons in Turin, made the deal even sweeter.
Robert Lewandowski (Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich, 2014)
Lewandowski did exactly that, and he hasn’t looked back since: the Pole has bagged 191 goals in 242 appearances for Bayern so far.
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