The best things in life are free
Free transfers used to be parting gifts from clubs who rewarded their stalwarts by not demanding a transfer fee, allowing the old fella to negotiate a nice bonus from his new club. But it wasn’t always granted until Jimmy Hill led the fight against restraint of trade, and players out of contract were automatically allowed a free switch if their old clubs wouldn’t match their terms.
Since then, the Bosman ruling has helped globalise the transfer market and also switched the power from the clubs to the players. But which are the best free transfers of all time? Read on to find out – and we won’t charge you a penny.
20. Teddy Sheringham (Manchester United to Tottenham, 2001)
“I probably played my best football at Tottenham,” Sheringham told FFT in a 2012 interview. The England international was probably referring to his first spell at White Hart Lane rather than his second, but he still added 26 goals to his Spurs total after re-joining the club for free in 2001.
Glenn Hoddle’s side reached the League Cup final in Sheringham’s first season back, as well as securing a ninth-place finish in the top flight – Tottenham’s highest in six years. Despite the striker making 38 appearances in 2002/03, Spurs opted against offering him a new deal that summer.
19. Henrik Larsson (Celtic to Barcelona, 2004)
Larsson earned legend status for his exploits with Celtic, for whom he scored 242 goals in 313 appearances between 1997 and 2004. Barcelona snapped him up once his contract with the Glaswegian outfit had expired, but the striker’s start to life in La Liga was disrupted by injury.
Larsson still appeared 58 times in his two campaigns at the Camp Nou, though, scoring 19 goals and winning the Champions League in 2006 (grabbing both assists in the 2-1 win over Arsenal), as well as two Primera Division crowns. Not bad at all.
18. 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.
The former Leeds man made 49 appearances in all competitions that year, scoring crucial goals against Everton, Barcelona and Alaves, and stepping up as an invaluable leader in the centre of the park.
17. Raul (Real Madrid to Schalke, 2010)
Raul fell out of favour in the Spanish capital in 2009/10, starting only eight games in La Liga as Cristiano Ronaldo established himself as the club’s new figurehead (fair enough, really).
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.
16. Dani Alves (Barcelona to Juventus, 2016)
Few clubs have picked up as many bargains as Juventus in recent years, and Alves followed Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba and Sami Khedira by joining the club for nothing in 2016.
The former Barcelona right-back played a starring role as Juve scooped another Serie A title and the Coppa Italia. He was also an integral part of the Old Lady’s run to the Champions League final, scoring once and providing three assists in the semi-final success against Monaco, before joining PSG on a free in 2017.
15. Denis Law (Manchester United to Manchester City, 1973)
It’s a widely believed myth that Law relegated former club United by scoring against them in 1974; the Red Devils would have gone down anyway due to results elsewhere, although the Scottish striker wasn’t to know that when he backheeled home.
That was one of 12 goals Law scored for City after moving across Manchester for nothing the previous summer. It was actually his second spell on the blue side of the city, but he remains most closely associated with United – only two men, Bobby Charlton and Wayne Rooney, have scored more goals for the club.
14. 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 so 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.
13. Gianluca Vialli (Juventus to Chelsea, 1996)
There’s nothing unusual about foreign players plying their trade in the Premier League these days, but things were very different in 1996. Vialli was one of few non-natives in the division after his Bosman switch to Chelsea, although the Blues’ dressing room – which contained Ruud Gullit, Dan Petrescu, Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola among others – was one of the more multicultural around.
Vialli scored 40 goals across three seasons in west London, a tally which helped Chelsea win the FA Cup in 1997 and a lesser-spotted League Cup/Cup Winners’ Cup double the following campaign.
12. Miroslav Klose (Bayern Munich to Lazio, 2011)
Anyone who’s watched a World Cup in the last 15 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.
11. Ruud Gullit (Milan to Chelsea, 1995)
Gullit may have been past his best when he rocked up at Stamford Bridge in 1995, but he still had plenty to offer a club striving to win another piece of silverware after a 24-year drought.
The Dutchman finished as runner-up to Footballer of the Year Eric Cantona in his debut campaign, then won the FA Cup as player-manager in his second season in the capital. He was surprisingly sacked in February 1998 with Chelsea second in the table, chairman Ken Bates admitting: “I never liked him.”
10. 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.
9. Luis Enrique (Real Madrid to Barcelona, 1996)
Luis Enrique played 300 games for Barcelona and managed the Catalan club for three years, but before all that he experienced life on the other side of the Clasico divide.
The midfielder strutted his stuff for Real Madrid between 1991 and 1996, which meant he was initially treated with suspicion by the Barça faithful following his controversial move between the two. He soon proved his worth at Camp Nou, though, winning a pair of league titles, two Copas del Rey, a Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Cup before hanging up his boots in 2004.
8. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (PSG to Manchester United, 2016)
Most expected Ibrahimovic to make an impact in the Premier League after joining United on a fee transfer, but few could have anticipated him scoring 28 goals in all competitions. Injury struck in April, ruling the striker out for the rest of the campaign, but after initially letting his contract run down United decided to offer the Swede another one-year deal in August.
“I never left, I just upgraded my number,” Ibrahimovic remarked of his switch to the No.10 shirt.
7. Michael Ballack (Bayern Munich to Chelsea, 2006)
Bayern bigwigs weren’t happy when it became clear that Ballack intended to run down his contract in Munich. The Bavarians’ loss was Chelsea’s gain as Jose Mourinho secured the midfielder’s signature for nothing in summer 2006.
Ballack went on to make more appearances for Chelsea than he had for Bayern – 166 vs 157 – and won a Premier League title, a League Cup and three FA Cups in English football. He later returned to Bayer Leverkusen, where he played for two more seasons before calling it a day in 2012.
6. 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.
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.
5. 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 cool £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.
4. Sol Campbell (Tottenham to Arsenal, 2001)
A free transfer that provoked wildly different reactions on the two sides 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.
3. 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.
2. Robert Lewandowski (Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich, 2014)
When Borussia Dortmund refused to sell their star striker to domestic rivals Bayern Munich in the summer of 2013, they knew he was likely to join the Bavarians for nothing 12 months later.
Lewandowski did exactly that, and he hasn’t looked back since: the Pole continues to dominate the Bundesliga scoring charts and Bayern simply aren't the same without him. He's upped his game for Poland too, and top-scored UEFA 2018 World Cup qualifying with a phenomenal 16-goal haul.
1. 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.
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