Prised from the Prem - but prized or despised?
Rich and glamorous, Real Madrid have spent decades pursuing the planet’s best players, but only recently have they regularly pillaged the Premier League for their next big thing.
Since 1999, the Spanish giants have raided the English top flight for 22 signings: some of the finest players to ever kick a ball, as well as a few cult heroes, short-term fixes and some who never made much sense. From David Beckham to Cristiano Ronaldo to, well, Julien Faubert, we rank all of Real Madrid’s Premier League signings of the last 20 years.
22. Jonathan Woodgate
Woodgate’s career was stymied by injury so when Real Madrid spent £13.4m for his services in 2004 it raised more than a few eyebrows. Having played 37 times in his 18 months at Newcastle, the England defender arrived at the Bernabeu injured and didn’t make his debut for over a year. When he did, it proved to be a disaster.
Initially roared on by an optimistic Bernabeu crowd, Woodgate proceeded to steer a shot into his own net on 24 minutes. He then managed to get sent off for two bookings, capping the mother of all nightmare debuts. He managed just 891 minutes of action in a two-year spell which cost Madrid £16,000 per minute played and was later vote by Marca readers as the worst transfer of the 21st century. Ouch.
Verdict: Started horribly, went downhill from there
21. Nicolas Anelka
At just 20 years old, Arsenal whizkid Anelka was already known for his difficult temperament, but that didn’t stop Madrid from forking out £23m to sign him in the summer of 1999. The lightning-quick goalscorer failed to settle in Madrid, and it showed on the pitch – he didn't score in La Liga until February.
He also managed to fall out with the affable Vicente del Bosque, which got him suspended from training. After two goals in 19 league games, he moved back to his first club, PSG, for £22m: at least Madrid managed to get most of their money back.
Verdict: Not at all worth the trouble
20. Julien Faubert
Faubert struggled to hold down a regular place in the West Ham side, ranking this as one of the more bizarre signings of recent seasons. But in January 2009, Juande Ramos needed a back-up winger and duly sanctioned a shock loan deal for the Frenchman. “His agent should be knighted by the Queen,” Paul Merson quipped.
The short-term stint in Madrid went exactly as predicted – badly. Faubert was accused of falling asleep on the bench in a game against Villarreal. He later denied it, telling FourFourTwo he'd just closed his eyes because he was bored.
The hijinks didn’t end there, though. Faubert also missed a Sunday training session because he thought he had the day off. “The boy just got confused, nothing more,” Ramos said. Having featured for 52 minutes in total, he soon returned to London, and now plays for Indonesian side Borneo.
Verdict: Comedy gold
19. Thomas Gravesen
Gravesen had six months left on his Everton contract when his agent told him Real Madrid had been in touch. “I told him to stop joking,” Gravesen recalled. “Seven days later, it was done.”
Madrid were after a midfielder to sit behind Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo. The Danish international did a decent job in the 18 months he was at the Bernabeu, but became more known for his physical style and his unusual manner of shouting and joking on the pitch. By far his greatest legacy was the ‘Gravesinha’ – a bizarre move fondly recalled in many a Madrid bar since, in which he feigned a pass by touching the ground with his left knee (which then started to bleed).
In August 2006 a training-ground bust-up with Robinho saw him sold to Celtic. He now resides in Las Vegas having made a fortune in investments.
Verdict: No hit, but a figure of fun
18. Lassana Diarra
No stranger to the odd transfer move, Lassana Diarra swapped Portsmouth for Madrid in a £20m deal to replace the injured Mahamadou Diarra in 2008. “Lass” as he was known in Spain somehow acquired the fabled No. 10 shirt, previously worn by the likes of Robinho, Michael Laudrup, Luis Figo and Robert Prosinecki.
He was in and out of the team and was moved on to Anzhi Makhachkala in 2012. He has since turned out for Lokomotiv Moscow, Marseille, and UAE side Al Jazira, moving to PSG in January 2018.
Verdict: Overly expensive
17. Emmanuel Adebayor
The former Arsenal man joined Real Madrid on loan from Manchester City in the winter transfer window of 2011 to stop then boss Jose Mourinho moaning about a lack of depth up front. He played mostly from the bench and scored a respectable eight goals – two of which came against Spurs – but other than that struggled to make a significant impact. Those goals against Tottenham made an impression, however – Adebayor joined the north London side the following season on loan from City and signed a permanent deal the year after.
The Togolese international now plays his football in Turkey with Istanbul Basaksehir, alongside Emre Belozoglu, Gael Clichy and Gokhan Inler - a veritable Premier League old boys' club on the banks of the Bosphorus.
Verdict: A forgettable spell
16. Michael Owen
With his Liverpool contract entering its final year, former Ballon d’Or winner Owen jumped at the chance to play alongside Ronaldo, Zidane, Raul and David Beckham by sealing an £8m move in 2004.
A slow start segued into a hot streak following the international break in October, with Owen scoring the only goal in successive games against Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League and Valencia in La Liga. He scored 13 league goals in his only campaign but never dislodged Raul and Ronaldo, and it hardly helped that he spent most of the year holed up in a business hotel.
He moved back to the Premier League with Newcastle United just 12 months later, and hung up his boots in 2013 after spells with Manchester United and Stoke City.
Verdict: Never really took off
15. Jerzy Dudek
The Polish international joined Madrid in 2007 when his contract at Liverpool expired. He had achieved legend status with the Reds following his heroic performance between the posts in the Miracle of Istanbul in 2005: Liverpool won the Champions League on penalties against Milan thanks to Dudek's shootout saves from Andrea Pirlo and Andriy Shevchenko.
He swapped Merseyside for Madrid following six years at Liverpool but barely featured for Los Blancos, making just two league appearances in four years at the club, firmly behind Iker Casillas in the pecking order. Despite the paucity of appearances, he yet became a popular figure and left through a guard of honour in his final game.
Verdict: Made up the numbers
14. Michael Essien
One of Jose Mourinho’s favourites, Ghanaian international Essien moved from Chelsea on a season-long loan deal in the summer of 2012, having struggled with injuries at Chelsea. His time with the Blues was one of unrivalled success for the club, with Essien instrumental in two Premier League wins, four FA Cups and their first ever Champions League victory in 2012.
He was useful at the Bernabeu, often filling in a right back, but ultimately managed only a bit-part role under Mourinho before joining Milan the following summer on a permanent deal. Essien is still playing football at the age of 35 with Persib Bandung in Indonesia.
Verdict: Did a job
13. Gabriel Heinze
Argentinian international Heinze was one of many United players to fall out with Sir Alex Ferguson over the years, with the Scot accusing Real Madrid of only wanting to sign him to lure his friend Cristiano Ronaldo away from Manchester United. Heinze had originally wanted to move to Liverpool when his exit from United was guaranteed but Ferguson put a stop to it.
Heinze won the Premier League with United and La Liga with Real Madrid in successive seasons before seeing out his career with Marseille, Roma and Newell’s Old Boys back in his native Argentina.
Verdict: Decent enough
12. Javier Hernandez
Mexico international Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez arrived from Manchester United on transfer deadline day in 2014, but struggled to make a significant impact while playing second fiddle to Karim Benzema. He scored just nine goals for Real Madrid, although one of those settled the Champions League quarter-final against cross-city rivals Atletico.
Now back in the Premier League with West Ham United following a couple of decent goalscoring seasons in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen, even making the Bundesliga team of the season in 2015/16. Hernandez is Mexico’s all-time leading goalscorer with 49 goals in 99 games.
Verdict: Worth it for that goal against Atleti
11. Jose Antonio Reyes
Reyes left Arsenal for Real Madrid in a loan swap deal on transfer deadline day 2006, with Julio Baptista going in the other direction. The former Sevilla winger played 38 games in total for Los Blancos during his only season at the Bernabeu, scoring six league goals – the most important of which came on the final day of the season when he scored twice in a 3-1 win over Mallorca that saw Madrid snatch the 2007 league title ahead of Barcelona on head-to-head record.
Reyes never played for Arsenal again, moving to Atletico Madrid and then back to his first club, Sevilla, before spending a season with Espanyol.
Verdict: Turned up when it mattered
10. Ricardo Carvalho
Centre back Carvalho was another favourite of Jose Mourinho, having played for his fellow Portuguese at Porto, Chelsea and Real Madrid. He joined Los Blancos for a measly £6.7m in 2010 and played a total of 48 matches in his first season at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, but injuries in his second term saw his contribution wane.
He won La Liga in 2011/12 before spending three seasons at Monaco. Nudging 40, Carvalho is still playing football, now with Shanghai SIPG, and was the oldest outfield player at Euro 2016 – which he won with Portugal.
Verdict: Cheap, loyal, dependable
9. Alvaro Arbeloa
A fan favourite at Madrid having been a stalwart of both the Madrid Castilla and Real Madrid C teams before his move to Deportivo La Coruna in 2006, Arbeloa signed for his boyhood club for a second time in 2009 from Liverpool. Rarely part of Real Madrid’s best XI, he was nevertheless a useful squad player for his versatility and professionalism – especially at a fee of just £3.5m. He became a key Mourinho ally as the dressing room split, which went down well with the hardcore fans, who gave him a lavish send-off in his final game.
Now retired, Arbeloa enjoyed a trophy-laden career at club and international level, twice winning the Champions League with Madrid as well as the World Cup in 2010 and the Euros in 2008 and 2012.
Verdict: Good value for money
8. David Beckham
Beckham’s arrival coincided with the beginning of the end of the Galactico era at Real Madrid, having joined just as Claude Makelele and Vicente del Bosque were leaving the Bernabeu. Los Blancos didn’t win a thing in Beckham’s first three years at the club and when he was pressed for a decision on a contract extension the club had offered him, he revealed that he would be joining LA Galaxy of Major League Soccer at the end of the season.
By the time he departed with a final-day league title triumph in 2007, his professional attitude had earned him popularity and respect.
Verdict: Did more than just sell shirts
7. Arjen Robben
Dutchman Robben arrived from Chelsea in 2007 having helped the Blues to five trophies in just three seasons. His stay at the Bernabeu was cut short in the summer of 2009 when Real Madrid signed a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, with Robben claiming that he never wanted to leave Madrid but was forced out to make way for the Portuguese.
Real Madrid’s loss was Bayern Munich’s gain, Robben helping them to six league titles in eight seasons, including four doubles and a Champions League trophy.
Verdict: Should never have been sold
6. Gareth Bale
Real Madrid made Gareth Bale the most expensive signing of all time when they bought him from Tottenham in 2013. He repaid part of that fee almost immediately with decisive goals in the finals of both the Copa del Rey against Barcelona and the Champions League against Atletico Madrid.
The ‘Cardiff Express’ was also unstoppable in the title run-in of 2016/17, but has struggled to make a consistent impact at the Bernabeu due to his injury and fitness issues. Bale is still only 28, though, and has an opportunity to become a true great at Real Madrid, fitness permitting.
Verdict: Good, but limited by poor fitness
5. Steve McManaman
McManaman signed for Real Madrid from Liverpool on a free transfer in 1999, becoming just the second Englishman to play for the Spanish giants after Laurie Cunningham 20 years earlier.
McManaman capped a fine debut season with Los Blancos with a spectacular volley in the final of the Champions League against Valencia in a 3-0 victory at the Stade de France. Teammate Luis Figo won the Ballon d’Or in 2000 with Zinedine Zidane coming second, but McManaman played an important supporting role and stayed at the Bernabeu until 2003, winning two league titles and adding another Champions League to his trophy cabinet.
Verdict: A valuable supporting act
4. Ruud van Nistelrooy
After handing in a transfer request at Manchester United, Van Nistelrooy signed for Madrid in the summer of 2006, where his predatory instincts fired the team to back-to-back league titles. Nicknamed ‘Van Gol’, the Dutchman won the Pichichi award in his first season with 25 goals, and scored in seven consecutive matches – equalling the La Liga record with former Madrid legend Hugo Sanchez.
Injuries slowed him down, but he left in 2010 with a superb record of 64 goals in 96 games, spending a season in the Bundesliga with Hamburg before retiring after a year at Malaga.
Verdict: A steal at £10m
3. Xabi Alonso
Alonso joined Real Madrid in a £30m deal in 2009 amid rumours of a falling out with Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez. Returning President Florentino Perez wasted no time in making the former Real Sociedad playmaker one of the first signings of his second spell in charge of the club, and it turned out to be a masterstroke.
Alonso continued to do what he had done throughout his career at club and international level – boosting the midfield with elegance, intelligence and maturity. As well as huge success in club football, he was also part of the Spain squads that won the World Cup in 2010 and the Euros in 2008 and 2012.
He remained at Madrid for four years, winning the league title in 2012, two Copa del Rey trophies and – most importantly – the club’s 10th Champions League title in 2014 before moving on to Bayern Munich, where he added three Bundesliga title to his trophy cabinet.
Verdict: A class act
2. Luka Modric
Modric didn’t enjoy the best of starts in a Real Madrid shirt, culminating with a Marca poll voting the Croatian as the worst signing of the season in early 2013. Due to selling club Tottenham playing hardball over his transfer fee, he missed pre-season with his new team and arrived out of shape in August 2012.
Modric began to blossom under the tutelage of Carlo Ancelotti following the Italian’s arrival in the summer of 2013, becoming the ingenious fulcrum of the team – and has remained so ever since. As others grab the limelight, he and Toni Kroos are the ones who make the Madrid machine run so smoothly.
Verdict: Invaluable and underrated
1. Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano joined Real Madrid from Manchester United in 2009 for a then world record transfer fee of £80m, six months after Sir Alex Ferguson fumed that he "wouldn’t sell them a virus". The Portuguese international has gone on to score more than 400 goals, become the club’s record scorer, win four Ballons d’Or and has guided Madrid to three Champions League titles.
One of the greatest footballers to ever play the game, despite being high maintenance in the nine seasons he’s spent at the Bernabeu, Ronaldo will go down as a Real Madrid legend.
Verdict: Worth every penny
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