One of the golden rules in life is that nothing can beat the low price of zero dollars. Ironically, you also get what you pay for which completely counters that last statement. When something is free it is better to manage expectations accordingly. Every once in a while though, you are on the receiving end of quite a bargain. This is all the truer when it comes to football. Sure, there are those flashy transfers in the 100 million ballpark most of which have panned out/ are looking to pan out superbly for their teams. But there were some free transfers that changed the game. They proved to be the mother of all bargains, leading to championships. They made those ultra-expensive transfers look like poor decisions at times. Some players just elevated what free agents could do and the teams that let them go were often kicking themselves for not breaking the bank to keep them at the club. Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the greatest free transfers of all time.
(Keep in mind that Italian clubs seem to have the art of free transfers down to a science).
10. Jay-Jay Okocha(Paris Saint-Germain to Bolton Wanderers):
They say he’s so good they named him twice( actual chant). The Nigerian was bought by PSG for 14 million pounds, making him the most expensive African player at the time. His 4-year stint at PSG comprised of 12 goals across 84 games. The attacking midfielder’s efforts on French soil were considered underwhelming at the time and Sam Allardyce signed him onto Bolton for free. He lit up England with his dribbling skills. He saved Bolton from relegation with 7 goals including the team Goal of the Season against WHU in 2002-03. He eventually became captain and Bolton finished runners-up at the Football League Cup. His was a free transfer that was absolutely crucial for Bolton.
9. Raul (Real Madrid to FC Schalke):
He is considered to be one of the greatest Real Madrid players of all time. The Spaniard was one of the best out-and-out goalscorers of his generation. Instead of hanging up his boots at Real Madrid after spending most of his last season on the stands because of injury, Raul went to Germany for free. He signed a two-year contract with Schalke 04 and scored a brace against Bayern Munich in his first match( they won 3-1) which was in the pre-season. He won the DFB Pokal and DFL Supercup at Schalke. He famously helped Schalke reach their first Champions League semi-final. His quarter-final performance against Inter Milan is engraved into Schalke’s history books. He proved that he was one of those rare players who could play at any league.
8. Henrik Larsson (Celtic to Barcelona):
He is possibly one of the greatest players to ever grace Scottish football. Scoring 242 goals in 313 appearances for Celtic, Larsson won the Scottish Premier League 4 times. He was the subject of extreme praise for his intellect, composure, and general goal-scoring aptitude. In the 2003-04 season, Larsson left Celtic for Barcelona on a free transfer. He won the La Liga twice with Barcelona. Perhaps what he is most famous for when talking about his time in Spain is his substitution in the UCL final against Arsenal. He assisted both goals in the 2-1 game against Arsenal, depriving Thierry Henry and Co. of what could’ve been their first-ever Champions League trophy. Afterward, he continued to play football at Sweden.
7. Paul Pogba (Manchester United to Juventus):
He is one of the most famous players on the planet right now. He is a World Cup winner and not only did he break the record for the most expensive transfer at one point, but he was also one of the greatest free transfers in history. Paul Pogba played only 3 matches over at Manchester before the Red devils sold him for free to Juventus (SAF’s biggest mistake?). He has been revered for his ability to play in several midfield areas so well, thanks to excellent passing and general vision. At Juventus, he won the Serie A 4 times across all 4 seasons at the club. He has a tally of 28 goals across 124 games for the Italian side. In his final season for Juve he scored 8 goals and 12 assists (top assist provider in the season). The biggest thing about why he was bound to rank so highly was because Juventus bought him for free and sold him back to Manchester United for €105 million which made him the most expensive player of all time when it happened. Manchester United, the club who gave him away for free now signed him for over 100 million. Juventus lost a great player but also gained 100 million euros in profit and considering they’re still winning trophies to this day with an extremely strong team with CR7 at the helm, they probably don’t regret it.
6. Michael Ballack ( Bayern Munich to Chelsea):
At the risk of beating a dead horse, he was one of the best midfielders of his generation. He had an incredible passing range and aggression. His read was among the best of the best and his general technicality made him a force in both club and international football. Despite playing alongside all-time club legends like Anelka, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Didier Drogba he was not even remotely overshadowed by them. It takes something special to distinguish yourself among a bevy of talent like that and it’s clear that he was certainly special. Across 4 seasons at Chelsea, he won the Premier League and was runner-up at the Champions League.
5. Steve Mcmanaman (Liverpool to Real Madrid):
Seldom has an English player played football so successfully once they left British soil, if ever. Steve Mcmanaman was one of those few English players. He joined RMA during the early stages of the Galacticos era after 9 seasons at the PL with Liverpool. With his fantastic technicality, aggression and ball control, he was probably one of the most underrated players of the Galacticos generation, despite not being a Galactico himself. His semi-scissor kick in the UEFA Champions League Final against Valencia is sure to be one of the greatest Champions League goals in history. He won 2 Champions Leagues and 2 La Liga’s in his 4 seasons at Real Madrid proving that he was not something to be overlooked.
4. Sol Campbell (Tottenham to Arsenal):
This is possibly the most infamous transfer in football history. The North-London rivalry is one of the most heated rivalries in sports, both sides harbouring mostly contempt for each other when it comes to football. One of the best centre-backs of his generation, Campbell was strong, imposing, fantastic at tackling and had great defensive read. He eventually became captain and lifted the League Cup with Tottenham. Expressing wishes to play Champions League football after a lot of negotiation regarding a very lucrative contract at Tottenham, Sol Campbell left for Arsenal for free. It would’ve been a different story had he won trophies with Arsenal. But that is not what happened. He had an immensely decorated career at Arsenal, winning the Premier League and FA Cup 2 times. And as he wanted, he did play Champions League football and went to final with Arsenal only to lose at the hands of Barcelona.
3. Robert Lewandowski ( Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich):
Lewandowski has cemented himself as the goalscorer to end all goal scores as a result of his tenure at Bayern Munich. The Polish striker is a quintessential no. 9 with some of the best finishing skills on the planet. Lewandowski had some incredible seasons at Borussia Dortmund and he became even better in Bayern Munich scoring 191 goals in 242 games. He has been the top scorer in the Bundesliga 3 times under Bayern Munich. He has been integral in Bayern Munich winning the Bundesliga for the last 5 years in a row. Last but not least, is the 9-minute miracle where Robert Lewandowski famously scored 5 goals in 9 minutes against Wolfsburg and is the fastest five-goal haul in European football. This free transfer has grown into possibly Bayern Munich’s most prized acquisition over the last 5 years.
2. Esteban Cambiasso ( Real Madrid to Inter Milan):
The Argentine was incredibly versatile, able to play various midfield positions thanks to his technical ability, passing, and vision. He was effective in both defense and offense. He is the ultimate argument against the Galacticos era. Cambiasso, despite being an immense young talent at Argentina, was overshadowed by Real Madrid’s flashy transfers at the time. As a result, he went to Inter Milan for free and he became a bonafide legend. The midfielder won 5 back-to-back Serie A titles at Inter Milan. He became even more legendary after he won the treble with Jose Mourinho as manager in 2009-10. That was Inter Milan’s first UCL trophy in 45 years and it was also the first Italian team to win the European treble. Real Madrid who had at that point not won a Champions League trophy since 2001-02 were surely kicking themselves.
1. Andrea Pirlo ( AC Milan to Juventus):
Finally at number 1 is Andrea Pirlo. Surely, there was no doubt that he would make this list. Andrea Pirlo is not only one of the best players of his generation, he is one of the greatest of all time. He was a defensive midfielder, teams would simply kill for, with an overabundance of brilliant and creative passing and dribbling, specialization with the dead ball and unparalleled read of the game. Once AC Milan saw that he was past 30, they thought the best of times were behind him. All they did was make seal the fact that they would not win the Serie A for years to come. Till date, the Serie A has not left Juventus’ side after Pirlo joined the team in 2011. The Italian World Cup winner claimed 4 consecutive Serie A trophies and 1 Coppa Italia during his time at Turin. He was named Serie A footballer of the year for 3 years in a row from 2012 to 2014. He also helped Juventus reach the 2015 UEFA Champions League Final which they lost 3-1 to Barcelona. He completely turned the tide for Juventus after they were unsuccessful since climbing back to the Serie A. Unmistakably one of the greatest players of all time who exuded nothing but class on the field, Pirlo was bound to take the no.1 spot.