The old transfer world record, and all the ones before it, lay in tatters. They are a smoldering pile of ashes far off in the distance, miles behind the $263 million Paris Saint-Germain just paid an unwilling Barcelona for Neymar, whose release clause turned out to be ironclad.
As you’ll recall, Manchester United paid Juventus $124 million for Paul Pogba just last summer, breaking the previous record of $120 million – paid by Real Madrid to Tottenham for Gareth Bale. That’s how they used to break transfer records. By small increments. Before Bale, Real bought Cristiano Ronaldo for $111 million. Before that, Real acquired Zinedine Zidane for $89 million and Luis Figo for $74 million – setting the record four times in a row.
Although Barcelona came close to doubling the prior transfer world record when it bought Johan Cruyff from Ajax for $2 million in 1973, the record had not been doubled since River Plate bought Bernabe Ferreyra from Tigre for $30,000 in 1932.
The players who set the transfer records, however, were not necessarily the most influential players of all time. Plenty were major names whose impact was far-reaching. But just as many were relative duds. Which got us wondering: What were the biggest transfers ever in terms of influence on the game?
We took a stab at it and picked the 10 transfers that had the biggest impact, in no particular order.
Neymar from Barcelona to PSG, 2017
How Neymar actually performs at his new club is sort of beside the point here. Because the transfer itself has shifted the paradigm and established that no sum is unfathomable and that no player is unmovable. Even if he never scores a single goal or plays even one minute, he’ll have accomplished that much. Transfers can now be a quarter-billion-dollar affair.
Luis Figo from Barcelona to Real Madrid, 2000
This move kind of happened by chance. Florentino Perez was running for Real Madrid president and promised that if he won he’d sign away Figo, the hated arch-rivals’ superstar. Perez wasn’t a frontrunner though. So Figo thought he was being clever by signing a pre-contract with Perez and collecting a fat signing bonus. Except that Perez actually won, and consequently had Figo tied up. That kicked off the Galactico era that continues today – with Perez still in the presidency.
Johan Cruyff from Ajax to Barcelona, 1973
Barca was already a huge club by the time Cruyff arrived, but it was in a moribund state, lingering toward the bottom of La Liga. The Total Football progenitor led Barca to its first league title in 14 years that season. And while he would never win the league again as a player, he became a local hero for having spurned a move to a dominant Real in favor of Barca. But also for helping to establish the academy and introducing a house style both as a player and in his eight-year run as manager.
Pele from Santos/retirement to the New York Cosmos, 1975
It required an intervention from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the Brazilian government to allow Pele to leave the country. Kissinger, born in Germany and a lifelong soccer nut, understood what it would mean for soccer here. And, sure enough, American soccer never got a greater shot in the arm than when the world’s most famous player arrived. While David Beckham likely had a bigger long-term effect, Pele made America take notice in a way no other man – or woman – has since.
Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United to Real Madrid, 2009
The Portuguese winger was 24 and the reigning World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or holder when Real managed to tempt him to the most decorated club in European soccer. And then, with Ronaldo running the show, it proceeded to win the Champions League three more times in the last four seasons. While Barca has had the better run in the Spanish league, Ronaldo has allowed Real to dominate Europe. And in the process, he’s become arguably the second-best player ever.
Marco van Basten from Ajax to AC Milan, 1987
While Milan shelled out a world record $8 million to PSV for Ruud Gullit, it somehow signed Ajax star Marco van Basten for just $700,000 that same summer. The next year, a third Dutchman in Frank Rijkaard arrived and Milan had assembled the spine of a triumphant team that would win Serie A three times – once without losing a single game – and become the last team to win the European Cup, the precursor to the Champions League, in back-to-back years. Van Basten, meanwhile, won the Ballon d’Or three times and the World Player of the Year once.
Diego Maradona from Barcelona to Napoli, 1984
After just two tumultuous seasons at Barca, Maradona asked for, and was granted, a transfer in 1984. Napoli, which had never won anything major, dropped a world record $6.5 million for the tempestuous little playmaker. It paid off. Napoli became the first Southern Italian team to win Serie A and did it again three years later, coming in second the other years. It also won the UEFA Cup before El Diego’s career disintegrated in a haze of cocaine and hedonism.
Gianluigi Buffon from Parma to Juventus, 2001
It seemed an impossibly high figure, especially back then, $61 million for a goalkeeper. But Buffon has made Juve its money back several times over. Still going strong at 39, he has won Serie A 10 times – ten! – with the Old Lady and has made it to three Champions League finals. He won the World Cup with Italy, claimed Serie A goalkeeper of the year 10 times and has made a strong case for being the greatest goalkeeper of all time. With him in the net, Juve has consistently been a powerhouse.
Thierry Henry from Juventus to Arsenal, 1999
It seemed a little odd for Arsenal to pay Juventus a shade more than Henry had cost the Italians in acquiring him from Monaco the summer prior. After all, Henry, a speedy young winger, had been a failure in Italy. That made his $14.5 million fee a seemingly steep one. But in London, Henry became the best striker of his generation and won the Premier League twice, the FA Cup three times and reached the Champions League final once.
Alfredo Di Stefano from Millionarios to Real Madrid, 1953
The Argentina-born forward who would somehow represent three national teams – Argentina, Colombia and Spain – left South America for the Spanish capital and summarily led a dynasty that won the European Cup five years in a row and La Liga eight times in 11 years. Di Stefano scored in each of those European finals and his 216 league goals in 11 seasons long stood as the club record.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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