Some of the world’s best players were snapped up for a tiny fee; others cost a small fortune. But which do we think are the top moves, by position, a club has made since 2000?
In a two-part series we explore some of the best transfers to have happened across Europe in the past two decades. Sorry, Steven Gerrard, Lionel Messi and Harry Kane, no homegrown players allowed. Transfers only.
Players will be judged on the number of trophies they accrued at their club, as well as number of appearances, while their place in the ranking will also be decided by how much their club spent to sign them. It’s only fair that a free transfer who has 500 appearances and wins you 15 trophies is better than a £50 million player who spent two seasons there to win three, after all.
Of course, it’s not all mathematical. There’s an X factor, too, and we’ve asked some of our ESPN correspondents for their input. PLUS: Be sure to look out for a list of attacking players — midfielders, forwards and strikers — on ESPN this week.
*All transfer fees and appearance data are taken from Transfermarkt. Total trophies won is at the club mentioned, not overall.
Jump to: FULL-BACKS | CENTRE-BACKS | DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDERS
10. JOE HART
Shrewsbury to Manchester City, 2006
Signed for: £810,000 Sold for: £3.5m
Appearances: 348 Trophies won: 5
Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris was a contender for this list as he cost £10m but hasn’t managed to break his trophy duck, and Hart might be the best value for money of the lot. Signed from the lower leagues, City turned him into one of the Premier League’s best. Various loan spells, especially from 2016 onward, at the end of his City career are the reason he’s No. 10.
9. JAN OBLAK
Benfica to Atletico Madrid, 2014
Signed for: €16m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 257 Trophies won: 3
A steal at €16m, the Slovenia international has won La Liga’s best goalkeeper award four times and has helped Atletico to the Europa League and UEFA Super Cup trophies. A class act, and still only 27.
8. DAVID DE GEA
Atletico Madrid to Manchester United, 2011
Signed for: €25m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 405 Trophies won: 7
De Gea’s form has fallen off a cliff over the past few years, otherwise he would be higher. Arguably becoming the world’s best for a spell after a slow start to life in Manchester, it’s incredible to think that United tied up their No. 1 spot for almost a decade for such a small fee. It just so happened to coincide with turmoil at the club around the time Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
Roma to Liverpool, 2018
Signed for: €62.5m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 88 Trophies won: 3
It has been quite the start to his Liverpool career, with Premier League and Champions League medals already in the bag. It’s clear the Brazilian goalkeeper helped to transform the Liverpool defence, but it came at a cost, which is why he’s not higher on the list.
Benfica to Man City, 2017
Signed for: €40m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 144 Trophies won: 8
Another Brazilian goalkeeper who has impressed in England, Ederson arguably transformed City more than Alisson did Liverpool. His long passing and ability to play almost as an extra centre-back changed the perception of what a goalkeeper could offer in the Premier League. A steal at €40m given what he has achieved.
5. MARC-ANDRE TER STEGEN
Borussia Monchengladbach to Barcelona, 2014
Signed for: €12m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 236 Trophies won: 12
Much like Ederson, Ter Stegen’s development as a ball-playing goalkeeper has set the bar for how we judge goalkeepers. Quickly usurping Chile international Claudio Bravo at Barcelona, despite being signed as a backup, he has won an incredible amount of silverware while providing an area of solidity during a tough few years at the Camp Nou.
4. EDWIN VAN DER SAR
Fulham to Man United, 2005
Signed for: £3.6m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 266 Trophies won: 10
Four Premier League titles, one Champions League and, in the eyes of Sir Alex Ferguson, “the best goalkeeper we have had since Peter Schmeichel.” Not hard, in that United went through 10 keepers between 1999 and 2005, but the Dutchman showed his class and helped United continue to dominate until he retired in 2011.
3. PETR CECH
Rennes to Chelsea, 2004
Signed for: €13m Sold for: £12.6m to Arsenal
Appearances: 494 Trophies won: 15
In the ranking for best Premier League goalkeeper of the past two decades, Chelsea’s Cech would probably just pip Van der Sar based on the fact he matched his four Premier League titles but also landed four FA Cups, three League Cups, one Champions League and one Europa League. All that before he went on in 2015 to protect Arsenal’s defence for four years.
2. GIANLUIGI BUFFON
Parma to Juventus, 2001
Signed for: €52.8m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 671 Trophies won: 20
Yes, it was the world-record fee for a goalkeeper at the time — a record that stood until Alisson joined Liverpool in 2018 (albeit superseded by Kepa Arrizabalaga’s move to Chelsea) — but what Juventus got from this signing outweighs the cost. They got a bona fide legend who stayed with them through thick and thin in Serie B after the Calciopoli scandal. Trophies galore and one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time. The only reason he’s not top is because Buffon wasn’t ever able to inspire them to the Champions League.
1. MANUEL NEUER
Schalke to Bayern Munich, 2011
Signed for: €30m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 388 Trophies won: 21
Neuer has won the Champions League (twice) and boasts a UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup on his CV. His haul of 21 trophies for Bayern has come in half the games of Buffon, and he was almost half the cost of Buffon, too. It’s a tough one, but the German is top dog. Will we be saying the same about Alexander Nubel, who followed his career path from Schalke to Bayern this summer on a free transfer? No, no we won’t.
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10. GARETH BALE
Southampton to Tottenham Hotspur, 2007
Signed for: £13.2m Sold for: €101m to Real Madrid
Appearances: 203 Trophies won: 0
If you’re wondering why Welsh wing wizard Bale is on the list as a full-back, it’s because Tottenham bought him as one. Then they developed him into a forward and sold him as the world’s most expensive player in 2013 to Real Madrid. That has to be worth some points.
Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, 2011
Signed for: €3.5m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 214 Trophies won: 14
Ajax, Inter, Barcelona and PSG have all benefited from the Brazilian’s skills over the years, and he’s one of the most decorated club footballers of all time. PSG snapped him up for a meagre fee and he certainly paid them back.
8. ANDY ROBERTSON
Hull to Liverpool, 2017
Signed for: £8.1m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 127 Trophies won: 4
The way in which Robertson helped to change the Liverpool defence upon arrival, with the help of Trent-Alexander Arnold (not eligible for this list), Virgil van Dijk (see below) and Alisson (see above) cements his spot. Premier League and Champions League trophies wouldn’t have arrived without the Scotsman, who was a snip at £8m.
7. CESAR AZPILICUETA
Marseille to Chelsea, 2012
Signed for: €8.8m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 386 Trophies won: 6
A tough choice to leave out Branislav Ivanovic — who had 377 appearances, won 10 trophies and cost €10m — but “Dave,” as he is known by his teammates, gets the nod, as his record run of 73 Premier League starts in a row was incredible. His versatility and hunger to win make him a truly special player.
6. DANI CARVAJAL
Bayer Leverkusen to Real Madrid, 2013
Signed for: €6.5m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 279 Trophies won: 16
Clubs don’t often admit their mistakes, but Carvajal is living proof. Making his way up through the Madrid youth ranks, he was sold to Leverkusen in 2012 but then brought back (via a clause in his contract) a year later. And he’s since gone on to become one of the best right-backs in world football.
5. ASHLEY COLE
Arsenal to Chelsea, 2006
Signed for: £6.6m + William Gallas Sold for: Free to Roma
Appearances: 338 Trophies won: 9
It was an acrimonious exit from his boyhood club, plus a £75,000 fine for a tapping-up scandal, but he won more trophies at Chelsea and became the FA Cup’s most decorated player, with seven wins in eight finals. Arguably the best left-back that England have ever produced.
4. JORDI ALBA
Valencia to Barcelona, 2012
Signed for: €14m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 336 Trophies won: 14
From 1998 to 2005, Alba was a Barcelona academy player, but the club let him go because of his small stature and had to spend €14m to bring him back almost a decade later. One of the best deals they ever did, Alba has made the left-back slot his own and won 14 trophies.
3. PATRICE EVRA
Monaco to Man United, 2006
Signed for: €8m Sold for: €1.9m to Juventus
Appearances: 379 Trophies won: 14
Evra brought passion, desire and his own unique personality to the United side for eight years, a masterstroke of a signing by Sir Alex Ferguson. Costing half of what Barcelona paid for Alba, the Frenchman won the same number of trophies and even made more appearances in a shorter time frame.
2. DANI ALVES
Sevilla to Barcelona, 2009
Signed for: €35.5m Sold for: Free to Juventus
Appearances: 391 Trophies won: 23
Speaking of unique personalities … Alves is another who has raised his social media game to new heights since moving on, but his time at Barcelona was arguably one of the most successful ever. The Brazilian was pretty expensive back in 2009 — in fact, he was the third-most-expensive player in the club’s history at the time — but he proved to be worth every penny.
Fluminense to Real Madrid, 2007
Signed for: €6.5m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 509 Trophies won: 22
After bursting onto the scene as a teenager for Brazil against Wales in 2006, Marcelo never looked back. Coincidentally, a 17-year-old Gareth Bale picked up his second cap for Wales in that game, but Marcelo was the one Real Madrid wanted a year later, and they landed him for a small fee from Fluminense. With 22 trophies, he has fewer than Alves but cost less and has way more appearances. What a signing.
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10. DIEGO GODIN
Villarreal to Atletico Madrid, 2010
Signed for: €8m Sold for: Free to Inter Milan
Appearances: 389 Trophies won: 8
It seems weird these days that Godin is plying his trade at Inter Milan, such was his presence at Atletico. One of the world’s best defenders, he embodied the strength and desire at the heart of the Spanish club’s success and brought great success — but sadly managed to be only a Champions League runner-up, twice.
9. SOL CAMPBELL
Tottenham to Arsenal, 2001
Signed for: Free Sold for: Free to Portsmouth
Appearances: 210 Trophies won: 4
One of the best free transfers ever (and one of the most controversial), Campbell swapped Tottenham for bitter rivals Arsenal and helped the Gunners go down in history as the “Invincibles” in 2003-04.
8. VIRGIL VAN DIJK
Southampton to Liverpool, 2018
Signed for: £76.1m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 122 Trophies won: 4
Van Dijk’s £14.1m move to Southampton from Celtic almost made this list, as he was sold three years later for £76.1m, but his early career at Anfield made it an easy decision. Liverpool got what they paid for and now have the major trophies in their cabinet as a reward.
7. VINCENT KOMPANY
Hamburg to Man City, 2008
Signed for: €8.5m Sold for: Free to Anderlecht
Appearances: 360 Trophies won: 12
The building block around which Manchester City’s era of dominance was built. Kompany was signed for a meagre fee, a week before the Abu Dhabi United Group bought City and transformed them into a transfer market behemoth, leading them to great success. The only reason he’s no higher than No. 7 is the quality of those to come, and the fact he wasn’t able to deliver the Champions League.
6. NEMANJA VIDIC
Spartak Moscow to Man United, 2005
Signed for: €10.5m Sold for: Free to Inter
Appearances: 300 Trophies won: 15
Arguably one of the greatest transfers ever, the Serbian was signed on Christmas Day and continued to gift United trophies throughout his eight-year spell. We could debate forever about who had the greater impact — Vidic or Rio Ferdinand — but I’ve made my choice.
5. RIO FERDINAND
Leeds to Man United, 2002
Signed for: £41.4m Sold for: Free to QPR
Appearances: 455 Trophies won: 14
Ferdinand’s number of appearances tips the scales in his favour, even though he cost a lot more and won fewer trophies: just the 2013 Community Shield is missing from Vidic’s haul. However, Ferdinand’s record signing from Leeds made a major statement, much like Wayne Rooney’s two years later, and that scores him extra points.
4. RAPHAEL VARANE
Lens to Real Madrid, 2011
Signed for: €10m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 319 Trophies won: 18
Real Madrid’s recent exit from the Champions League aside, Varane’s career at the club has been laden with nothing but praise and silverware. The young Frenchman had to oust Pepe from the side, aged 19, leading then-coach Jose Mourinho to quip: “Pepe has a problem and his name is Raphael Varane.” For a €10m outlay on an unproven Ligue 1 player, this signing was a masterstroke.
3. GIORGIO CHIELLINI
Livorno to Juventus, 2004
Signed for: €7.7m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 510 Trophies won: 18
Another example of a player who has delivered so much for such a small fee that it almost seems ridiculous. Chiellini was signed by Juventus in a complex co-ownership deal involving Fiorentina, Roma and Livorno, but once under the wing of Fabio Capello, he developed into a star. Staying in Turin in Serie B through the Calciopoli scandal, he has been the defensive rock upon which Juve’s domination of Italian football has been built.
2. SERGIO RAMOS
Sevilla to Real Madrid, 2005
Signed for: €27m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 650 Trophies won: 22
Starting life as a combative right-back at Sevilla, Ramos developed into a combative centre-back at Real Madrid, and it’s impossible to think of the club without him now. OK, Real have had to deal without him a fair bit as he collected the record for the most sendings-off in La Liga, but the Spaniard has been central to their success. The €27m was a record for a Spanish defender at the time, but it was so worth it.
1. GERARD PIQUE
Man United to Barcelona, 2008
Signed for: €5m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 543 Trophies won: 29
The remarkable number of trophies that Pique has collected at Barcelona needs a second glance. In his first season after leaving Man United to return to his boyhood team, he won all SIX on offer (La Liga, Copa del Rey, Spanish Super Cup, Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup). Then won the 2010 World Cup with Spain for good measure. Then he almost repeated the feat for Barcelona again, with five trophies in 2011. And again in 2015. One of the best centre-backs ever was signed for €5m. It’s beyond belief.
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10. XABI ALONSO
Real Sociedad to Liverpool, 2004
Signed for: €16m Sold for: €34.5m to Real Madrid
Appearances: 210 Trophies won: 4
A class act, Alonso’s passing from deep gave Liverpool an extra dimension, and he went on to find success with five trophies each at Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. But his time at Anfield is the most memorable, and his penalty to get the score back to 3-3 in the remarkable 2004-05 Champions League final against Milan, which Liverpool went on to win, showed how cool he was under pressure.
9. GILBERTO SILVA
Atletico Mineiro to Arsenal, 2002
Signed for: €6.9m Sold for: €2.5m to Panathinaikos
Appearances: 243 Trophies won: 5
“The Wall” is one of the best signings Arsene Wenger made, and that category has some impressive company! Gilberto was the perfect foil for his various midfield partners at a time of great success at the club, and his tireless work made his teammates better.
8. JAVI MARTINEZ
Athletic Bilbao to Bayern Munich, 2012
Signed for: €40m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 238 Trophies won: 20
Martinez broke the Bayern and Bundesliga transfer record when he moved from Spain to Germany, but the club got what they paid for. He has won everything at Bayern and his versatility in moving between defence and midfield has given them plenty of options over the past eight years.
7. ESTEBAN CAMBIASSO
Real Madrid to Inter, 2004
Signed for: Free Sold for: Free to Leicester
Appearances: 431 Trophies won: 15
It’s not often that a free transfer has such a transformative impact on a club, but Cambiasso’s arrival from Real Madrid helped to change Inter completely. Bringing a defensive steel to midfield, he blossomed into a star and his decade in Italy saw him win an incredible Treble under Jose Mourinho in 2010.
Sao Paulo to Real Madrid, 2013
Signed for: €7.5m Sold for: N/A
Appearances: 240 Trophies won: 14
So good, they signed him twice. The Brazilian midfielder has become one of the most important players in a star-studded squad at the Bernabeu because he does the dirty work in midfield. Initially sending him off on loan to Porto, with a permanent option, Real used their buyback clause in a complex deal to make sure his future was with them. He hasn’t looked back since.
5. JAVIER MASCHERANO
Liverpool to Barcelona, 2010
Signed for: €20m Sold for: Free to Hebei China Fortune
Appearances: 334 Trophies won: 19
Barcelona bought Mascherano as a defensive midfielder but turned him into a world-class centre-back despite his lack of height at 5-foot-9. With wonderful passing and an innate ability to read the game ahead of him, the Argentine won trophies aplenty at the Camp Nou and showed you can get better with age.
4. YAYA TOURE
Barcelona to Man City, 2010
Signed for: €30m Sold for: Free to Olympiakos
Appearances: 316 Trophies won: 7
Signed as a holding midfielder, which explains his place on this list, Toure blossomed into a creative, box-to-box force at City. The Ivorian became one of the world’s top midfielders as City’s era of domination began, and though he won fewer trophies than some of those below him on the list, his impact to turn the club into the force they are today is the reason he ranks so highly. Just don’t forget his birthday.
3. CLAUDE MAKELELE
Celta Vigo to Real Madrid, 2000
Signed for: €14m Sold for: €20m to Chelsea
Appearances: 145 Trophies won: 7
The man who helped to redefine the position of defensive midfielder. The “Makelele role” of winning the ball back and playing simple passes to teammates ensures that the Frenchman is well represented here. He spent two more seasons at Chelsea than he did at Real but won one trophy fewer, plus the Blues paid more for him.
2. N’GOLO KANTE
Caen to Leicester, 2015
Signed for: €9m Sold for: £32m to Chelsea
Appearances: 40 Trophies won: 1
Yes, he’s won more trophies at Chelsea (three), but the Premier League title success at Leicester was remarkable. The PFA Players’ Player of the Year for 2016-17 has clearly blossomed into a world-class star at Stamford Bridge, but Leicester saw his potential in France’s Ligue 2 and made him into what he is today. The Foxes made a huge profit and Kante would be nowhere without his move to the club in 2015.
1. ANDREA PIRLO
AC Milan to Juventus, 2011
Signed for: Free Sold for: Free to New York City FC
Appearances: 164 Trophies won: 7
Pirlo won a few more trophies at Milan (nine), but they paid around €17m for him in today’s currency in 2001; Juventus landed him for nothing. Again, they landed him for NOTHING. One of the world’s best midfielders. A man who also helped to redefine the defensive midfield role into a deep-lying quarterback, spraying passes forward and starting counterattacks. The Italian has since landed the job of coaching Juve full time, having moved up from his under-23 role to replace Maurizio Sarri inside two weeks. That’s the kind of respect he commands.